Jill Linquist had already enjoyed three successful careers when she founded Raging Crow Distillery in July 2018.

Sitting on an overturned pail watching a 400-litre still transform a fruity mash into an award-winning sipping spirit, she chuckles uneasily as she recalls how the adventure all began.

“I’d had a great career as a food service director at Saint Mary’s (University),” says the affable 68-year-old North River, Colchester County, resident.

“I’d run my own fabric store and I’d just finished working as a lifestyle consultant at a Truro senior complex. My 65th birthday was still a few years off and I was looking for something that would be fun, put a few dollars in the bank account and then be readily salable when I was ready to slow down.”

A craft wine enthusiast, she was inspired by the early players in the province’s fledging distillery industry, so she took courses, found investors and converted a large garage behind her home into Raging Crow Distillery.

The number of distilleries in the province has grown exponentially in the past five years, but in the beginning, she had to fight for visibility — and even to get the licence for a tasting bar. Much to her surprise, North River was one of three areas in the province that had remained dry from the time of Prohibition.

After a successful “wet” vote, customers started arriving, attracted by unique small-batch products— including one-of-a kind items like dill pickle vodka and rhubarb liqueur “made with rhubarb stolen from our neighbours’ gardens.” Backstopped by a saucy social media campaign and appearances at farmers’ markets across the province, the business built a buzz.

Enter the pandemic. Sales dried up as in-person visits to tasting rooms were restricted. After a few weeks with no change in social distancing restrictions, Linquist knew it was time to shift gears or walk away.

Initially, the business juggled its distilling capacity to make much-needed hand sanitizer, giving away hundreds of bottles to local police and fire departments. It earned them kudos and boosted their profile, but it wasn’t paying the bills.

Like every successful entrepreneur who sees opportunity in adversity, Linquist was certain there was a silver lining in the COVID black cloud. In this case, technology lent a helping hand. Video chat platforms that had previously been the near exclusive domain of geeks and nerds quickly went mainstream and Linquist harnessed their power by offering online drink-mixing classes for office groups across the country desperate for an interesting but remote team-building opportunity.

Online sales soared, with orders coming from across Canada.

As the global health situation stabilized, online sales remained strong, traffic to the distillery returned and more Raging Crow products began appearing in private liquor stores. But the magic of heading out to the garage at 6 a.m. for a distilling session began to fade, and hiring someone to do that work full-time was still a little outside the operation’s budget.

When the provincial liquor corporation wanted to place a massive order, it was decision time. Go big or sell to someone who was interested in taking Raging Crow to the next level.

“My strength is the creative side. Scaling up a business is not my forte,” Linquist says. “While I had a well-structured, well-thought-out business plan, I didn’t have an exit strategy. I was so busy running the business, I didn’t think about how I was going to transition the business.”

Linquist is not alone. Richard Niedermayer, an estate adviser with Halifax law firm Stewart McKelvey, says business owners and entrepreneurs don’t figure out succession soon enough.

“Atlantic Canadians, in particular, enjoy what they do. They like to be in control of their enterprise and it’s sometimes difficult for them to bring in others and make the transition happen at the right time for the business,” he says.

Succession is critical to the health of communities, especially smaller ones where a few jobs make a big difference. A 2022 study by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business identifies succession as a crisis in Canada: 76 per cent of business owners expect to retire in the next decade, but only nine per cent of businesses have a formal succession plan.

In most succession situations, there are three options: pass on the business to the next generation, sell to the employees or investors, or find a buyer. In Linquist’s case, her two stepsons were gainfully employed elsewhere and not that interested in pre-dawn trips to the garage when visiting. The lone paid employee was a university student who was grateful for the experience but in no position to buy the business. The investor group was polled. They loved the business from a distance, but had no interest in the hands-on aspect.

As Linquist quietly began sharing her interest in selling with friends, colleagues and other distillers, across the province in a small community just outside of Bridgewater, Elspeth McLean-Wile was wrapping up a deal to sell Wile’s Lake Farm Market, her life’s work, to a young couple ready to build on the foundation she had laid.

