Business

Spotlight: Former Music Exec Scott Francis Got Into the Beer Biz and Turned Santa Monica Brew Works Into a Word-of-Mouth Success

Scott Francis
Jason Flynn

Scott Francis

"There are no secret and we're completely transparent in what we do. That's how I like to live my life and that's what I want this business to be.”

Back in August, Santa Monica Brew Works announced a major company milestone: the sale of its 1 millionth can of beer. In the parlance of owner Scott Francis’ former industry, you could say the Los Angeles-based brewery went platinum.

“I thought about it a lot like music in the beginning -- like all the beers were our artists and I had to distribute our beer outside a brewery,” says Francis, a former music attorney and publishing executive, during a tour of the company’s Santa Monica headquarters. “So it started to feel a little bit [like] second nature.”

Located along a stretch of Colorado Avenue in Santa Monica, California, the 14,500-square-foot Brew Works headquarters includes a spacious tasting room in the front and a full production brewery in the back, where rows of towering silver fermentation tanks dominate the space. Francis -- who literally walks through the process of production, from milling the grain to canning the finished product -- takes pride in the fact that the beer is made on site.

“The one thing we are at Santa Monica Brew Works is authentic,” he says. “We make our beer in Santa Monica -- you get to actually see what we're doing. There are no secrets and we're completely transparent in what we do. That's how I like to live my life and that's what I want this business to be.”

At the height of his career in music, Francis rose to the upper echelons of the industry’s executive ranks. Beginning as an attorney in private practice, he worked with artists such as Moby and The CarsRic Ocasek and record labels including Atlantic and Elektra. From there, he pivoted to a series of high-level positions in publishing, including vp business and legal affairs at Sony/ATV, president of BMG Songs in North America and finally president of Warner/Chappell Music and chairman/CEO of Warner Chappell Music U.S. But when Warner Music Group was sold to Access Industries in 2011, Francis lost his job and embraced his freedom to chart a new course.

“At that point in time, I had been in the music business for like 20 years,” he says. “And I just wanted to do something different.”

In the beginning, that “something different” never entailed the beer business; in fact, Francis initially set out to start a vegan fast-casual restaurant. But after Francis' lifelong family friend, longtime comedy and live performance agent Richard Super (now at The Gersh Agency), set up a meeting between he and Carl Sharpley -- a former bar manager/bartender at the Santa Monica pub Ye Olde King’s Head -- he decided to change course.

“People would come into [Carl’s] bar all the time and say, ‘What’s your local beer?’” Francis says. “After hearing that a thousand times, a light bulb went off above his head and he was like, ‘There should be a local beer in Santa Monica.’ So we met and I said to the two of them, ‘Let me help you.’ And helping them, I ended up being fully invested in the business.”

Suddenly committed to making his name in the beer industry, Francis forged ahead, raising funds from investors (in addition to contributing a large chunk of his own money). But the biggest hurdle came in convincing the City of Santa Monica to allow the brewery in the first place.

“When I originally went to them, they said, 'There's no way we're letting you build a brewery. Other people have tried, we're not letting you do it,’” Francis says. But after a period of tussling, his background as a lawyer ultimately proved a helpful selling point. “I'm like, 'No, no, no, I'm not like some other guy, [I'm] a law-abiding guy, I'm an attorney. I don't want to make any trouble for you, but this is a great idea and here's why.’”

Located in a building that previously served as the headquarters of now-defunct Santa Monica newspaper The Outlook, Santa Monica Brew Works opened in June 2014 as a 9,300 square foot production brewery before a 5,200 square foot public tasting room was added in September 2016. Today, five of its beers -- the bestselling 310 California Blonde Ale, Inclined IPA, Modern Witbier, Xtra Pale Ale and Pale Chocolate Heaven (PCH) -- are available to buy at more than 1,250 retail outlets, bars, restaurants, hotels and event centers, including Dodger Stadium, Angel Stadium, the Hollywood Bowl, Whole Foods, Ralphs and Costco. Visitors to the tasting room (where Sharpley runs operations) can also sample up to 25 perennial and seasonal flavors, including varieties like Chili Pepper Pale Ale, Cucumber Kolsch and Buffalo Ninja Bourbon Barrel Aged Stout.  

