Historic Brewing Company’s John Kennelly – full Q&A interview


Here is the full Q&A from our April issue with John Kennelly of Historic Brewing Company.

  1. How and when did your family get started in this business?

We were launching our sister company Grand Canyon Wine Co. in 2012, working closely with friend and mentor Eric Glomski from Page Springs Cellars and Arizona Stronghold Vineyards.  When we told Eric that we wanted to follow in his footsteps and open a winery, he said: “don’t do it, but what you should do is make craft beer.” That’s all we needed to hear, and after that conversation, we dove head first into launching a brewery, while still operating a wine business on the side.

  1.  Where do you see the biggest growth potential for your business?

In our team members.  In the first few years of running this business, our focus was external. We were laser-focused on building an exciting brand and quality product for our audience that we overlooked the principles of what makes a company successful.  We have circled back and begun being more practical, investing in our team members and giving them the tools to succeed and empowering them to add value to our company. Our goal is to develop leaders, and inspire them to be great and by investing in each of them, we see instant ROI.  If you want your customers to love you, start by loving your team.

  1.  What has been your biggest workplace accomplishment?

Three years into our existence at the brewery, we lost our head brewer. The task I had was to find a new leader, but I had three brewers that all worked for us and they each wanted it. All of them were talented in their area of work, so It came down to me choosing, and I know I made the right choice.  The first thing I look for when making critical personnel decisions is the attitude of the individual. A great attitude is key in a leaders approach to life, relationships and how you face challenges.

  1.  How does your business enrich the quality of your community?

By setting a high standard when it comes to quality of our products and service.   Flagstaff has become a craft beer destination, and we want to make sure we are doing our part of maintaining that reputation.   When we launched, it was our goal to raise the bar for breweries in Flagstaff, and I can tell you with confidence, that all the breweries in Flagstaff have raised the bar as well.  We have a great craft beer community where we can call upon our neighbors to borrow ingredients if we need to. With eight craft breweries in such a small city, it has become a craft beer connoisseurs paradise.

  1. What has been the biggest challenge for your business?

There are so many challenges we face; it’s tough to choose just one.  I would have to say becoming better at telling others no. Breweries have a certain mystique about them; it’s so many peoples dream to own a craft brewery. In the early stages of a startup, it’s so easy to get caught up in the excitement and become emotional about everything. That leads you to poor decision making.  You catch yourself doing things you wouldn’t usually do, just out of pure ego.

  1.  From whom do you seek business advice?

I’m very fortunate to have a strong inner circle of mentors. Starting with my parents, Kevin and Sherrill Kennelly who each have provided an opportunity for me that most young adults never get, but also have allowed the room to make mistakes. They set a high bar when it comes to work ethic, and that was ingrained in me since I was eight years old.  Next would be my three landlords, Sean Casey (Bearizona CEO), Dick Henderson (Brewery Landlord) and Mike Cowen (Landlord of Williams restaurants). These three all bring a unique, well-rounded skill set to the table. Last, but not least, is my wife, Tamra Kennelly. She is my defender, and none of this would be possible without her. She isn’t afraid to challenge my thinking, and she inspires me to always better myself.

  1.  What advice would you give to someone just starting out in your industry?

Stop looking at what everyone else is already doing and put your focus on what’s going to bring value to your team, your customers and then to your investors.  Don’t think that just because you have a business plan, or you went to school that you will have an advantage or ahead. So many people start a business for the wrong reason, and they get chewed up and spit out.  You have to love the process, and you have to be relentless in your continued education within the business. There is a big difference between being a number two, three or four vs. being the number one in a company.  The former gets to ask someone what they should do, and the ladder has to look themselves in the mirror and live with the decisions they made. If you can stomach that, then what are you waiting for, get started already.

