Columbus, Ohio USA
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Mary MacDonald: Her Year in Beer
And all that came before
By Karen Edwards
October 2014 Issue

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Mary MacDonald, executive director of the Ohio Craft Brewers Association, was behind the creation of the North Market’s highly successful Columbus Microbrew Festival that began in 2006. She brings her expertise and love of local beer to her new position and has already more than doubled the association’s membership.

Charmed. How else would you describe someone who slips into some of the best jobs in the city – and does so with glowing success? Who has sisters living on both coasts so vacations to Boston and California’s Bay area are easily-managed affairs? Who has not only been a part of the Short North community for the better part of a decade and more, but who has also helped to shape the Short North into its current rock-star status?

Mary MacDonald – known in the past as Mary Martineau until she recovered her maiden name and proud Irish heritage after a divorce – has been (in order) a Short North gallery owner, the executive director of the Short North Business Association, marketing director of the North Market, and now the first executive director of the burgeoning Ohio Craft Brewers Association. Somewhere in there, she also served a short stint with the Economic Community Development Institute, the Columbus-based organization that help small businesses with their business plans.

But if there is a common theme running through MacDonald’s illustrious career, to date, it can be summed up in another short word – Passion. That’s the word David Wible, former executive director of the North Market, would use to describe MacDonald.

“She’s a tireless, passionate advocate for whatever group she may be working for. She has a unique enthusiasm you don’t often see,” he says.

“I’ve been a small business owner and I have a passion for people who run small businesses,” MacDonald says. Whether that small business is a Short North boutique, a food purveyor or an independent craft brewer doesn’t matter. Their needs are often the same, and that’s what drives MacDonald to pursue the work she has. “I like working for and with entrepreneurs, helping them shape their dreams, and becoming a part of their creative process.”

MacDonald’s trajectory through jobs makes sense to anyone paying attention.

When she owned Transformations, her Short North gallery at Second and High, where she painted and repurposed furniture long before it was trendy to do so, she came to know many of the business owners in the neighborhood.

“I first met Mary at Transformations,” says Bob Mangia, a neighbor of MacDonald’s in Harrison West. “I donated some furniture to her that I couldn’t use, because I knew Mary would appreciate it and turn it into something that others would appreciate as well.”

It’s a side of MacDonald that’s not often on display, he says. “She has a creative side that I don’t know many people know about. They see her business side, but the artist is there.”

And it was as an artist and gallery owner that MacDonald became involved with the Short North Business Association. When the group needed a new executive director, MacDonald was named the association’s interim director while a search was mounted. As it turns out, no one was a better fit for the job, the SNBA board determined, and after six months of looking, MacDonald was named the group’s executive director.

“Mary grew membership,” says Joe Spinelli, owner of Spinelli’s Deli. “She recruited me.”

Dynamic. That’s the word Spinelli would use to describe MacDonald.

“When I think of Mary, I think of her red hair, that big smile and her inclusive personality.”

He remembers the day MacDonald walked in his shop. “She said ‘I know you’re not on High Street, but you’re a part of the Short North, and we’d like to have your input in our association.’”

Her inclusiveness, says Spinelli, is why the SNBA became a larger organization under her leadership. What kept the group going, however, was MacDonald herself.

“Mary is self-motivated,” says Spinelli. “It takes a lot of self-motivation to be a one-man band the way she was. She was in charge of everything, from recruiting to bookkeeping to taking calls from members.” It’s a lot of balls to keep in the air, but MacDonald did it with grace. “I was impressed,” says Spinelli.

MacDonald held the SNBA position for three years, then left for a six-month stint (“A blip in the radar,” says MacDonald) with the Economic Community Development Institute.

At that time, though the North Market began to search for a marketing director. MacDonald had been a member of the North Market’s board of directors for years – since her time with the SNBA – so when the market’s then executive director, David Wible, came knocking at MacDonald’s door to see if she might be interested in the job, the response was an easy “yes” for MacDonald.

“I love the North Market,” she says. “I loved that job.”

Mary resting with Bogart at the Side by Side Park near her home in Harrison West.

There’s no doubt the North Market loved her, especially Wible. “She’s a great team member and she has the ability to get things done,” he says – a singular talent that’s often missing in today’s workplace, he points out. But it was more than managing a job to completion, Wible says. “She could take your idea and enhance it, make it better.” He credits her for a number of successes, including the Ohio Wine Festival, the strong corps of volunteers she built, and for creating and growing the Columbus Microbrew Festival.

MacDonald started the North Market marketing job in 2005. A year later, the now annual microbrew festival was up and running.

Efficient. That’s the word Mangia would use to describe MacDonald. Like Wible, he admires MacDonald’s ability to complete projects, no matter how large or small. “She takes on a job and sees it through. She’s efficient and detail oriented. She gets things done.”

It’s dedication like that that gets a micro-brew festival off the ground.

“We wanted to build off the success of the Ohio Wine Festival,” MacDonald says. The Wine Festival had proven itself to be the North Market’s most popular event, so why wouldn’t a beer festival be just as successful, she asked.

“We had the Columbus Brewing Company, Elevator Brewing and Hoster’s all in the area, and when I talked with them about creating a microbrew festival, they were all on board.”

As it turns out, so was the city. While Columbus has its share of wine drinkers, there are plenty of people here who drink beer, so it should surprise no one that the first festival drew 5,000 people.

“For the first six years, it was an outdoor event,” MacDonald says. The crowds would have been overwhelming otherwise, but over the last two years, the festival has become an indoor-outdoor celebration with microbreweries from all over the state participating.

Can you see the thread? What had been a Columbus microbrew event became one that breweries from all over Ohio participate in. And MacDonald was building relationships with all of those state breweries.

