How to Start a Distillery in Ontario

Here’s an article that’s been a long time coming. On top of my law practice, I’m also a founder of Last Straw Distillery, an award-winning micro-distillery near Toronto, Ontario. I started out as the company’s lawyer, and as with any small business, that role has slowly expanded to a litany of other tasks…. But the lawyer role remains central. I’ve also helped several other alcohol producers through the business startup and licensing process, so the contents of this article are hard-won knowledge. It’s a long read, but it’s a no bullshit assessment of the challenges you’ll face in getting your distillery off the ground.

The first thing you need to know about distilling is that it’s heavily regulated. The laws on spirits are even more dense and difficult to navigate than the regulations on beer or wine. This is, of course, because in the inestimable wisdom of successive governments since the end of prohibition, spirits are evil. For some strange reason (probably at the behest of the beer lobby), some Scottish Presbyterian politician in Ontario decided that the ethyl alcohol in hard liquor should be treated differently than the ethyl alcohol in wine and beer.

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Much like we’re seeing right now with the legalization of marijuana in Ontario, the laws are written by and for established, well-connected, well-funded big businesses. The time, expense, and expensive advice involved in navigating the system are designed to limit competition. For spirits, the government at the end of prohibition wrote the rules in a way that would make it difficult and expensive to start and run a distillery, and impossible to start on a small scale. As a result, Ontario had only a handful of big distilleries for nearly 80 years. It’s only recently that a few dedicated masochists set out to buck the trend. Through their dedicated efforts, some of the barriers to entry were lowered (slightly), and the Ontario distilling renaissance began.

I’m writing this article as an overview of the major steps involved in starting a distillery in Ontario, Canada. I imagine that most of the steps are mirrored in many other jurisdictions, but the nuances of the regulations will differ. As with any business, you certainly don’t need a lawyer to help you get it started, but a good lawyer will reduce the time from startup to sale, and deal with a lot of the headaches that can come from dealing with five or six different government departments at once.

Let’s get started.

Division of Powers

Booze has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the few market sectors that is regulated by Federal, Provincial, and municipal governments. Technically, municipal governments are a subset of the Province, but practically speaking, it’s another layer you’ll have to deal with.

The Federal government’s primary concern with alcohol regulation is tax. As a luxury item, spirits are subject to Federal tax under the Excise Act. This tax accrues from the moment a drop of alcohol is manufactured, but only becomes payable when the alcohol is sold. More on this later. The Federal government also regulates the production, and labeling of spirits through the Food and Drugs Act and its Regulations, Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act, Consumer Packaging and Labelling Regulations, and the Spirit Drinks Trade Act. Oh, and if you’re thinking about selling your products internationally, the Federal government also regulates and licenses cross-border trade, where a different set of taxes and fees apply, on top of those imposed by the jurisdiction you’re exporting to.

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If that bundle of joy isn’t enough for you, the control of liquor is the responsibility of the Province. The Ontario government has created the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) to control the production and sale of spirits in Ontario. The AGCO then created the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), which has an absolute monopoly on spirits sales in Ontario. The AGCO implements government policy on spirits through the Alcohol and Gaming Regulation and Public Protection Act, the Liquor Control Act, and the Liquor License Act. As a manufacturing business, you’re also subject to the rules of the Electrical Safety Authority under the Electricity Act, as well as Ontario’s Building Code and Fire Code.

Lastly, as with any business, spirits producers are subject to the planning and zoning regulations of the municipality you’re in. In some municipalities, there’s a double layer of government – at the regional and town level.

Perhaps the worst part of working through the byzantine maze of regulations are the odd ways in which they interact. As I mentioned, the system was not developed with ease of navigation in mind, and there’s no clear, direct path through them. It’s common for applications to be caught in a Catch-22 of two levels of government refusing to process your application any further without the approval of the other coming first. In my experience, different offices of the same government branch interpret the exact same rules differently (and sometimes incorrectly), and impose different requirements. It takes time and patience to work through these things. Budget at least six months, or more realistically one year to work your way through this stuff. When I say budget, I mean both time and money – as you’ll be spending money on rent for a space you’re not allowed to use while your applications are in progress.

Now that you’re scared, let’s walk you through what it takes to get from idea to open for business.

Form of business

Distilleries can be any form of business, but if you don’t incorporate it, you’re a dumbass. When setting up your corporate structure, two factors will be relevant to the government:

  • Who controls the corporation; and
  • Who are directors, officers, or holders of at least 10% of any class of shares

Control comes into play in two ways. First, the government wants to know if the applicant is controlled by a company that is already licensed to produce spirits. Each distillery with a Provincial license is allowed one bottle shop at its distillery. An existing manufacturer can invest in starting another distillery, but special permission is required to open a bottle shop at the second distillery. Once you have that special permission, you can sell some products from the first distillery at the second one, but not the other way around. Weird, right?

