The Kettewell Family & JAK’sAll in the Family
At JAK’s Beer, Wine, Spirits, it’s all about family and has been for four generations now. “We take the relationship extremely seriously,” says Mike McKee, the company’s CFO. “Family is one of our core values.”
McKee not only oversees the finance side of things, he’s married to the daughter of company founder John Kettlewell, one of two sons, two sons-in-law and a nephew to join a family business nearly a century old.
“JAK’s was initially started by my father-in-law in 1981, but its roots travel all the way back to the 1920s in Australia,” McKee explains. “It goes back to his mother-in-law, a miracle baby born in the 1920s.”
Mary Sayers arrived late in her innkeeper parents’ lives and grew up living above the shop. When her father was killed in a bar fight in the hotel’s pub, her husband Noel Dumas (the famous author of The Three Musketeers was a distant relative) stepped in to run the business. From the 1940s to the late 1960s, Noel Dumas was one of the most successful publicans in Australia. Meanwhile, Mary had 11 children. “Between 1970 and 2000, Mary’s 11 children produced 57 grandchildren and now we’re up to 105 great-grandchildren so far,” McKee says.
In 1972, Noel and Mary moved to Canada, settling in Vancouver. Several of the children and their spouses joined them, including their son-in-law John Kettlewell. He’d worked as a plumber back in Australia but went into the real estate business in Vancouver during the 1970’s.
However, when interest rates soared to 20% in 1981 he was forced to look for a new career. Family tradition beckoned and he opened a pub in Coquitlam.
They do their best to treat customers as they would any other member of the family.
That was followed by a second pub in Vancouver, then a third. In the early 2000s, two of Kettlewell’s sons got into the business. His three daughters all pursued different careers, but two of their husbands joined the business, Mike McKee in 2009, Geoff Dear in 2010. (In addition, his wife Monique’s cousins own the Mahony & Sons chain.)
Eventually, the Kettlewells sold off the pubs and transitioned into retail stores. In 2015, they bought their first store outside the Lower Mainland, at Cherry Lane in Penticton and welcomed John’s nephew Tim Dumas to the business. They now have 14 stores, with two new ones set to open soon in Burnaby and Williams Lake.
Their aim is to create stores that stand out from the crowd with a unique selection of products—such as the sort of small-batch wine, beer and spirits you won’t find at government stores—as well as outstanding customer service, including special classes and tastings led by whisky specialists, visiting winemakers, and their own highly trained in-house staff. “We’ve invested heavily in our teams,” McKee says. “It can be intimidating to walk into a store with all this product. So we don’t have clerks, we have people who ask our guests what they’re having for dinner. We spend a lot of time creating that great customer experience.”
In short, they do their best to treat customers as they would any other member of the family. After all, family is what they are.
A few years back, they were looking at rebranding all their different stores under one name. Their consultant pointed out that family was their strength, suggesting that they should play to that strength and make it their selling point.
And that’s how JAK’s came into being.
“My father-in-law’s initials are JAK for John Andrew Kettlewell,” McKee describes. He notes that JAK was the name everyone in the family liked best—with one exception. “The thing is, John is the most unassuming person you’ll ever meet, and he was horrified to have it be called after him. He grudgingly allowed it.”
Naturally, being a family-run business has its pros and cons.
“Every one, son, son-in-law, and nephew has a different role in the business,” McKee explains. “What makes it great is I’ve had an opportunity to get to know my brothers-in-law and my wife’s cousin much better than if I’d ever worked anywhere else.”
The not-so-great side? “You’re always mindful of not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings.”
That’s why, once a year, they meet with a family counsellor “to talk about some of the softer issues that are hard to talk about one on one,” McKee says. “We also have a business coach who helps us with strategy. If the next generation wants to keep working with us, the mechanics are set up so each partner has a share of the business.”
And yes, they’re still in expansion mode, launching a cannabis brand called Muse and always looking for new locations for JAK’s.
“My father-in-law is turning 70 next year and is happy to support the next generation provided we’re happy to do the work,” McKee says. “We’re not growing for growth’s sake. We’re growing to improve the lives of the partners in the business. We’re quite picky about the locations we decide to go to.”