  1. How could you describe your personal brand? Please explain how you drive your brand in daily business.

I’m an introvert who respects and appreciates the power of what it means to be extroverted.  I’m not the kind of owner that enjoys putting my face out there. I do fully understand the power of a good brand, but I leave the majority of that to my business partner and sister Carole Kennelly. She was dubbed The Brand Warrior.  She is responsible for the voice, the imagery, and content that makes up what Historic Brewing Company is. If you think you’re passionate about branding, strike up a conversation with her, and you will quickly learn that she knows her stuff.

  1. What are some exciting future developments for your business?

Opening the beer garden at the production facility and taproom.  When we began in 2013, the zoning code for light industrial didn’t have breweries and taprooms in the text.  I then had to provide the city case studies of why it’s vital that we get the zoning code amended to allow for future breweries to come into these types of areas.  It has been a four-year process of getting the code amended, and for us to apply for a CUP (conditional use permit) to allow us to expand into our backyard and open a beer garden.  By the time you are reading this, we should have approval from the city to move forward on this long-awaited project. This beer garden will give our fans an awesome outdoor area for them to enjoy our beer with their family, friends, and dogs.  We will have our food truck in operation and plenty of outdoor games such as horseshoes, corn hole and bocce ball.

  1. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?   

First would be to choose our flagship beer and not have it choose us; the second would be able to fix the vanilla bean crisis in Madagascar that nearly put us out of business.  The drought in Madagascar which is responsible for producing 3/4 of the worlds vanilla beans, almost took us out. Piehole Porter, our flagship cherry vanilla porter, depends on the vanilla bean to give it that delicious taste that has converted many beer drinkers over to the craft side. The price skyrocketed so high that we were losing money brewing that beer. Luckily our creative head brewer Zack Stoll worked his way through this issue and got us back on track, but we lost nearly 50% of our tap handles, and we haven’t fully recovered to this day.  

  1. What inspires you?

When I see those on my team grow.  There isn’t anything more fulfilling to me than seeing those on my team take risks, invest in themselves and then watch as they influence others under them.  It’s just like being a parent when you look at your kids blow the lid off their capacity; it only makes me want to double down and push them even more to do big things.  Everyone has potential; it just looks different from person to person, you need to believe in them and pull the greatness out of them.

  1. What about Flagstaff makes it the best place for you to live?

I live in Williams, but I do commute to Flagstaff five days a week.  It’s in my plans to move there, just haven’t been able to achieve that yet.

  1. To what do you attribute your success to?

I’m nowhere close to what I consider my definition of success to be. I have had a series of small wins and losses along the way that I have learned from.  Those lessons are the makeup of what I find it takes to become successful eventually. My inner circle is what has got me to this point, and the select few that I choose to surround myself with. I’m incredibly protective of my time and with who I spend my time with.

  1. What is more important for you today than ten years ago?

Leadership.  Ten years ago, I was 21, just purchased my first business and I was going to be the best owner/manager there ever was.  I was going to show up first and leave last, and I was going to pick up the slack for those who couldn’t cut it. I was going to micromanage all the way through my twenties. Then, one night, I asked my wife what she thought my legacy would be, her answer scared me to death. She replied, “you will be remembered for building and running these businesses.”  Something came over me and from that moment forward I decided that I want to turn my focus to studying leadership and teaching it to my team. That has been the best business decision I have ever made. Every week our group of leaders reads leadership books, and then we come together for a meeting to discuss what we all got from it. By doing this, we have changed the culture of our company. Leadership training will sniff out every weakness you have and make you confront it head-on. Those that are invested are giving our company compounded returns.  

  1. My number one rule when striving to be greater is…

You can’t rest on your laurels. So many people get romantic about what they have done in the past and wear it on their sleeve like a badge of honor, well guess what, today and the future can care less.   What got you to this point, doesn’t matter. The world is always ready to punch you in the face when you least expect it, and if you’re not adaptable, you will have a difficult time moving forward.

  1.  In 10 years, I hope to be…

Paying it forward to those who aspire to be entrepreneurs.  I’m so grateful for the people that believed in me and backed me when I needed them most.  One of my mentors has always told me that if someone helps you along the way, you must pay it forward in the future. That’s something I will never forget; I hope he is around to see it when I get my opportunities.


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