Secondly, and most importantly, the government wants to know who are directors and officers of the business, and who owns 10% or more of any class of shares of the corporation. Because spirits are evil, the government wants to make sure that the people who own and operate distilleries are at least 19 years old, financially responsible, and of good character. If you own your shares through a holding company, you have to disclose the ownership and management of that holding company, and so on.

In my experience, simplicity in the way you structure the business helps a great deal. The folks reviewing your applications at the CRA and AGCO are not lawyers, and don’t understand the finer points of business ownership. If they see something they don’t understand, they’ll flag it, and get legal advice before proceeding. This, of course, takes time. The more complicated your ownership structure, the longer your application will take.

Zoning & Planning

This is probably the biggest, and most unexpected pain in the ass of the whole process, and where your lawyer will earn their keep. It is absolutely essential that you choose a location that will allow your business model to operate. Because distilleries are still relatively rare when compared to breweries and wineries, most municipalities don’t know how to deal with you. When in doubt, town planners and town councils will err on the side of what will get the municipality the most revenue in development fees. If you ask the municipality whether or not a distillery is allowed, you’ll probably end up paying to play. The only thing you actually need the municipality to do is to sign off on your bottle shop. Some municipalities may require a business license before you can set up shop, but most don’t.

Once you know where you want to start your distillery, and before you start searching for properties, get your lawyer to review that municipality’s planning and zoning bylaws, and provide an opinion. The lawyer’s opinion should tell you what zoning in that municipality allows a distillery to operate. The lawyer will also tell you if a variance or zoning change is required in order to operate. Also, believe it or not, some municipalities still have “dry” (no alcohol allowed) or “damp” (retail sales allowed, but not by the glass) neighbourhoods. The status of the neighbourhood may not prevent you from manufacturing, but it can prevent you from selling through a bottle shop, or an on-site bar. Both the CRA and AGCO will consider whether you’re contravening municipal bylaws, and whether your premises comply with the CRA and AGCO’s regulations. The lawyer’s opinion is super valuable in demonstrating that you’ve ticked all of the boxes.

Lastly, before you sign your lease or buy the property, take a good long look at what’s in the area. If any schools, churches, parks or playgrounds, community centres, or libraries are within a one kilometre radius, you may not be allowed to open a bottle shop or on-site bar.

Building/Fire Code

Once you have a location, you have to build it out. Obviously, all of your construction work must be done in accordance with the Ontario Building Code. Make sure that whoever is doing the work knows and complies with that code. Generally, Building and Fire Codes are dictated by the Province, but enforced by the municipality. Fire inspectors can enter anywhere, at any time, and can shut you down on the spot if you’re not in compliance, so don’t cut corners here.

Distilleries in Ontario are considered “High Hazard Industrial Occupancy” under the Fire Code. That means the building can’t also be used for public assemblies, residences, care facilities like hospitals or clinics, or for detention. If the occupancy load of the building is to be more than 25 people, the building requires emergency planning under the Fire Code. The Fire Code rating (F1) triggers specific requirements in the Building Code for fire-resistant barriers and insulation, emergency exits, and the like. It also triggers requirements in the Electrical Act, requiring the sign-off of an Electrical Safety Authority (ESA) inspector.

ESA sign-off is another odd bird. For all the distilleries I’ve helped through the process, I’ve never seen the same standard applied twice. Each inspector seems to interpret the requirements differently. The inspector’s requirements will play into your build-out – ventilation, type of wiring and electrical fixtures, signs, fire suppression systems, and even separating equipment in different fire-resistant rooms, for example. Find an inspector, and get their direction before you start building. Pass that direction on to the person doing the build out work, and make sure they build to that standard.

Lastly, if you’re looking to open an on-site bar, you’ll need the sign off of the Fire Department. Exits, fire suppression, and signage are all things they’ll look at.

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Federal Licensing

Once you’ve got an appropriate space locked down, you can then apply for your Federal licenses. The licenses are tied to the location. You have to occupy/possess the premises before your application will be processed. This means you’re paying rent on a space you can’t use while your applications are being processed – as long as 18 months in some cases.

The Canada Revenue Agency administers the licensing of distilleries under the Excise Tax Act. The licenses are issued for a two year period, and must be renewed. At the time of writing, there are no fees for the federal licenses. There are three key licenses – all of which can be applied for on the same form – which will cover off most things distilleries want to do.

