Brewed Bold at Labatt

Labatt’s former legal counsel Matthew Lawless took risks while at the beer brewer and now uses his gutsy attitude as his guide at Maple Leaf Sports + Entertainment

Photo by Todd Duncan

Add “movie producing” to the running list of perks of working for a beer maker—at least if you’re Matthew Lawless, former legal counsel for Labatt Brewing Company. During his five-year stint with the producer of one of the world’s best-selling Canadian beers, Lawless split his time between his everyday legal duties and reading scripts as a coleader behind the brewery’s Digi Award-winning The Movie Out Here. His work on the unique film/marketing product raised his profile, and his work beyond it helped him land his new position with Maple Leaf Sports + Entertainment (MLSE).

“My grandfather, who was a lawyer, was a very influential figure in my life and certainly played into my decision to go into law. Also, when I got to the end of undergrad, I realized that the breadth of my knowledge from my science degree wasn’t enough to explore the world the way I wanted. I felt that a legal education would help me round out my understanding of how things worked, and hoped that it’d be a road into the sports-entertainment world I always wanted to work in.”

While initially brought on to Labatt to handle much of its sponsorship work—a majority of it in the sports and entertainment industry—Lawless saw his responsibilities grow exponentially during his tenure. Everything from tax-planning meetings to corporate governance, compliance, regulatory, and finance work fell under his supervision, and eventually he spent a good portion of his time conducting strategic and project-planning work for the brewer.

Labatt can be a demanding work environment, but Lawless didn’t want it any other way. “Labatt’s culture has really set the company apart,” he says. “It’s the fast pace and the drive for success of each employee that is its differentiating factor.” The company’s emphasis on results trickles down into how it recruits and promotes its employees, even the relatively young ones, and in fact, Labatt’s vice president of finance is only in his early 30s. “If you bring in results, the meritocracy kicks in,” Lawless says. It also doesn’t hurt that Labatt’s parent company, AB InBev, owns more than 200 of the world’s top beer brands, giving the Canadian brewer a great portfolio to work with.

Looking after one of those brands, British Columbia-based Kokanee, was part of the scope of Lawless’s responsibilities. In 2012, along with ad agency Grip Limited, Labatt sought to use Kokanee’s more than $1 million advertising budget on one big idea. That idea turned into “let’s make a movie.” Lawless and Labatt’s Kokanee brand manager embraced the risk of creating a film—something Lawless had no experience doing—because not only would it stand out but also it could be paired with a 360-degree marketing campaign.

“Because that project was such a risky proposition, a lot of people took a step back and allowed the few of us who were really on the front line to take on most of it and see if we could make it work,” Lawless says. Over the course of a year, Lawless met with directors and distributors, gave notes on first cuts, and of course worked on the various legal aspects of getting the film from concept to theatres. But a chance to work directly in the entertainment industry made the long hours worth it. The film was eventually screened in 33 theatres after premiering at the Whistler Film Festival, and from an industry perspective, it was a rousing success, snagging two Gold Lions in France at the Cannes Lions festival for branded content as well as a Digi Award back in Canada.

“Labatt taught me not to be afraid to dream big or to stretch myself by taking on the risky propositions.”

Though the work wasn’t as glamorous, Lawless also had a hand in Labatt’s reorganization into a limited partnership and in the closing of the company’s Lakeport Hamilton brewery. And, on the sponsorship side, he was the legal lead on the team that landed Labatt’s partnership with the Vancouver Canucks, the Calgary Flames, and the Winnipeg Jets. The deal led to the creation of the Budweiser Red Light, a Wi-Fi-enabled bulb that brings the excitement of a hockey goal scored into the comfort of the home.

Dealing with more sports teams, including the Toronto FC, put Lawless in contact with Peter Miller, chief legal and development officer at MLSE, whose insights about the business of sports piqued Miller’s interest. Two years after their initial interactions, Lawless received a phone call from a recruiter that eventually led to a role on Miller’s team.

“Realistically, there aren’t many companies I would have left Labatt for, [but] the sports side of things was always lingering in the back of my brain,” Lawless says. “Labatt really is a great place to work, but it was important to take the time to slow down and identify what it is I wanted and not to be afraid to go after it. Labatt taught me not to be afraid to dream big or to stretch myself by taking on the risky propositions.”

Matthew Lawless on his future with MLSE

“I loved Labatt, but I do feel like I’ve landed my dream job. I’ve been lucky that the road’s been fairly straightforward. I’m only a few months in at MLSE, but I’m already doing interesting work in connection with the proposed BMO Field expansion and on some exciting corporate partnership deals. For now, it’s about learning; I’m at an organization where I can establish myself, make a career, and grow in the legal team.

I report directly to Peter Miller. Although we don’t have a huge legal team, I really feel that we have a solid group that connects and works well together. There’s more than enough work to go around, and there are a lot of really big projects brewing—pun intended.”