Hawke's Brewing Co. · Nathan Lennon & David Gibson

Nathan and David's genius idea led them to start a beer company with the Aussie legend Bob Hawke. A very Australian founder story.

October 22, 2021
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Table of contents

  • Hawke's Brewing Company
  • Founders - Nathan Lennon and David Gibson
  • Marrickville, Sydney, Australia
  • Started in 2017
  • 2 founders, 15 employees
  • hawkesbrewing.com

Nathan, what's your backstory?

I was raised on the beaches of Sydney's eastern suburbs. Mostly in Coogee, where I live today. I was obsessed with surfing and beach culture. And writing. I had an overactive imagination. I was an only child for some time, so I'd pen lots of short stories, mostly about life on the beach.

For years, I prayed my path would lead me to surf journalism. Throughout my high school days (early 90s), I would pester the editors of surfing magazines with handwritten short stories and cartoony like observations. I'd mail them in, as email didn't exist back then. I got a couple published. I thought I was cool.

After graduating, I spent more time surfing than writing. That imbalance spoke volumes if you caught a glimpse of my marks at university. I felt a gaping disconnect with the already loose make-up of an arts degree and had become impatient, ill-disciplined and sought instant gratification from all areas of life. But I was young, so maybe that's normal. In any case, I was looking for an out.

Then one day, like a gold digger hopelessly jiggling his pan, I came across a nugget of hope. Apparently, there was a job where you could be creative, write in short bursts, get paid handsomely and didn't need a degree.

So when I was 21, I "deferred" university and decided that I was going into advertising. I earned a 6 month, unpaid internship at DDB, where I started writing ads for McDonald's, The Daily Telegraph, Volkswagen and TAB. If one of my ideas made it out "into the real world", I'd get flicked a small lump of cash. Enough to buy a round at the pub around the corner, maybe.

Cut to 2015, and I'm sitting in my office in New York, working as a creative director in the world's most awarded ad agency at the time, Droga5, when I opened up a conversation with my creative partner, David. It's a conversation that would seismically shift the direction of both of our lives. Seems I was jiggling that gold pan again.

Tell us what your company does?

On its surface, Hawke's Brewing is an independent, Australian-owned beer company, recognised mostly by the fact that it was co-founded by one of the most famous Australians we've ever known, former prime minister Bob Hawke.

At its simplest, Hawke's exists to give back to the country that has given so much to us. We brew high-quality, approachable beers that bring Australians together so that they can play their part in giving back to the country they, too, love.

Our proudest expression is that every Hawke's beer served, sold and sipped gives back to the Australian environment via a monetary donation to our charity partner, Landcare Australia, which was incidentally set up by Bob Hawke during his tenure as leader.

How did you come up with the idea?

Cut back to that office in New York in 2015. And that life-changing conversation with David.

It was a Monday in January, and it seemed like we were the only ones who made it into the office that day. There had been a mutant snowstorm hammering New York, a cue for the seasoned vets in the office to work from home. We were naive. And we were goody-two-shoes, always trying to impress, so we made it in.

Nevertheless, an overwhelming pang of homesickness hit me, and I shot Dave a question – "Mate, if you could be back home in Australia having a beer with anyone right now, who would it be?" I had my answer pre-loaded (Bob Hawke) before Dave turned to me and said, "Hawkie".

Call it cosmic, call it coincidence, but thinking back on it, that question probably changed the direction of our lives.

We started chatting about the Bob Hawke that we remember when we were growing up in the 1980s – his achievements as a leader, his "warts and all" authenticity, how much he loved Australia / Australians, and how he shaped our nation as much with his heart as he did with his head.

We spoke about his recent reappearances in public life, where he could still whip an Aussie crowd up into a frenzy with his old 'party trick'. All the dots started joining, and within an hour, we'd conceived Hawke's Brewing Co. – a company built on the values of Australia's greatest Prime Minister. A company that starts small but dreams big. And a company that embraced an ethos of "giving back", in some way, shape or form.

To us, Hawke's Brewing Co. was never a joke, gimmick or a flash in the pan concept. We want to build a business with longevity and a brand that has become iconic. A brand that all Australians can one day be proud of, regardless of whether they drink or not.

How did you go about building and launching the business?

Most beer companies have a brewer as a founding partner. So the fact that we weren't brewers made it so important to nail the product.

We saw Hawke's as bigger than just beer. But we were entering a category (craft) that so many people invest in because of the quality of the liquid.