Spirits License

The spirits license is the main one. It’s what permits you to produce or package spirits (beverage alcohol that isn’t wine, and is over 11.9% alcohol – otherwise it’s beer) in Canada, and to possess a still. If you’ve applied for a spirits license, you can possess a still, but can’t operate it. Home distilling is illegal. Without this one, you’re a bootlegger, not a distiller – and you won’t be able to secure any Provincial licenses either.

Excise Warehouse License

If you’re going to be storing spirits – whether in bulk, aging in barrels, or sitting in bottles waiting to be sold – you’ll also need an Excise Warehouse License. This delays the payment of Excise Tax on the spirits until they’re removed from the warehouse.

You will need to post security for the Excise Tax. The amount of security depends primarily on how many litres of absolute alcohol you plan to store in your warehouse. The CRA wants to make sure that even if you go bankrupt, you can still pay your Excise Tax. The minimum is said to be $5,000.00, however the lowest requirement I’ve seen is $10,000.00, and that’s for small distilleries dealing in white spirits – meaning they’re not aging large quantities. If you’re making whisky, rum, brandy, and other aged spirits, plan on posting way more. Security is typically posted by bond (insurance), though you can post negotiable instruments (cash, Canada Savings Bonds, etc) as security as well.

User’s License

The user’s license allows you to transfer bulk alcohol between booze producers of a different type. If you’re planning on buying in bulk alcohol to distill, age, modify, or repackage, you’ll probably need this. I say probably, because different CRA personnel apply the policy differently. You definitely need a user’s license to transfer bulk beer or wine from licensees. You might need a user’s license to buy bulk spirits – such as a neutral grain, or aged whisky for blending. Regardless of what your CRA agent says, some producers won’t transfer bulk spirits to you without seeing your user’s license, so it’s usually a good idea to get this license just in case.

Application

The application process takes anywhere from 3-18 months, depending on your agent, how prepared you are, if there are any issues with the application or the people involved in your business, and how busy the agents are. There are a few parts to the application:

  • L63E license application form
    • This includes details on directors and officers of the business, and will result in a background check on both criminal and financial sides
  • Business plan including:
    • Business industry overview;
    • Operating plan;
    • Human resources plan;
    • Financial plan or sources of funds;
    • Sale and marketing plan;

Your business plan must include 3 year projections of the litres of absolute alcohol you expect to produce, and the amount of what you produce that will be stored in bulk for aging, compared to what you expect to sell. This is what the CRA will use to calculate your security requirements.

You’ll also need to figure out how you’ll post security for the excise. Most distilleries will buy a bond, rather than posting the cash themselves. It’s a monthly expense, but your capital will be more useful elsewhere. The CRA will require the sealed original bond.

Once you’ve submitted the application, the CRA will get in touch with you pretty quickly to start the process. They’ll schedule a site visit, so they can inspect your facility to ensure it’s suitable (they’re primarily concerned with physical security – if someone steals your spirits, they’re stealing tax dollars too!). You don’t have to be fully built out by this point, but you must at least have the premises and a floor plan.

They’ll also confirm that you’ve ordered your still and instruments for measuring alcohol content. Your instruments must be inspected/calibrated by the CRA to ensure they’re accurate, which involves a fee. They may conduct a second site inspection before granting the license.

Once the license is approved, you’re finally able to produce spirits! Crank that still up, and get to work!

Provincial Licensing

Bet you thought the hard part was over. Well, it’s not. While the CRA licenses will allow you to produce and store alcohol, if you want to sell it in Ontario, you’ll need another set of licenses and authorizations from the Provincial government, which are administered by the AGCO.

The Provincial Manufacturer’s License is what allows you to sell spirits in Ontario. It takes about 1-3 months to process, if all goes smoothly, and costs $2,540.00 for 2 years, or $5,040 for 4 years at the time of writing. The application requires:

  • Completed application form
  • Business plan – generally the same one that you used for your CRA license will do, plus:
    • Floor plans for your facility
    • Details on planned sales channels
    • If you’ll be buying in mash, low wines, or bulk spirits from other producers
  • Municipal authorization form
  • Copy of CRA Spirits License
  • Lab test results on at least one product
  • Copy of business name registration
  • Application fee (non-refundable)

The AGCO will schedule a site inspection of your facility. As with the CRA, different agents will focus on different things, and sometimes the agent will waive the site inspection altogether.