Focused. That’s the word Eric Bean, president of the Ohio Craft Brewers Association uses to describe his friend and the association’s new executive director.

“Mary is focused, and she helps us to focus as an association,” Bean says.

Around 2012, Bean and some of the state’s brewers began to toss around the idea of hiring an executive director for their seven-year-old association. It was just an idea until Bean asked MacDonald to sit down with him and work out details of how such a position would work, and what kind of qualities would be needed by someone in charge.

Because of MacDonald’s work with the SNBA, the ECDI, and her overall expertise, she helped Bean put together not only a list of credentials for applicants but also a mission statement for the organization. By the time Bean and MacDonald were done, there seemed to be only one person for the job – MacDonald herself.

“I tried to step away from the decision,” says Bean. “Mary is my friend, and I didn’t want to look like I was influencing the choice.”

But apparently the association’s members also saw the value in hiring MacDonald as their first executive. She was offered the position.

For MacDonald, though, it was an agonizing choice. “I had eight years in at a job I loved. I was paid well, received regular merit increases, I had good benefits. And I would risk all of that because you don’t know, with a new association, if it will fly, or if it did, how quickly. I had bills to pay.”

But behind every risk is opportunity – and MacDonald could see the advantages of coming in on the ground floor of a new state association, of guiding its growth and direction. And suddenly, there was that passion.

“I was ready for a new challenge,” MacDonald says. “I was excited by the idea of taking a fledgling organization to the next level in terms of having more structure and organization.” MacDonald took the risk and accepted the job.

One of the first things she did once in place was to locate every brewery in the state and create a database that would enable her to communicate with brewery owners.

(LtoR) Colin Vent, head brewer at Seventh Son Brewing Co. in the Short North, with Mary MacDonald, her beloved Bogart, and Seventh Son assistant brewer Max Lachowyn.

Next was creating a pathway the group would take over the next three to five years. She was happy to guide the association, but the direction would be a member decision, not hers. “We conducted a survey with members to help us create a strategic plan,” says MacDonald.

With the plan in place, MacDonald has turned to creating visibility for the group. She has put out a request-for-proposal for a branding campaign. She helped launch On Tap, the association’s magazine which is distributed at breweries across the state.

Meanwhile, MacDonald also organizes events, both for the public and for members.

“In March, we held Winter Warmer, one of our signature events,” she says. MacDonald has also organized a reception with Ohio House and Senate leaders and joined in the annual Hill Climb sponsored by the national Brewers Association, which brought brewer-members to the Washington, D.C., offices of U.S. Senators Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown.

“We wanted to tell them about the impact of the industry on Ohio,” says MacDonald. “Craft brewers are a thriving manufacturing industry here at a time when manufacturing is declining in the state.”

Spoken like a true lobbyist, although MacDonald is new to the job. “I am registered as a lobbyist,” she says. But she’s still getting her feet wet in this area.

Still, there is so much to do on the job, and lobbying is just one part of it.

MacDonald works each day from a home office. “I take a run with my dog (Bogart, a mixed breed), then I’m at my computer by 8 a.m.,” she says. “I generally have a to-do list of what I need to accomplish that day, so I start down the list.”

She may work on a comprehensive event plan, answer questions from members, or refer them to sources if they have a question about state regulations. She may work on an agenda for next year’s Ohio Craft Brewers’ conference or write an article for On Tap.

She may work on recruiting.

“She has more than doubled our membership,” says Bean.

That’s because MacDonald spends time driving twice a month to new breweries around the state or ones which aren’t yet members and introducing herself. She talks to them about the association and what it can do for them.

She’s also created new memberships so that enthusiasts, home brewers, even those working on the periphery of the craft beer industry can become members. There’s that inclusive personality showing itself again.

In addition, MacDonald hosts members of the national brewery association when they’re in town; she attends committee meetings, board meetings, and quarterly membership meetings.

You’d think there is no time for MacDonald to relax – yet she does. Maybe not the way you and I would relax. For example, she has taken on the job of secretary for the Harrison West Society.

“I’m so accustomed to taking notes at board meetings and other meetings that it’s not really a big deal to serve as secretary,” says MacDonald. It’s something she feels is important to her.

“I’ve always wanted to take an active role in my community,” she says. When she lived in Victorian Village, she was a part of the Victorian Village Society. Now, she’s a part of Harrison West. But her participation in the neighborhood is more than taking notes.

Mangia recalls the night he brought home his new puppy, a mixed breed he rescued from the humane society shelter.

“I let all the neighbors know our puppy was home. Mary was right there. She got down on the floor because she said when you play with a puppy, you have to get down to the puppy’s level. She’s like that. She’s such a good neighbor.”

It’s that willingness to meet other’s needs (even a puppy’s) that has endeared MacDonald to her colleagues – no matter what job she takes on.

MacDonald has no plans to move on from her present position. She’s enjoying herself, and she says any job deserves a minimum five-year commitment. “I want to continue to engage the brewers, to bring them into the association and give them value for their membership. I want to increase our representation with the legislature and increase our marketing opportunities with a cohesive brand that becomes known all over the state.”

Ambitious. That might be another word to describe MacDonald, but it’s not ambition in terms of moving herself forward. It’s ambition for the small entrepreneurs she has always represented.

If MacDonald were to move on for herself – to choose any job in the world she wanted – she says she’d be a U.S. ambassador, preferably to Ireland.

It wouldn’t surprise anyone who has ever known or worked with MacDonald that one day we’ll all see her in that post. Of course, then, they’ll be no denying it. We’ll all know MacDonald has been truly –


© 2014 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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