Migration Brewing Wins SBA State Small Business Person of the Year Award

Courtesy of Migration Brewing
From left to right: Colin Rath, Director of Pubs; McKean Banzer-Lausberg, CEO/Co-Founder; Michael Branes, Head Brewer; and Eric Banzer-Lausberg, Director of Sales.

Later this spring, representatives from Migration Brewing will travel to Washington, D.C., to be formally recognized for outstanding entrepreneurship — and could win a national award.

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On March 7, the Small Business Administration released its list of 2024 Small Business Person of the Year’s state winners: That includes winners from each of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam, with the SBA naming Migration as Oregon’s 2024 winner. The winners will travel to Washington, D.C., from April 28 to May 4 for National Small Business Week Award Ceremonies, where one state or territory winners will be announced as the 2024 National Small Business Person of the Year. 

Each year the SBA conducts a statewide call for nominations for State Small Business Person of the Year, with the call starting in late August and ending in early December, according to a spokesperson for the agency, which partners with partners like SCORE, the Oregon Small Business Development Center Network, and local SBA lenders who work closely within the Oregon small business community, to nominate potential winners. A panel of judges considers the following criteria:

• Staying power
• Growth in number of employees
• Increase in sales, net profit and net worth for the three prior calendar years (in this case, 2020, 2021 and 2022);
• Response to adversity, including any COVID-19-related problems
• Contributions to community-oriented projects. 

Oregon Business spoke with McKean Banzer-Lausberg, co-founder and CEO of Migration Brewing, about the award and how his business has adapted to COVID-19 and Portland’s changing landscape. Founded in 2010, Migration Brewing has three regular brick-and-mortar locations and four seasonal retail locations, including one at the Portland Saturday Market. Banzer-Lausberg, a sixth-generation Oregonian, grew up in Southeast Portland and graduated from Syracuse University in 1999 with a degree in marketing. After college he joined the Peace Corps and worked in Morocco doing small-business development. In Portland, he worked for a web-development firm, but decided to leap into brewing in 2010, along with three other founders — one of whom is his brother. 

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

You were in web development before you started the brewery. What inspired you to go into brewing?

My degree was in marketing, so I have that background. My second job out of college was for a local craft brewery and I worked there for four years. I absolutely fell in love with not only the product, but the people in the community. So very early on in my career I learned that I was extremely passionate about what craft beer can do in terms of a positive impact in the community, really bringing people together, as well as everything else that comes into it — whether it be donating to local efforts and nonprofits or enjoying the outdoors and then having a beer afterwards. It was it was really a great lifestyle fit for myself. So that experience really shaped the direction and trajectory of where I was going to go. 

And after being in the web-development world for several years, I really came back to that passion and felt like the timing was right to pursue that. I found three other partners — one of them was actually my brother — and then two other individuals that the timing was right for us to come together and really achieve what for us has been a dream, which is to create a community-oriented business and to be one of the best in craft beer. That’s our aspiration.

Can you talk about what led to your winning this award?

I’m involved with the Small Business Development Center, and one of the contacts over there nominated our company. That’s a service that we’ve used for 10-plus years, so they’re very involved with our success as well. They’ve known the trials and tribulations and challenges that we’ve had to overcome to, you know, get to where we’re at, and they thought that that was a compelling story. 

Can you talk about some of those challenges? I know this is not an easy time to be in hospitality, and craft brewing has had some particular challenges in the last few years, even before the pandemic. What has your story been for the last few years?

It’s been a very, very tumultuous few years, there’s no doubt about it. Bringing it back to the SBA, the PPP loans, and the EIDL loans — those were instrumental for companies like us to get through what was an extremely challenging time. As I mentioned, we have seven retail locations; those were closed, so we couldn’t access our customer base. We had a lot on the line there. We had debt that we were personally responsible for. That can be a very scary prospect. So having the support and a trusted financial partner like the SBA was instrumental for us to get through that period. 

What that has also allowed us to do is really focus on what we’re best at, which is making craft products. We are growing, and the way that we’re growing is continuing to understand how the market is changing. While it is contracting, there are opportunities. We’re partnering up with some other craft breweries, and we’re doing some contract brewing, making beers for other brands. That’s been going really well; we’ve been seeking out creative pub projects. We’ve also been looking at international opportunities, which for us has been focused in Asia. We currently distribute to four states domestically — Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Idaho. Internationally, we distribute to Japan, Thailand and Hong Kong. So diversification of our markets is very important. We’re starting to roll out new products as well. Right now we’re taking a hard look at the nonalcoholic space and looking at expanding our portfolio to meet that consumer in a really dynamic and rapidly growing industry, which we’re really excited about.

It’s been tough. You layer on top of that the fact that Portland has had its own unique challenges, not only in restaurant and hospitality but just the retail sector in general. That’s been its own challenge that we’ve had to navigate through, and we’re really happy to see where the future goes. I think Portland will bounce back, hopefully sooner than later. And we want to be a part of that story, a part of that success story. That’s why we take on a lot of these projects [the seasonal retail locations]. They don’t actually generate that much revenue, but they are a nice marketing and brand impact. And I think they do make a difference in Portland’s story. It’s not that we’re going to save the day, but we can be a part of it. Hopefully it’s going to be a success story for everybody.

When did you start to export to Asia?

We started pre-pandemic — in 2019, I believe, with Japan. Then we grew from there.

When did you start brewing nonalcoholic beers?

We’re not selling any yet. We’re in the innovation and experimentation phase right now.

I know that that is that that is a space that a lot of craft brewers have been kind of cautiously getting into. What is it that you’re seeing in the market that’s inspiring that?

People are very, very health-conscious right now. They’re trying to figure out better ways to still be social, but take care of their bodies in different ways and so they’re moderating some alcohol consumption. What we’re finding is 90% of NA drinkers actually drink alcohol. It’s just that they’re supplementing their social activities with some nonalcoholic options. That seemed like a natural segue from a brand standpoint, from a product standpoint, so that was exciting. The data is backing it up. It’s grown over 125% over the last four years, and that means there’s opportunity there. So we’re going to see what we can do there. We believe that we’re on a path where we can make some world-class products that hopefully people enjoy.

Looking down the road, you said that you would like to be part of Portland’s recovery story. What are some of the other things that you’re looking at, like when you think five or 10 years out?

For us, we still have room to grow within the Portland metro area, so we will continue to expand where it makes sense, particularly on the deeper West Side, as well as statewide. Oregon is a big state. We’re Portland-based but, you know, we’re Oregonian-focused. So we will look at other opportunities to continue to grow within Oregon. Our distributor, Columbia Distributing, has a strong presence in both Oregon and Washington. Washington is obviously a logical location or state for us to spend more time in and continue to develop, but really we’re just looking to expand the portfolio, drill deeper into the markets that we’re currently in right now. And then we’re taking on fun projects as we go. 

Anything else you want to add?

We’re just really appreciative and humbled by the award. It’s been a lot of hard work. Fourteen years, the last couple years in particular, and to get some recognition at this level, it’s really special. It’s not just about me or the founders, it’s about our team, and everything we’ve been through. And, you know, this is for the state of Oregon: They will be selecting the SBA Business of the Year, the National recipient at the end of April, and I’m gonna be able to go out and have the honor to represent our company as well as Oregon, in Washington, DC. At the end of April, early May, and maybe with a little bit of luck, we’re able to win the national award.

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