Bottle Shop

If you want to operate a retail store on site, then you’ll need a retail store authorization from the AGCO. The AGCO delegates the administration of this to the LCBO. There’s no fee for the application, but you must include:

  • Municipal Information for a Retail Store Authorization form
  • Site plan detailing the production site and the proposed retail store location
  • Floor plan of the proposed retail store including square footage
  • If ownership and control of the production site is shared with any other licensed manufacturer – supplementary documentation demonstrating substantial ownership and control of the production site
  • A copy of each notification letter (if applicable) sent to any place of religious assembly, schools, public parks and playgrounds, community centers or libraries within 1 km of your proposed store location and copies of any responses/objections

If your bottle shop is approved, then you’ll need to sign a non-negotiable contract with the LCBO about how the bottle shop will be operated, and how you’ll pay the Spirits Tax. One of the most time-consuming parts of this contract is waiting for the LCBO to sign it – as only the President of the LCBO signs them, and does so about once a month. Schedule your grand opening accordingly!

Direct Delivery

If you want to deliver directly to bars & restaurants or to duty free shops, you’ll need separate direct delivery authorizations for each. The process is much the same as for a bottle shop, and results in another contract.

There are also separate licenses to sell spirits by the glass, and to operate an on-site bar or restaurant of your own, but we’ll save those for a future article.

Summary

As you can tell, it’s an awfully long and tedious process to get a distillery from the idea stage into operations. The typical timeline is 6-18 months, based largely on factors outside of your control. In my experience, each agent of a regulator that gets its hands on your application views the requirements differently, so there’s often a fair bit of back and forth involved.

TL;DR? Here’s Mikes’ 9 “Simple” Steps to Starting a Distillery in Ontario

  1. Incorporate
  2. Lawyer’s opinion on zoning/planning
  3. Sign lease
  4. Submit CRA license application
  5. Hire ESA inspector, get requirements for buildout
  6. Build
  7. Get CRA licenses, get municipal authorization
  8. Apply for AGCO licenses & authorizations
  9. Profit

Of course, having someone to turn to who’s been through the process before can help to grease the wheels. I’ve helped several distilleries through the startup process, and I’d be happy to help yours too. Drop me an email, and let’s talk!

 

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
http://intrepidlaw.ca

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What’s a cooperative?

There are a lot of different models available to people to set up their businesses, but one of the most underused is the cooperative model. Frankly, I find it odd that so few startups consider using a co-op, given the shift towards people-centric companies, corporate social responsibility, social enterprise, crowdfunding, and the sharing economy. In many ways, co-ops are ideal for these types of ventures, since the primary aim of a cooperative is to benefit its members. It’s up to the members to decide what “benefit” means, so co-ops are often about more than just maximizing profits.

Perhaps unfamiliarity breeds avoidance. The co-operative corporation is an odd beast, and far less common than corporations, partnerships, and proprietorships. A lot of folks don’t even know the co-op exists as an option. Hell, a lot of business lawyers I know have never touched the things, and just gloss it over in the “other” category when talking about business structures. Its weirdness makes it difficult to understand. Co-ops are a mash-up of business and not-for-profit corporations, with partnership-esque decision-making, which are sort of public companies, and report to a separate branch of government than every other business in Ontario.

the-people-dont-know-their-true-power-tc-cartoon-sad-hill-newsIt’s high time we blew the dust off the ol’ girl, and maybe you won’t think co-ops are so weird and scary after all. You might even start to think that your business would do well as a co-op, in which case, we should talk.

There are a LOT of possible variations in co-ops, so I’ll stick to the basics in this article. The goal is to give you an idea of the broad strokes, and I’ll leave the details for later articles. I’m going to talk about:

  • What a co-op is
  • Advantages and disadvantages
  • Types of ownership
  • Types of co-op
  • The basics of financing a co-op, and
  • The basics of decision making

So what is a Co-op Anyway?

Co-operatives are democratically-run businesses governed by those who use their services – their members. Co-ops generally rely on member participation to make the wheels turn. Members pool their money, goods, or services, have a say in decision making, and share in the profits or losses of the co-op’s business. Members can be human people, corporations, and not-for-profits.

cooperative-movementAs we’ll see below, a co-op can be set up with shares, like a business corporation; or without, like a not-for-profit. Co-ops with shares can sell them to members and the general public to raise capital. Co-ops without shares may operate as not-for-profits, and apply for charitable status.

Decision making is one-member, one-vote, so each member has an equal say. Members can be broken down to stakeholder groups, where each group’s votes may be weighted differently, kind of like in a partnership.