If we dropped the ball, or worse, looked like we didn't care, then Hawke's becomes that beer you try once but never again. Not the greatest commercial strategy.

So after putting a few brewers through the wringer, we found Justin (Fox), who came on board as Chief Brewer to essentially oversee recipes and first stage production. His recipes for Hawke's Lager and Hawke's Patio Pale won gold medals at the Australian International Beer Awards – the largest annual beer competition in the world. Hawke's Lager also took home the trophy for 'Best Australian style lager'.

How have you grown the business?

After we launched, we started hearing rumours that we were owned by Lion. The cold reality is Hawke's began in a tiny garage in my grandmother's house in Coogee. It was two guys who'd never run a business, who didn't know the first thing about brewing beer, and who didn't even know what P&L stood for.

Nan's garage the night before the launch

All of the gaps in knowledge or experience were either worked out on the fly – usually from mistakes (some cataclysmic and heart-attack-inducing) – or just by asking someone. Never be afraid to ask for knowledge or help. People love giving their opinion and are often willing to provide it gratis. Or at least for a six-pack.

Our "lucky breaks" have been in finding the people who have built Hawke's with us. From day one, we've looked to build a company of kind-hearted, hard-working legends who share our vision and values and bring their own set of superpowers to the table. And we have. David and I probably know the least of most of the functions in our business.

"Hire people brighter than you and then get out of their way."
– Lee Iacocca

What’s your biggest selling product?

Say Stone & Wood, think Pacific Ale.
Say Young Henrys, think Newtowner.
Say Balter, think XPA.
Say Hawke's, think Hawke's Lager and Hawke's Patio Pale.

We'd always intended to grow the business on the back of a two-headed beast. Two styles that are unapologetically "commercial", one of which (Lager) would still represent 85% of beer volume drunk in this country.

No other "craft" brewer at the time we launched would pressure their Lager to be a commercial base for their business. We did. But then we also had no choice – it was the only style Bob would approve at launch.

The pale came later, to which Bob remarked, "I prefer the other one", haha. He was always to the point.

What have been some of your biggest failures along the way?

There are too many to list. I'm almost paralysed just thinking about it.

This is my opinion. I'm not sure what David thinks, but our biggest mistake, I believe, was not bringing in more capital earlier and building a senior-level focussed organisational structure sooner.

We would have given up more of our shareholding, but I think we could have avoided a lot of the mistakes, stress and start-up business struggles along the way.

It might have been a smoother ride. But we might not have learned as much. It's important to recognise the positives out of your mistakes, too.

What day to day digital tools do you use?

Day to day, we use Gmail and Google Drive., plus WhatsApp for chitter chatter.

What books have been a great inspiration to you as a founder?

Too many to list all. But if you're open to following your heart just as much as your head, then this list is a good place to start:

Shoe dog by Phil Knight
Principles by Ray Dalio
Whatever you think, think the opposite by Paul Arden
Daring greatly by Brené Brown
The 5am club by Robin Sharma

Any podcast/websites that help you run your business?

I'm not a podcast'y person. I prefer to read. If I'm listening to anything it's guided meditations, which I pluck at random from an app called Insight Timer. We consume so much information and content over the course of our days, so I think it's important to be able to turn inward and enjoy some stillness.

What quotes do you live by?

So many quotes. Right now I like:

"Creativity is intelligence having fun."
– Albert Einstein
"There are few problems that creativity can't solve. I truly believe that. And I know David does too."

What do you do to look after your mental health as a founder?

This is the most important question in this interview – thanks for asking.

Running a small business can be brutal at times. I can't stress enough the importance of devoting some time to your mental, emotional and physical wellbeing, especially during these crazy times.

I don't think I do anything perfectly, but I try to focus on what I know I can control, starting with a mindful morning routine. Up early for a walk at sunrise by the beach (David seems to take a warped pleasure in seeing my relentless sunrise posts on Instagram nearly every morning).

Meditation &/or breathwork. Exercise. If I can get all of this in before checking my email, then that's a win.

I also have all of my phone notifications disabled, so I control when I see things. It's probably less efficient for everyone around you, but they can text/call you if it's that urgent.

In a few words what does it mean to be the founder of a business?

"No, this isn't a 'side project'."

What are the biggest pieces of advice you’d give to other founders?

"Keep going, but be kind to yourself and others along the way. That part will make more sense down the line."

Where can people find out more about your business?

Instagram: @hawkesbrewingco
Facebook: Hawke's Brewing Co

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