The Big Interview: WooHa Brewing founder and chief executive Heather McDonald

Heather McDonald is the founder and chief executive of craft beer firm WooHa Brewing Company, which is based in Kinloss in Moray.

The entrepreneur notes the brewery's plan for 75 per cent of turnover coming from export by 2023. Picture: contributed.
The entrepreneur notes the brewery's plan for 75 per cent of turnover coming from export by 2023. Picture: contributed.

Its beers can be found in various bars, restaurants and shops in the UK, as well as in Europe and Asia. In June it announced a full rebrand with five additions to its core range of bottled beers. US-born McDonald said at the time that the business’ vision “remains strongly focused on the expansion of WooHa and we are continuing to work on bringing high-quality craft beers to our customers across the globe”.

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You recently unveiled a rebrand and launch of new products amid plans to expand production on the back of fundraising – what does all of this mean for WooHa Brewing going forward?

McDonald sees consumers shopping increasingly locally. Picture: contributed.

The rebrand forms part of an overall £1.5 million investment plan for WooHa. We had a highly successful crowdfunding campaign in January this year that saw us raise more than £600,000 in just 19 days. This has allowed us to rebrand the entire product range and launch a new product and e-commerce site.

The timing felt right, we’ve got a growing international market, and wanted to tailor the brand to fit these markets. The newest addition now means we have five delicious craft beers in our core range: Hello Friday Session Pale Ale, Hop Pinata IPA, Rauch N Roll Porter, Northern Mischief Craft Lager, and Rogue Clan Scotch Ale.

I started WooHa just over five years ago with only two products, and now our plan is to expand in-house production capacity from 5,000 hectolitres to 88,000 by June 2023. Along with growing out production, we will also be increasing the number of employees at WooHa. Our projections are that we will have grown the size of the team by 2023 to 40.

Employee development and continual employee training is an area that we are constantly working on to ensure we develop a robust team. Particularly in manufacturing, it can be easy to focus on the production side of the business but a company, for me anyway, is a group of people. It’s therefore important to nourish and build up that team.

Your background was in financial management and virology – can you detail how you combined these to start the business?

I actually started my professional career in a microbiology lab researching the dengue virus, a haemorrhagic virus found in tropical and sub-tropical regions and spread by mosquitoes, before I decided to retrain. I went on to study international business, which saw me working in finance, mainly building investment portfolios, and it was during a career break while raising my sons that I realised I missed science and wanted to do something different.

During the boom of craft brewers, such as Samuel Adams in the US, my dad used to always joke that I should use my knowledge of microbiology to brew better-tasting beer and this came back to me during a distillery tour with my husband on Father’s Day 2013. Having never toured a distillery, which has a lot of similarities to a brewery, I found the whole process fascinating.

I then began thinking that a brewery provided the perfect opportunity to get back into science, but with my experience of finance and business I knew it would have the potential for growth and export too. Over the next year I learned how to brew and, using my savings, I incorporated the business in June 2014 and started trading in March 2015.

From our base in Moray, I knew the Speyside water that’s used to make some of Scotland’s best whiskies would help brew some flavoursome beer and I’ve used my knowledge of science to inspire each brew. The company’s name actually came from my son, who was four at the time.

When I was working on brand development, he was always running around the house shouting WooHa as he had combined the words woohoo and yeeha after a recent trip to America. I loved it and thought it was the perfect name for the brand as I was searching for something that was short, fun, and didn’t really mean anything in any language.

What effect has Covid-19 had on WooHa, for example how has this altered the mix between your on and off trade business?

The closure of pubs and restaurants back in March had a huge impact on our sales, but I’m one for silver linings. I don’t like to dwell on the negative, so instead we used the time to focus on finalising the rebrand and expanding our direct-to-consumer sales. We now sell through Amazon and our own e-commerce site, both of which performed really well during lockdown.

We’ve recently secured a new listing with Cress Co, a national distributor of food and drink based in Fife, which should help grow our domestic trade audience now that places are starting to open back up again. While the situation with the pubs is continuing to evolve, there is not currently the same demand as there was pre-Covid because consumption levels in pub settings have declined during the pandemic.

What this has done is offer us the opportunity to redirect resources to our e-commerce channel, which has strengthened our online offering and over time will be of greater benefit to the company.

Export is a key part of the business, and you are already selling across Europe and south-east Asia, including China. Where are you targeting and will there be any Brexit-related impact?

WooHa began trading in 2015 and we started exporting to the US in the same year. Our international portfolio now comprises a number of countries including Germany, Sweden, China, Russia, Italy, as well as the US. We are expecting to see around 33 per cent of our turnover for August coming from export, which is a large percentage for a business our size. Ultimately, we are working towards reaching a target of 75 per cent of turnover coming from export by 2023.

It remains to be seen how Brexit will affect this, but I was heartened to see the impact lockdown had on people looking to support local producers and suppliers. Whether that’s craft beer or the local butcher, there has definitely been a shift to consumers shopping locally and we hope this will continue through Brexit and beyond.

In terms of exporting to the EU, we are anticipating changes to the required information on the labels throughout the EU, which could potentially make it more cumbersome to be exporting to multiple countries in Europe. There is also potential for tariffs to be applied to beer imported from the UK by the US, which would change the dynamic for exporting to that market.

The no- and low-alcohol corner of the drinks market is booming. Do you have any plans to launch these type of products?

We are looking into the low-alcohol segment of the market and exploring our options there. A low-alcohol product is certainly something we envision offering at some point.

You were an AccelerateHer winner in 2017 – to what extent has this helped you and the business?

Being a part of the AccelerateHer programme introduced me to a fantastic network of businesspeople, both men and women. It offered me plenty of useful insights and helped me gain an understanding of the business start-up community.

It was a great support in terms of positioning the brand as it offered some excellent exposure for the company at a time when WooHa was still in relatively early stages of its development, having been around for less than two years.

Who do you admire in business?

The people I admire most are the entrepreneurs who are brave enough to start their own business journey, despite the many who may have thought that they were crazy. These are the type of people who have to be both disciplined enough and optimistic enough to go out and harness all of their drive and ambition to do something that they want to do by making a decision to live life on their own terms.

Until I was in the very same position, and experienced first-hand the work that goes into setting up and running a business, I was never truly able to appreciate just how much it takes to be an entrepreneur. In fact, I used to be a complete science snob when I was in school. I didn’t regard business owners or entrepreneurs as being in a difficult field and couldn’t quite believe that you could get a qualification in entrepreneurship.

WooHa is planning to exit circa 2023 – how you aim to achieve this?

The exit circa 2023 plan will be all about building strong routes to market, particularly in export. Having a well-developed team and strong systems in place are also going to be crucial for the brand to ensure that it can be continually scaled up. We will also work to ensure that we have successfully managed our intellectual property and contracts.

As much as we can work to develop the team, the internal systems and our routes to market to make the business as robust as possible, there will always be a small element of “right place, right time,” which will come down to the stars aligning.

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