Once they reach 35 shareholders or lenders, co-ops become somewhat like a public company, and have to distribute information about the business and its finances to potential investors. The annual financial statements of a co-op must be audited, to ensure that the co-ops accountants are preparing the statements by accounting norms. Ontario co-ops are regulated by the Financial Services Commission of Ontario, rather than the Companies Branch

Advantages

  • Egalitarian – while corporations can allow their stakeholders to participate in ownership through stock option plans and the like, such plans are often carefully controlled to prevent those stakeholders from controlling the company.
  • Democratic – each member has an equal say.
  • Cheaper to set up and run than stock option plans or large partnerships – though the rules governing co-ops can be a bit tedious, many of the rights and responsibilities are written in the law, rather than being custom creations
  • Shared resources – members can get access to more and better equipment or facilities, increased negotiating power when buying/selling, shared marketing costs, etc.
  • Networking and education – members have access to people who face similar challenges, and make contacts up and down the supply chain.
  • Limited liability – a co-op is a “person” in the eyes of the law, which takes on its own liability. Members and shareholders personal assets are protected, and they only stand to lose what they invested.
  • Flexibility – co-ops have a huge array of options on goals, structure, financing, decision-making, and services.
  • Double or triple bottom line – benefits to the members aren’t limited to a share of the profits.

Disadvantages

  • Startup costs – are typically higher than for simple incorporations or partnerships. It takes more legal and accounting work to get ’em off the ground.
  • Offering statements are required to raise money – which takes time and money to prepare, and there are ongoing disclosure requirements.
  • Annual financial statements must be audited – which adds an extra annual operating expense.
  • Decision making can be slow and difficult – especially when there are a lot of members, or stakeholder groups with different interests. Think of how much of a pain in the ass the membership meetings of a condominium can be…
  • Unfamiliarity – because there are relatively few co-ops, compared to other business forms, government and foreign entities may have a hard time wrapping their heads around how to deal with you.

Membership Shares, or Members?

You have two options when incorporating a co-op – ownership through shares, similar to a regular ol’ corporation – or control by members, similar to a not-for-profit corporation. Choosing between the two usually comes down to two things:

  • Whether the co-op’s purpose is to operate like a business and turn a profit, or to provide a service on a break-even or non-profit basis; and
  • How much capital is needed to get started and run the co-op. The greater the need for capital, the more likely it is you’ll lean towards shares.

Consult with your lawyer and accountant before choosing which way you’ll go.

Shares

Shares are just a bunch of rights in the co-op. Most of these rights centre on control (voting), profits (dividends), and ownership (right to a share of the net profit if the business is sold or wound up). Every co-op with share capital must issue at least one type of “membership shares”. Each membership shareholder gets one vote at members’ meetings to do things like electing the directors, setting the rules (bylaws) of the co-op, choosing an auditor, approving annual financial statements, and major business decisions like selling or dissolving the co-op. Different types or membership shares may have slightly different rights.

You also have the option of creating and selling different types of “preference shares” to raise money. Like a regular business corporation, you can get pretty creative with the rights that the preference shareholders have, like priority on dividends, to be bought out or redeemed, to be paid part of the proceeds of liquidation, to receive information, and to receive a portion of the net profits of the co-op each year as a patronage return.

Members

For co-ops without share capital, there are only members, who fill much the same role as membership shareholders, above. The biggest consequence of this type of co-op is that its only financing options are membership fees, loans from members to the co-op, and loans or other debt from outside sources.

Multi-Stakeholder Co-ops

In these bad boys, members are organized into stakeholder groups, depending on what they contribute to the co-op. Each stakeholder group has certain rights as a group, such as appointing directors to the board, or to receive a lower or higher share of the co-op’s profits.

Types

There are four basic types of co-op in Ontario

  • Worker-owned

    Exactly what it sounds like. Only workers can be members of the co-op, and at least 75% of employees of the co-op must be members. An example would be Toronto’s Co-op Cabs, where each taxi license holder is a member of the co-op, and gets a share of the net profits of the company rather than revenues from their specific cab.

  • Consumer

    Businesses, often in retail, which are owned by their customers for their mutual benefit. Resources are pooled to buy in bulk, then the savings are passed on to the members. The most common are credit unions, green energy, insurance, and grocery stores. I’ll lump housing co-ops in here too.

  • Producer

    Producers of a certain product, or a certain category of goods band together to share common expenses like warehousing, equipment, shipping, and marketing. Most people have seen farmers’ co-ops, which often have warehousing and large equipment, as well as buying farm supplies in bulk. Producer co-ops could work for any business from lumber, to crafts, to booze.

  • Multi-stakeholder

    Here, many different groups of interests recognize that they’re all in the same boat, and band together for common gain. These groups could include workers, producers, service providers, consumers, and supporters of a certain cause. Health care and social services are common areas for this form. There’s a big push towards sustainable food co-ops right now, bringing together farmers, land owners, seed banks, grocers, and restauranteurs.

