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Find the passion, the business will follow.

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Published Thursday September 8th, 2011 in the Telegraph Journal
Photo: Cindy Wilson/Telegraph-Journal

Dave Veale interviews Peter Stoddart, Owner, Saint John Ale House as part of the Leadership Unleashed series of interviews with leaders.

Peter Stoddart is a charismatic entrepreneur who had the good fortune to find his calling early in life.  There were certainly early signs that Peter would end up at the helm of a restaurant – he tells me he did a business plan when he was in grade six based on opening a restaurant. He didn’t really look back on it until years later – it was called ‘Pete’s Greasy Spoon’. Obviously Peter was destined to be in the service industry.

Peter opened Cougars Lounge at Market Square in Saint John in 2002 and within two years he and business partner Trevor Pierce opened the Saint John Ale House (SJAH).  It seems that it is at the SJAH that Peter’s passion for food, beer, people, New Brunswick and business all collide. For example, the SJAH website illustrates Peter’s ability to connect with customers through social media (videos and a blog) and also reveals one of his core values – supporting New Brunswick producers by using locally grown produce, meats and fish.

Given his diverse passions, I was interested in finding out how Peter describes himself in a business context.

A: I am an entrepreneur – I’m a businessman in the sense that I feel like I have a pretty good handle on how a business runs. I am a bartender at heart and that spawned into a lot of things – I had exposure to different restaurants and bars, night clubs, university bars for the first eight years of my career and was inspired to have my own place.

[Tweet “I am a bartender at heart and that spawned into a lot of things. – Peter Stoddart”]

Q: It sounds like the Saint John Ale House is not only your business, but a passion project as well?

A: If there is anything you can teach a person it’s ‘find the passion, the business will follow.’

Q: How has ‘finding passion’ worked in your business?

A: I try and work with really passionate people.  The end product is so much better when you work with passionate people.

[Tweet “The end product is so much better when you work with passionate people.- Peter Stoddart”]

Q: You have mentioned being passionate about being local, how is this reflected in your business?

A:  We have taken this direction recently with the wine list. We have exclusively Canadian wines, which is kind of risqué, and eventually we hope to move to just Maritime and then to just New Brunswick wines. There is some great stuff going on in New Brunswick. When people travel somewhere they don’t want to have a Budweiser unless they are in Milwaukee. I believe people want to come to New Brunswick and have a Moosehead or a Picaroons, something that is unique.

Q: What are you most proud of?

A: Our industry is predictably unpredictable. I’m most proud of the team that I work with and how we respond to the daily challenges in this business.  Everybody has strengths and weaknesses. A lot of people focus on the weaknesses, but I prefer to focus on strengths – instead of saying “you need to work on this or that” I like to ask “what are you really good at?” This is how I formed my team.

[Tweet “Our industry is predictably unpredictable. – Peter Stoddart”]

Q: What do you think is required to build, and lead, a strong team?

A:  I think a big part of it comes from allowing people to make mistakes and allowing them to be part of the business. Letting them become part of the process with me and asking them for their ideas. I think the old saying is so true, “surround yourself with good people”. It’s that simple. So, if you are going to surround yourself with good people, you better use them. You don’t want to restrict somebody’s skills.

[Tweet “Allow people to make mistakes and to be part of the business. – Peter Stoddart”]

Q: What do you think the business world could learn from a restaurant like yours in terms of the importance of creating a good customer experience?

A: Employees should feel confident that if a customer isn’t enjoying whatever is going on that they can resolve the issue – even when the management team isn’t there. They know what to do and can make that decision themselves.

Q: Tell me about operational side of your business?

A: We don’t buy food in bags and put it in pots and put that on plates. We buy or make everything from scratch. So there is this whole bible of recipes – for example, when we make the chili mayo, we have the recipe, create the time stamp, date it, put it in the proper rotation in the inventory system, first in first out. We make sure we are checking it, sampling it, and tasting it all day. There are a lot of checks and balances that go into everything from the time the food comes through the back door to going out the front door.

Q: What, if anything, keeps you up at night?

A: I have 70 people that depend on me for a pay cheque every two weeks,  which can be a lot of weight on my shoulders. These people have families – I really take that to heart. There have been times in my career where I haven’t taken a pay cheque in order to make sure everyone else got paid. I want them to know that I have their back.

[Tweet “I want my employees to know that I have their back. – Peter Stoddart”]

Q: How would you finish the following sentence?  “A leaders job is to……”

A:  A leader’s job is to make decisions.

Q: What are the hardest decisions you make at the SJAH?

A: I’d say some of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made would be related to human resources.  Any employee related decisions – hire, fire, keep, raise, maintain, benefits, these are the toughest decisions.

Q: If you are going to give one piece of advice to someone who is going to jump into the entrepreneurial world, what would it be?

A: Entrepreneurship has probably been one of the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life. I think that you can’t do it unless you have the support of your family, like my folks, my siblings and most importantly my wife. So having a big support system and also being ready to make sacrifices.

Dave Veale is a business and leadership coach and founder of Vision Coaching Inc. in Saint John. He can be reached by email at Dave@VisionCoachingInc.com.

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