British Columbia

Beer pioneer who turned struggling B.C. brewery into global exporter dies aged 70

Kazuko Komatsu, president and CEO of Prince George's Pacific Western Brewing, has died, the company said Monday.

Kazuko Komatsu reversed fortunes of Pacific Western Brewing after buying it in 1991

Pacific Western Brewing president and CEO Kazuko Komatsu has died of cancer at the age of 70. (Pacific Western Brewing)

Kazuko Komatsu, the president and CEO of B.C.'s largest independent brewery, has died of cancer, Pacific Western Brewing said Monday. She was 70.

Komatsu is being remembered for her pioneering spirit as the first Japanese-Canadian and one of the first women to own a brewery in Canada, after she purchased Prince George's struggling Pacific Western in 1991 and developed new markets for its beer at home and abroad.

Born in Japan to a family of sake manufacturers, Komatsu moved to Canada in 1975 to develop products for export back to her home country.

She saw an opportunity in Pacific Western Brewing, particularly its use of natural spring water from an underground aquifer connected to the Nechako River, which she turned into a major selling point for uniqueness and quality.

Komatsu gave to numerous charitable organizations, with a particular focus on environmental protection and rehabilitation in B.C. (Pacific Western Brewing)

Though the brewery was near bankruptcy, she quickly turned business around by focusing on obtaining certification from the International Organization for Standardization — a global benchmark of quality — something she told employees would be essential to break into Asian and European markets.

New beer markets

By 1996, Pacific Western was the world's third-largest exporter of beer to Japan — behind Heineken and Budweiser — thanks in part to a deal to supply a lager to roughly 400 Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in that country.

Komatsu also worked to develop markets not previously tapped by Canadian beer-makers, with Pacific Western breaking new ground for the nation's beer in China in 1991, then in Russia in 1996.

In 2015, she estimated about half her brewery's profits came from foreign markets. Pacific Western remains B.C.'s largest independent brewery.

Based in Metro Vancouver, Komatsu received numerous accolades including the Order of British Columbia and an Entrepreneur Award from the Federal Business Development Bank. In 2015, she was named one of the province's most influential women by B.C. Business magazine.

'Her employees she considered her best asset'

Long-time brewery manager Tom Leboe said he is certain that Pacific Western, which traces its history back to 1957, would no longer exist if not for Komatsu.

"The brewery had been in dire straits," he recalled of business in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the brewery's previous owners had plans to shut down operations.

One of Pacific Western Brewing's signature beers is Canterbury Dark Mild, which, like the brewery's other brands, advertises the pure spring water used to make it. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Leboe and some other employees were trying to get financing to buy the brewery themselves when he received a call from Komatsu saying she was considering the purchase.

"She said if we were going to do it, she wouldn't bother," he said. "I said, no, Kazuko, please buy it."

Leboe said it was that sort of respect that won her his loyalty and that of others at the company — a loyalty she returned.

"Her employees she considered her best asset," he said.

Pacific Western manager Tom Leboe says the brewery would almost definitely have shut down had Komatsu not bought in 1991. (Wil Funda/CBC)

She also focused on charity, donating fresh water from the brewery during emergencies such as the 2017 wildfires and supporting salmon rehabilitation and tree-planting programs around Prince George.

"I care about the environment. You are living in the environment as part of it. You must give back to it. The environment and people should embrace each other," she told B.C. Business.

Leboe said plans are underway for memorials in Vancouver and Prince George.

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