“There was an 18-month conversation that took place even before we even discussed a price,” said McLean-Wile. “We met frequently in person and over Zoom. I needed to be sure they understood how the business had grown and the values that had been infused into the operation. They needed time to make sure they understood what they were getting into.”

Wile’s Lake Farm Market is a South Shore institution founded by Elspeth and her husband Peter in 1985. Initially conceived as a way to get greater value from the family orchard, the market began sourcing and selling locally grown produce and food from farmers and makers in the Lunenburg County and western Nova Scotia. It stocks an assortment of jams, pickles, mustards, cheeses, meats and other groceries sourced from Maritime producers. In the summer, there are lineups at the ice cream counter and the smell of bread and sweets baked daily wafts from the kitchen to the parking lot, enticing eager visitors.

As 20-somethings when they started the business, McLean-Wile and her husband never thought about how long they wanted to work.

“It was about getting established,” she said. “We always talked about what was next. We tried to respond to opportunity when it presented itself. People would come in and say, ‘What’s new this year?’ and we liked to have an answer.”

A garden centre was added in 1989. In 1992, they tried to open and then abandoned a second location. While Elspeth ran the market, Peter acted as a sounding board, keeping a foot-hold in the family dairy business that he ran for more than 30 years.

In 2008, Peter finally left dairy farming to work full-time alongside Elspeth. For more than a decade, he became the go-to person who could fix anything and everything, allowing the business to run smoothly.

Then, unexpectedly, Peter got sick and quickly passed away “and all the plans went out the window,” she says.

Elspeth threw herself into the business to help deal with the grief, but she readily admits it wasn’t as fun or fulfilling without her partner at her side. When the COVID crisis made the work even harder, she knew it was time to start looking for new owners.

“I did not want to wake up some morning and not want to do this anymore.”

With no family or employees waiting in the wings, Elspeth was convinced the operation had to stay with an agricultural family to succeed. She reached out privately to a number of acquaintances and found the Van Dyk family receptive to the idea. In June of 2021, the “conversation” with the new owners, Adrien and Sarah Van Dyk, began.

“When you build something, it’s your baby. You don’t want to just put a For Sale sign on the lawn. You want a succession. I wanted a succession, anyway,” she said. “It was a lot of work, but when Sarah and Adrien took over in March 2023, I knew it was good for me, good for them and good for the community.”

Drew Barbour, a non-legal adviser with the Halifax-based law firm McInnis Cooper, says planning a successful transition can take up to five years.

Many successful entrepreneurs believe they can do it themselves in under two years, but Barbour suggests people who do it quickly often leave money on the table. Succession, he believes, requires external legal and accounting expertise.

As the new owners of Wile’s Lake Farm Market were getting their feet wet on the South Shore, back in North River, Linquist was still looking for a buyer.

She didn’t get the interest she’d anticipated from the distillery or brewery community, and with the economy seemingly in a slight downturn, overtures to other business she thought would be a good fit were re-buffed.

Had she given more thought to an exit strategy before turning 68, she says she might have worked out an apprentice program with a keen young couple who could gradually buy into the business, but that never happened.

Given that cheeky social media campaigns had helped drive sales, in October 2023, she began wondering if that strategy might also be able to help sell the business. A few clever posts later, they had a serious buyer. Todd Gates, a B.C. safety officer who had returned home to his native Nova Scotia to establish a vineyard in Canning, saw the post and thought the business would be a wonderful addition to his venture.

“I’d put aside the dream of working for myself for decades,” says Gates. “Through the pandemic, I learned life is too short, so when this opportunity arose, I jumped.”

Negotiations and business evaluations followed, and by January, Gates bought the distillery name, the stills, equipment and the inventory, with the intent to move it all to Canning.

Linquist agreed to help with the transition — which is how, in late February 2024, she found herself giving an interview on an over-turned bucket at the still for a final time, waiting for the last batch of North River product to appear.

“I’m really proud of what we developed and I’m excited to see where Todd can take the business,” she said. “It might have been easier if I’d had an exit plan from the beginning, but we all live and learn, don’t we?”

Business succession is critical to the growth and future development of Nova Scotia communities. In future issues we will be exploring various aspects of the process through stories with entrepreneurs who’ve successfully navigated the journey.

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