Dolla Dolla Bills Y’all

A co-op model can allow a business to take a fundamentally different path than a regular corporation. The directors of corporations are voted in by shareholders to maximize the value of the shares. Co-ops exist for the benefit of their members, which can far broader than simple monetary gain. That’s not to say that a co-op can’t turn a profit. It’s just up to the members as to how far up the priority list profit falls. The rules on how money comes into and flows out of a co-op are different than regular corporations too.

Money In

Besides profits from the sale of goods, the most common fundraising method is membership fees – an annual fee that members must pay to stay members. In most cases, this isn’t a large sum. Co-ops can also charge fees for use to members or the public – like an hourly rate for use of equipment and facilities, or for sales leads they generate for their members.

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Debt Financing

As with any business, a co-op can borrow money, known as debt financing, from a variety of sources. Co-ops can, and often do, require their members to loan money to the co-op, which is common in agricultural co-ops where production is cyclical. They need the cash up front to float the year’s operations, and the loans are paid back when the harvest comes in. They can force members to re-invest profits earned from the previous year as member loans as well.

Co-ops can borrow from banks, government, and other private lenders, same as any other business. They can also apply for government grant funding.

Equity Financing

Co-ops with share capital can raise money by selling preference shares. The magic number is 35, meaning that if there will be 35 or more people who own securities (shares and debt) when the sale is done, the co-op has to file an “offering statement” with the Financial Services Commission. This is similar to, but less demanding than, what a corporation must do before “going public”. The goal of the offering statement is to ensure that the investors know what they’re investing in. The exact requirements vary depending on the co-op, but the result must be a full, true, and plain disclosure which answers any reasonable question an investor may have. There are a few exceptions which mean you don’t have to file one for small numbers of investors, and small amounts raised.

Money Out

Aside from paying operating costs, wages, tax, and debt, there are rules about how the profits of the co-op are paid out. What’s left after operating expenses are paid, but before tax, is called the “surplus”.

A co-op can set aside some or all of its surplus to create a “reserve fund” of retained earnings for its future expenses, and it can pay out the surplus through dividends and patronage returns.

Dividends

Dividends are paid out of a co-op’s after tax income. The member or shareholder is taxed on the dividend (not as regular income), meaning some tax credits are available to them.

The maximum dividend allowed on membership shares is the prime lending rate +2% per year. There’s no cap on dividends to preference shareholders, so the rate of dividend is what’s set out in the Articles of the co-op.

Dividends may be paid in more shares of the co-op as well, which allows the business to reinvest the profits, and increase the equity holdings of the shareholders.

Patronage Return

This posh sounding term is the profit share a member is entitled to based on how much business they’ve done with the co-op. This is the main way in which members receive their profits. Patronage returns are paid out of the pre-tax income of the co-op, and are taxed as income for the member.

Different rules apply to different types of co-op, but the way patronage returns are calculated is set out in the bylaws. Worker co-ops, for example, pay patronage returns based on hours worked, or total compensation paid each year. Producer co-ops may account for the relative profits earned from different products contributed to the co-op (a ton of strawberries may turn a higher profit margin than a ton of potatoes. No offence to potatoes.)

Non-members may also be paid a patronage return, so long as the return for non-members is the same or less than what’s paid to members.

Decision Making

As with a corporation, co-ops have three levels of decision-making – members, directors, and officers.

Members

Each member, or membership shareholder, has one vote at meetings of the members. Members have to attend a meeting in order to vote – they can’t send a proxy to vote in their place.

Most votes are decided by a simple majority of votes, after a resolution has been discussed. The key decision members are called upon to make is to elect the board of directors, or removing them if need be. They also approve audited financial statements, and vote on resolutions proposed by members.

Members have a say in other major decisions, which require a 2/3 majority to pass. These include changing the articles of the co-op, adopting new bylaws, and approving the sale or merger of the co-op.

5% of members can call a meeting, or propose member resolutions. 10% of members can force a directors’ meeting to pass a new bylaw or resolution.

Directors

Elected by the members, the directors have a fiduciary duty to run the co-op in the best interests of the members. All directors must be members of the co-op, and there must be at least three directors on the board. The board is responsible to set the strategic direction of the co-op, and appoint the officers to manage its day-to-day affairs. They vote on things like approving new members, budgets, major contracts, and expansion plans.

Officers

Appointed by the directors, officers oversee operations, and supervise the lower-levels of leadership. Officers are employees of the co-op, and except for the President and chair of the board, they don’t have to be members. The duties of the different offices are listed in the Cooperative Corporations Act. Most co-ops will delegate a certain amount of decision-making power to officers, such as the ability to sign contracts up to a certain amount, to hire and fire employees, and to do the co-op’s banking.

