Peace Tree’s Megan McKay: Lessons from craft beer and insurance

When Megan McKay helped start Peace Tree Brewing in 2009, she wanted to create a “little beacon of hope” in her small Knoxville, Iowa community.

Previously working in insurance, McKay admits she came into the craft brewing industry from a different background. Now, she’s the company’s owner and manager of its almost 30 full- and part-time employees.

Peace Tree also recently opened a Des Moines branch, stocked with its own taproom and brewery.

This interview has been edited for conciseness.

C&M: How did you get involved with craft brewing?

MM: I moved back home to Knoxville, Iowa, which I never thought I would do, and joined my family’s insurance agency as a fourth-generation agent. My husband at the time, my father and I had a property company as well that owned the insurance building. Then we bought another building because we needed more space, and then the building next to that was really run down so we bought it, too. Nobody rented it for several years so we thought, “why don’t we just start our own business in there?”

(T)here’s just not a big entrepreneurial spirit sometimes in small towns. People just don’t think about it. So, we decided we’d start something. We figured it needed to be something we could get money from outside the community and put it back into the community. That’s why we went with a beer distribution model instead of just a taproom to augment the income stream.

… Then my dad decided he was going to retire at the end of ‘14, and I had some really big decisions to make about whether I wanted to continue in the family insurance business, continue in the beer business, go out and get a job somewhere else, or continue to do both. The (beer) business was just at a point where it really needed on on-site, full-time owner and manager. The insurance business, while I loved it and I learned a lot all the time, I felt like I could do more building in the beer business. It was my opportunity to really make my mark, whereas the other was kind of riding on my family’s coattails.

C&M: What keeps you motivated to pursue brewing?

MM: I think part of it is that when I was in college, I could not figure out what I wanted to do. I took a personal development class, which was basically just sifting down your personal mission statement of what you wanted your career to be about, and it was probably the best class I ever took. Basically, it came back down to one thing: How do I make work better for people? We spend so much time at work and our work defines us so I really applied that to every job I’ve ever had, and I get to do that at Peace Tree every day.

I can look at someone like (Peace Tree Head Brewmaster) Joe Kesteloot, who is a fantastic brewer and is super passionate about that, but he just wants to brew. He doesn’t want to deal with the tedious details of paying taxes or employees and doing all of that stuff. So, every day it’s fun to watch him pursue his passion, and I take care of the backside of that.

C&M: What was an unexpected challenge you faced building Peace Tree?

MM: I think the big unexpected pieces are just like the weird, bizarre things that you have to just figure out. (Buying a used forklift) is a great example. You don’t even think about things like needing a forklift, or how hard that is to buy, or how expensive it can be. Then there’s all the stuff that goes along with it, like figuring out how you charge it. Stuff people just don’t think about when you think about having a nice sip of beer.

I think the other most challenging thing with all small and growing businesses is cashflow and making sure that you’re stocking enough away so you can keep building and growing. It feels like you can’t do that fast enough. We’ve been a pretty high-growth business the past few years, so it’s been a challenge figuring out how to not stop that momentum, but also not just drain yourself of cash while you’re trying to grow.

The third would be human resources. We’re very lean. I’ve been able to add some administrative staff the last year or two, but especially in the early years I remember my dad coming in and going “Megan, you have to delegate these things because you’re just overwhelmed.” I was like, “Yeah… Who do you want me to delegate that to?” He looked at me and he was like, “Oh yeah, there is nobody else.”

C&M: Who do you consider to be a mentor?

MM: I think my dad, honestly, is a great mentor. He was just (at the Des Moines location) the other night. He’s 69 years old and somebody said something about Snapchat. Instantly, he pulls out his phone, he downloads the app, and he starts figuring out how to use it, and he’s got a filter on and he’s taking a picture. That was always kind of his mindset: Don’t say, “Well I don’t know how to do that” or “I don’t know anything about that.” Just figure it out and learn. Embrace the new and the change.

C&M: What excites you most about working and living in Iowa?

MM: The fact that we’re a smaller state and we’re a little bit under the radar, I think the opportunities are really endless. It’s like that cliché thing that you get on a plane coming home to Des Moines, and you start talking to the person next to you who knows somebody who knows somebody who’s your cousin. That network and those connections, because we are a smaller place and people are pretty well-connected, leads to a ton of opportunities for us to collaborate and do things together.

C&M: What has been an unexpected source of inspiration for your work?

MM: Whenever I’m at a road block, there’s probably two things that really get me going again … (like art). Just getting that fresh perspective. Whether it’s photography or painting, understanding how people came up with something. Then you can start thinking about the problems or the things you’re looking at really differently.

Then, the other one would be just getting completely away from it all and going outside … I think sometimes it’s just a matter of turning off that noise. It’s all in your head, it’s all there … I think if you can stop and take some deep breaths and let your mind do what it needs to do, it’s all in there.

C&M: What advice would you have for other entrepreneurs or others who haven’t found their “thing” yet?

MM: I think the biggest thing is to figure out what you don’t want to do. I don’t know if that’s the right way to approach it, but as I was going through life and, especially with this last major decision … it was like “OK, what do I not want to do? What doesn’t work for my life and who I am?” Essentially, where are my standards? Then from there you can start weeding stuff out.

I think the other thing is — and I’ve held true to this since I was a kid working my dad’s insurance agency — dive in and do everything. Learn everything from the ground up because you never know when that’s going to help you later …  don’t let anything be beneath you. Clean the bathrooms. File the stuff. Talk to every customer. Really know every part of your business and don’t be afraid to embrace it.

About Megan McKay

Age: 43
Location: Knoxville, Iowa
Twitter handle: @PTBMegan

Megan Bannister is a freelance writer based in Des Moines and a regular contributor to Clay & Milk.