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The perfect mix — Dalhousie alumni combine for business success
Pictured: Daniel Bartek & Cam McDonald first became business partners in Dalhousie's Bachelor of Commerce program
When the company he co-founded, Ace Beverage Group, was about to be officially purchased, Cam McDonald (BComm’14) knew right away what he wanted to do.
“The first thing that went through my mind was that I need to make sure I get an email out to our team before they hear it from someone else,” says McDonald. “Brands can come and go, but good people don't.”
He immediately wrote the entire team on June 13, telling them that Corby Spirit and Wine would be purchasing Ace Beverage Group, valued at a total of $165 million.
The company’s story, and those people-first values, began in the Faculty of Management.
A shared passion for entrepreneurship
McDonald and his fellow co-founder, Daniel Bartek (BComm’14), first teamed up in the third year of the Bachelor of Commerce (BComm) program.
“I always admired his work ethic and his tenacity, and that he was interested in entrepreneurship,” says McDonald.
Bartek remembers meeting his future partner for the first time over lunch. They clicked right away and began sharing business ideas, especially in the alcoholic beverage space. Bartek’s interest was in business operations, and McDonald was more focused on sales, which both agree is a good combination for running a business.
“I always like to make sure that the structure is in place and Cam always wants go really fast and chase the next milestone for us," says Bartek. “So it was a good balance of our personalities."
He says it’s been a successful partnership because while they often have passionate debates, they maintain the trust and respect they’ve built together.
“We are able to challenge each other,” says Bartek. “But we check our egos at the door and it's always for the benefit of the business.”
Learning to adapt
Bartek calls the mentorship they received at Dalhousie ‘instrumental’, highlighting the guidance of professors Ed Leach and Mary Kilfoil as part of the entrepreneurship-focused Starting Lean class.
Bartek and McDonald co-founded Sage Mixology in 2013 with another friend in Ontario. Their first product was a vodka cranberry cocktail, housed in a dual-chambered bottle so it would mix itself upon pouring.
They secured investment and arranged for the product to be distributed in Ontario. On May 30, 2014, the day their product officially launched, they visited the nearest store stocking their product. What they found was ‘a nightmare’ – their bottles were leaking — and soon learned they were also contaminated due to co-packer error on their very first production. After initiating a voluntary recall, they decided to keep going and that it wouldn’t be the end of the road for their business.
"We just pulled our socks up and said we can't allow this to kill us. We can't fail here," says McDonald.
‘We’re going to make this work’
In 2015, to stay afloat, they started making Crazy Beard, an Apple Ale. After success with that drink, they have grown, started several other brands, and diversified their business. They appeared on CBC’s Dragons’ Den for the second time in 2017, and a few years later started Cottage Springs. It’s become the best-selling ready to drink (RTD) brand in Ontario and one of the fastest growing brands in Canada today.
Cam highlights one lesson learned in Dalhousie’s entrepreneurship classes that helped them recover and find their way to success.
“The fundamentals are what we run our business on today, which is getting out of the building and doing customer discovery,” says McDonald.
Even though they made ‘a ton of mistakes’, he says their attitude helped them adapt to whatever came their way.
"We're both persistent. We’re both highly competitive. I think we both have the attitude that through hell or high water we're going to make this work," says McDonald.
Building a strong team
When asked what he’s most proud of from his time running this business, McDonald doesn’t hesitate.
“The team that we've built. I think it's special what we have. Culture is not something that pays immediate dividends, but over many years, I think it does and it's the most important thing,” says McDonald.
Since selling their company, the duo have already put their creativity and business savvy to use. Bartek is leading their next venture, WakeWater Beverage Co., a Toronto company that sells caffeinated sparkling beverages while McDonald remains focused on leading Ace Beverage Group to achieve another milestone.
Bartek, who regularly mentors other entrepreneurs, has advice for any student considering starting
“Go ahead and do it. Make sure you do it for the right reasons — the learning process and the experiences you go through starting a business are invaluable,” says Bartek.
Below: Daniel (L) and Cam (M) pitched their first business, Sage Mixology, on CBC's Dragons' Den
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