Conclusion

So, there you have it, co-ops in a nutshell. This is by no means a complete guide to co-ops in Ontario, but I hope it proves to be a useful starting point. If you’re looking at starting a business or non-profit, take a good, give co-ops due consideration.

There are a ton of good resources out there for information gathering, including a whole series of guides from the FSCO, and the Ontario Co-operative Association that can help you to get started.

As always, I’m happy to help you birth your cooperative business baby. Reach out.

 

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
mike@intrepidlaw.ca
@MikeHookLaw

Crowdfunding in Ontario

On May 8, 2014, I presented a webinar for http://www.SmallBusinessSolver.com on the legal ins and outs of crowdfunding in Ontario.

Crowdfunding is a game changer for small business finance. Between $3-5 billion has been raised in crowdfunding efforts worldwide, through over 300 portals. 45 of those portals are available to Canadians. Traditional crowdfunding works by donation or reward.

The latest and greatest is that crowdfunding will soon be available in Ontario to sell equity to the general public. This is going to make selling equity less expensive and simpler to do.

Enjoy!

Selling Shares through Crowdfunding

One of the most important recent developments in financing for small businesses has been the rise of crowdfunding. Crowdfunding is when a bunch of people make small investments in a company through a crowdfunding portal (such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo), in exchange for some sort of reward, like an amount of the product the company makes. The pooled money is used to grow the business. Unfortunately, selling shares – aka “equity” or stock – through crowdfunding has been, and still is mostly illegal in Ontario.

Most small companies are “private issuers”, and “non-reporting companies” – which means that they can’t sell shares to the general public – including crowdfunding. To sell equity to the general public, the corporation has to jump through a whole bunch of regulatory hoops, and make detailed disclosure documents available to investors. Disclosure typically includes an offering memorandum or prospectus, and audited financial statements – which are time consuming and expensive to prepare. There are strict rules about the type and size of offering, what kinds of disclosure must be prepared for prospective shareholders, and who can participate in the offering. All of that, however, is about to change.

The Ontario Securities Commission (“OSC”), the watchdog that regulates the public trade of shares of companies, has just released its proposed rules for a “Crowdfunding Exemption”. They hope to allow small companies to raise capital through crowdfunding without saddling small businesses with expensive disclosure and reporting requirements. The tough part is how to protect investors, and make sure they get enough information to make an informed decision on whether or not to invest.

The Crowdfunding Exemption tries to strike this balance by requiring some limited disclosure from the issuing companies issuing the shares, placing strict regulations on crowdfunding portals, and limiting how much individual investors can contribute. A few of the highlights:

Requirements of Issuing Companies

  • May only raise $1.5 million through crowdsourcing in a calendar year
  • Must be a Canadian company, with its head office in Canada, and a majority of its directors must be resident Canadians
  • May be a public or private company
  • Must disclose the minimum offering amount, and whether or not there is a maximum
  • Offerings must be completed within 90 days
  • Must meet the minimum offering amount, and have the resources to execute its business plan in order to be successful
  • Equity may only be issued in the form of common shares, non-convertible preferred shares, non-convertible debt securities linked only to fixed or floating interest rates, securities convertible into common shares, units of a limited partnership, and flow-through shares under the Income Tax Act
  • May only advertise through a crowdfunding portal, its own website and social media , or with limited marketing materials.

Investor Protection

  • Maximum of $2,500 per investment, and $10,000 per calendar year, per investor
  • At the time of investment, the company must provide an outline of basic information about the company, the fundraising platform, and one year of financial statements
  • Investors must sign an acknowledgement of risk, confirming investment eligibility, and consenting to the possibility that they may lose the entire investment
  • Investors have a two day “cooling off period” to cancel the investment, in case of buyer’s remorse
  • Issuing company must continuously disclose its cash and annual financial statements, and maintain accurate records of the use of crowdfunded money
  • Four month ban on re-selling the shares of a public company, and an indefinite freeze on resale of shares of non-reporting issuers

Crowdfunding Portals

  • Must be registered with the OSC as a restricted dealer, similar to registering as a securities dealer
  • Must do background checks on issuing companies, and their directors, officers, promoters, and control persons
  • Must understand the general structure, features, and risks of securities offered, review and vet information to ensure compliance with the OSC rules, prevent fraud, and provide investor education materials
  • Can’t provide any investment recommendations or endorsements, solicit purchases or sales of securities on behalf of a client of their platform, or invest in or underwrite any issuing company

The OSC proposed rules are open for comment from investors, issuers, and portals until June 18, 2014. It’s expected that the comments will be considered, the rules tweaked, and the Crowdfunding Exemption will come into force shortly afterwards. The most vocal feedback so far has been that the limits on individual investors are too low, and the startup costs for portals to register are too high, and will make it more expensive for their clients. Regardless of the tweaks, equity crowdfunding will be a revolution in small business financing that will make big money available to companies that never would’ve been able to afford to access it before.

