West Coast Brewery owner forced to sell over closed border

A year ago Shawn Rayson was hunkered down in a rented chalet in the South Island,investing in his West Coast Brewery. He’d bought the business just months before, had overseen a major refurbishment and was working out a five-year export plan with the help of PWC consultants in Christchurch.

Rayson hoped that by March 2021 he’d be selling his Westport-brewed Green Fern Organic and Miners Black beer in Australia, and working toward exporting to Singapore, Vietnam and ultimately China.

He also had a grand plan to breathe new life into the historic mining town of Westport. He aimed to establish a distillery, draw tourists and overseas customers with tours and tastings, and invest in earthquake strengthening (at a likely cost of over $100,000) to revive the town’s handsome Carnegie Library building, disused for a decade.

Instead, he’s sitting in Toronto unable to return to New Zealand since the border closed. His craft brewery has dropped from five staff a year ago to just one, production has stalled entirely and last month Rayson made the difficult decision to sell up. “You can’t run a business like this from 8900 miles away…it’s been a year of hell,” he said in a telephone interview.

Like many business people, Rayson admires parts of the Government response to Covid-19. He’s impressed that strict border controls have allowed the country to enjoy long spells without social distancing.But he also wonders if policy needs to be so devastatingly absolute. Rayson didn’t want to leave the country when Covid hit last March. He had limited time left to run on his visitor’s visa, but he applied for a “specific purpose” work visa that would have allowed him to remain in the country and continue to oversee his business.

Local MP Damien O’Connor wrote a letter supporting the application.

“I have been encouraged to learn of the brewery’s plans to refurbish the historic Westport Carnegie Library to include a tasting room and upmarket restaurant. The Carnegie Library building, which sits directly opposite the brewery, is a wonderful piece of architecture and this proposal offers an opportunity to utilise and showcase the building.”

“If I’d had that visa I wouldn’t have left last March,” Rayson said. “I would have stayed in New Zealand with my business.”

But NZ Immigration suspended all work on such visas when the Government closed the country’s borders suddenly on March 19th, in the face of the worsening pandemic.

The only way to return to New Zealand since then has been through an exemption process that rations very scarce spots in managed isolation to travelling and returning New Zealanders and, at Immigration’s discretion, to those deemed to have a “critical purpose” to travel here.

Rayson said he spoke to New Zealand’s High Commissioner to Canada, Martin Harvey, about seeking an exemption.

“Martin basically told me there were so few spaces that my chance of getting one was very remote, so I didn’t try.”

The loss of Rayson’s vision for Westport is “a disappointment”, said Buller District mayor Jamie Cleine. “Shawn had some really big plans. He wanted to take an icon of this town to the next level, his vision took in more than just the brewery.”

Rayson has an entrepreneurial background that includes some 16 years spent in China, where he established and ran high end catering and restaurants. He has also salted his board of directors with old hands of the alcohol industry including Steve Maher, former CEO of Carlsberg China and Rick Fitzgerald, past head of drinks giant Diageo Canada. But Rayson said the difficulty of distance combined with a turnaround project has proved insurmountable.

“Staffing has been the biggest issue. We took over a business that was losing $30,000 a month so there were all sorts of changes that needed to take place. We were actively looking for a new brewmaster, the brewer we took on when I bought the company had his own way of doing things, but these weren’t the systems we needed to follow, there are food licences to be complied with, customs licences to be complied with…when you’re making big changes at a business you need to be there to make sure they’re happening in the way that you want.”

Rayson was also dogged by a dispute that ended up with the Employment Relations Authority in Christchurch. He appeared by video conference in September in a case that found he’d breached the non-disclosure terms of a settlement struck with an employee the previous year.

The nub of the problem of distance, according to Rayson, is that his business needs another $200,000 to $300,000 in investment.

“I can’t commit that until I’m in New Zealand to make sure that it’s spent effectively,” he said. “We’ve been like an airplane in a holding pattern, waiting for clearance to land.”

It’s a shame that energy and investment will be lost to Westport,Cleine said. Though he hopes a buyer will be found.

And Rayson said he’ll be keen to resuscitate some of his business ideas in New Zealand when circumstances allow.

The brewery is listed with broker Link Business for $1.1m.

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