More than five years after opening for business, Francis says the brewery -- which sold approximately 6,000 barrels in 2018 -- is on a steady upward trajectory based almost entirely on word of mouth. In addition to expanding into Nevada in September, they are now in the approvals process for a nearly 20,000-square-foot expansion that will include a new, larger brewery expected to increase production capacity from 9,500 to 29,000 barrels per year; a restaurant that Francis teases will be the first Southern California location of a “well-known, existing” brand; the installation of a second bar and additional seating in the tasting room; and an outdoor beer garden with seating for more than 100 additional customers on weekends.

Francis says the expansion has been gradual by design and influenced by his years in music, when he derived more satisfaction from word-of-mouth success than marketing-driven smashes. “I always liked when a single would rise up the charts in a very slow way instead of exploding out of the gate,” he says. “And that's how I always saw [the beer] business. Because if you do it that way, you can create a greater base. And then when you get successful, you stay successful. You just don't come in and knock everybody off their feet and then disappear.”

Santa Monica Brew Works offers Francis satisfaction on another front: unlike the jobs he held in music, it’s provided him the opportunity to build something from scratch. “I had always taken things that existed and made them better, but I never created something from nothing,” he says. “This would give me the opportunity to do that. And also, I wanted to walk the tightrope a little bit. Everything I did here was for the first time.”

Though Francis’s commitment to building a career in music ended when he left Warner/Chappell in 2011, he hasn’t turned his back on the industry entirely. In 2015, Beyoncé brought him on to help re-organize and grow her Parkwood Entertainment production company and he still provides guidance on occasion for friends who remain in the business. And he looks back fondly on his years in music, noting he would be open to returning if the “right thing” comes along.

In the meantime, Santa Monica Brew Works brings Francis into close physical proximity with many of his former music peers. Located directly across the street are the Santa Monica offices of Universal Music Group, whose executives occasionally request the use of the tasting room in its off-hours for client meetings. In a bit of happenstance, the brewery is also located next door to Francis’s former office at Sony/ATV, which has since moved. “When I was shown this building, they said, 'This is pretty much the only building you can build a brewery in,’” Francis says. “And it was across the street from where I'd worked before.”

For someone who spent so long cultivating a career in music, Francis says old acquaintances are occasionally bewildered when they learn about his new line of work. But at its core, the leap from music to beer isn’t so great.

“It's about providing a product for people that makes them happy,” he says. “It takes their mind off the everyday concerns that they have with going through life. And so I think that's why it makes sense.“

SPOTLIGHT:

What's changed is everything.  Nothing stays the same.  If you don’t embrace or anticipate change, you will be left behind.  

It was always obvious to me that everything you put out in the world will come back to you tenfold.  The world is a reflection of what you offer it.  Work hard, be kind to everyone, exhibit loyalty, smile, have compassion and be passionate about everything you do.

Something most people don't understand is that’s it’s more important to surround yourself with people that complement you -- not compliment you.  It’s important to work with people whose strengths are different than yours.  Ultimately that will result in great personal and business success for everyone.

What I've never understood is why many music executives think they are the focal point or stars of the business.  They are not.  The industry is driven by artists, songwriters, producers and musicians.  Everyone else in the business exists to serve the creators of music.  It’s as simple as that.    

A good idea is simply not good enough.  You have to turn that idea into reality.   The ability to execute on an idea is what makes people successful.  They know how to take that idea from start to finish with passion and belief, maneuver through the highs and lows and be nimble.

Matt Forero 
The tasting room at Santa Monica Brew Works.

Spotlight is a Billboard.biz series that aims to highlight those in the music business making innovative or creative moves, or who are succeeding in behind-the-scenes or under-the-radar roles. For submissions for the series, please contact spotlight@billboard.com.