You don't have to sell the charms of small-town New Brunswick to Sawyer Hannay.
But Hannay, who was born and raised in the tiny village of Rexton, is pretty good at selling the charms of small-town New Brunswick to the world. And on Thursday night, that earned his Rexton-based business, Country Liberty, a $150,000 vote of confidence from the business titans on Dragons' Den.
Hannay, 28, started his business — a line of casual, outdoors-inspired clothing — when he was still in university. He had already travelled extensively, having been drafted to the NHL for the Vancouver Canucks, and the more he travelled, the more he realized what a gem his hometown was.
"I grew really proud of the place I was from," he said. "I wanted to represent that pride somehow, and I knew the easiest way to do that was to wear it."
He started Country Liberty as a "passion project," ordering 12 T-shirts and putting the Country Liberty logo on them.
"All I was hoping for was to make my money back on the shirts," he said. "But it just took off from there."
Rexton a key ingredient to his success
The Country Liberty brand has since grown to include a line of wine made by a local winery and rustic Liberty Village rental cabins on the Richibucto River, all of it promoted on social media sites that lean heavily on New Brunswick's natural beauty as a backdrop for almost every photo.
It's all part of the expanding lifestyle experience Hannay is pitching, and Rexton, with its sprawling, unspoiled vistas, is a key ingredient to its success.
"People love the vastness and the outdoorsy nature of it," he said. "It's what I grew up with, we grew up barefoot and running wild on tons of land, with beaches and a river nearby … and I know now how fortunate we were."
Hannay has been steadily growing the company's market, leveraging social media and websites and strategic collaborations with big-name brands (a recent Coors ad features a group of young adults wearing Country Liberty T-shirts) and says with tools like this, running a business from a village on the outer reaches of the country is completely doable.
There are some cons — operating from a rural location means higher delivery costs, for example — but basically, he said, "as long as I have my phone and my laptop, I can run the business from anywhere."
But extra investment funding never hurts.
Earlier this year, he made the trek to Saint John to try for the regional qualifying pitch for Dragons' Den and made the cut.
N.B. shoutouts on Dragons' Den
On Thursday, the episode featuring Hannay aired. Wearing one of his own lumberjack-plaid jackets, he sold his rural brand on a Toronto-based film production set, and there were New Brunswick shoutouts aplenty.
"I told them New Brunswick was my inspiration," Hannay said.
Not all the Dragons were on board with his pitch. Some thought it was "too distracted," that he should narrow the scope and just focus on clothes.
But Arlene Dickinson, an eight-season Dragons' veteran and one of Canada's leading entrepreneurs, leaned in.
At first, she said, she too thought it was "too distracted," with clothes, blankets, rental cabins, wines.
"And then I started thinking about small-town New Brunswick," Dickinson said. "And the fact that you said most of your customers are existing customers and repeat customers. I think the community you're building and the way you're building it is incredibly smart. Especially where you're doing it from."
The bottom line? Hannay got the $150,000 backing, and left the show pumping his fist in the air.
Sharing accolades with his home province
On Friday, an elated Hannay said he'll meet with his team to decide how best to focus that money, but bolstering his social media reach will be a key part of it.
Representing New Brunswick will be a key part of it as well.
By early Friday afternoon, Hannay was just scratching the surface of the waves of congratulatory messages that have come in, many from New Brunswickers who watched the show and said he "made New Brunswick proud."
For Hannay, sharing the accolades with his home province is only fitting.
"I'm so proud of where I live," he said. "I've travelled so many places, and I learned that this is a very special place. And I'm thrilled to be able to get others to see that it's a special place, too."