If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, you can find a full version of the OSC’s proposed changes as part of the jauntily titled “Introduction of Proposed Prospectus Exemptions and Proposed Reports of Exempt Distribution in Ontario” – at Appendix D – Pages 131-224. It’ll put you right out, I promise.

 

Why does my corporation need a minute book?

In the hustle and bustle of running your business, record keeping often falls by the wayside. Most small business owners put corporate record keeping somewhere below “eating gravel” on their to-do list. The corporation’s minute book is often never even created in the first place, let alone kept up to date, even though the consequences of failing maintain one can be severe, and incredibly expensive.

Why do I have to?

Incorporating brings a lot of benefits – limited liability and tax being the biggest – but also comes with increased responsibility. The government has said, through the laws it has passed, that if you want the good stuff you’ve got to deal with the additional administration that comes with it. Whether you incorporated federally, or in Ontario, you must prepare and maintain corporate records. Trust me, it’s worth a little hassle and expense now to avoid greater hassle and expense later.

So what if I don’t?

Worst case scenario, your corporation could be found guilty of an offence under corporate law, and liable for a fine of up to $25,000.

Aside from the official penalty, there’s a great deal of business risk involved if your books are non-existent or out of date. I’ve often found myself playing CSI: Minute Book, going back several years to piece together the company’s history. It can take a fair bit of time and money to get it all figured out – neither of which small businesses have in spades.

There are a few common situations where your minute book will be in demand:

  • If you’re selling part or all of your company, the buyer will want to see the books as part of their due diligence – so they know exactly what they’re buying. Poor record keeping can drive the purchase price down, and the delay to get your books in order could put the whole sale at risk.
  • Most banks and other lenders will want to see your minute book before lending money to your business. They want to know that its affairs are in order, and the people they’re dealing with are authorized to act for the corporation.
  • Your accountant may want to see the minute book in preparing its tax returns. Without it, she’ll be forced to make assumptions on how to characterize the income, and may end up mis-reporting.
  • The Customs and Revenue Agency is entitled to inspect your books, and may do so as part of an audit of your personal taxes or the corporation’s taxes. This is more common if you’re paying yourself by dividends, or you’ve lent money to the company. The CRA could characterize money coming to you as personal income, tax the hell out of it AND deny the corporation the right to deduct it as an expense. Talk about lose-lose…
  • Shareholders, as owners of the company, have a legal right to inspect the minute book to know what decisions are being made.

OK then, what is it?

A minute book is really just a binder that holds the important documents of your corporation.

If a lawyer incorporated your business, they probably provided you with a minute book to start. If not, then you’ll have to prepare one yourself, including:

  • Certificate of Incorporation;
  • Articles of Incorporation;
  • By-Laws;
  • Consents to Act as Directors;
  • Director and shareholder resolutions
  • Minutes of director and shareholder seetings;
  • Registers of  the officers and directors;
  • Register showing the number of shares issued of each class of shares;
  • Record of the debt obligations of the corporation;
  • Stated Capital – the number of issued and outstanding shares;
  • Documents filed with government departments;
  • Share certificates, if used; and
  • The corporate seal, if used.

Then you’ve got to maintain the minute book, by keeping it up to date as the corporation does its business, including:

  • Resolutions from the annual meetings of shareholders and directors;
    • Electing directors each year;
    • Appointing accountants or auditors for each year;
    • Approving financial statements;
  • Records of loans to or from shareholders
  • Declared dividends;
  • Management bonuses paid;
  • Issuance or transfer of shares;
  • Changes in directors or officers;
  • Changes to how the corporation is run;

Can’t you just do it for me?

What’s tedious and boring to you is an adrenaline-fuelled rollercoaster ride of awesomeness for me. OK, maybe that’s a little extreme, but I’m happy to take the tedium off of your hands.  I can’t emphasize enough that it’s far far far far cheaper, easier, and less stressful to stay on top of this stuff than it is to go back and piece it together in an emergency – like when an investor or potential buyer wants to inspect your books.

Some clients like me to hang on to the record book and keep it updated when things change.  Others want to keep it themselves, and have me send them the updates when they make changes. Either way, this is one of those things that you shouldn’t waste your time doing…

Hey, you just read this blog,
and this is crazy,
but here’s my website,
so call me, maybe.

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
http://intrepidlaw.ca
@MikeHookLaw