Standing Out in a Crowded Room: The Beverage Distributor & Supplier in the 21st Century

There is a compelling evolution in the industry and from our vantage point, the industry is changing rapidly, every month – week – day!  As our country continues to change at the same rate, so must the beverage leaders to address this rapid evolution. Change, however, is difficult and having agility built into your company is critical to success. But, what is success? Many companies struggle with this notion. When asked “what is your one year and five year plan?” many just do not have an answer. This results in confusion at the top and bottom of your organization, as well as with the investment community. Planning is not rocket science but it is one of the most critical functions that leaders do for their company and intellectual property (IP). How does your craft company create, maintain and maybe even increase value?

  The number of phone calls we receive at Baker Tilly regarding mergers and acquisitions (M&A) for craft companies has increased significantly during past 18 months. This is a testament to the state of the industry. You can certainly see cognitive dissonance with the hype in relation to the number of brewers, distillers and even distributor licenses issued and in process vs. our M&A conversations.

What is not apparent, is how thin these companies are running. Many are not capitalized appropriately, have poor information systems, lack qualified management, have incomplete infrastructure, understaffed expansion markets, equipment requiring upgrades, and a limited understanding of their customers and markets. Just because sales are up (and that’s not for many brewers) doesn’t mean they are financially sound. There are many investors that haven’t seen any return on their investment and are being asked for more financial support in order for the business to become profitable.

It is not surprising that investors and over-worked managers are looking for an exit. Unfortunately, for many companies, valuations may be disappointing and in some cases, there is little to no interest from new investors in a craft company. These companies have failed to distinguish themselves in the increasing competitive and volatile marketplace. M&A is not a solution for many due to current sales trends, market share and financial performance. Waiting for a deal to break through and rescue investors is only an option for those with well-run operations.

  To overcome this situation, a solid strategic understanding of your business and a supporting plan is necessary. We are frequently asked, “How do I do this when I am so busy?” The last thing you want to say to yourself is that we completed our business plan a few years ago and everything is fine. Can your business really be fine with the amount and speed of change with consumer and retail demands? How you answer this question is how people are viewing you both internally and externally. There are very large companies with plenty of resources looking at your industry with plans and strategies to capture opportunities and improve operating performance with an appropriate funding. You must do what they are doing with a clear strategy and diligent planning processes that address the consumer, retailer and aggressively play to your strengths as a company.

  Understanding your industry, the trends within it and where you fit, is a critical first step The beer, wine, spirit and alcohol industries remain highly concentrated in the hands of the largest suppliers. There are now approximately 9,000 brewers in the United States and five of them control approximately 80% of the market share. Currently, there is a record number of distillers and distributors with licenses and many had aspirations of becoming a top-volume, successful operator in their city, state, region or even country. It was common to bootstrap the start-up phase while seeing others raise money from investors. Many began with multiple founders and received support from family members. Few were able to jump into business with all of the right funding for their business plan. No matter how it transpired, everyone is feeling the pressure of shifting demand, innovation, SKU rationale, minimum wage challenges and receding retail traction for their brands. 

  Smaller operators are trying to keep up with new entries as well as capture interest from distributors and retailers by blitzing the market with innovations or riding the wave of the latest consumer fads. Hazy IPA’s, craft spirits, cider, spiked seltzer, Kombucha and CBD-infused concoctions are all part of the buzz. Distributors want to make the most profit and retailers want to see SKUs with high rate of sale. Analytics matter and if you have not figured out how important it is to transcend beyond the ranking and distribution reports of the past, then you are missing the boat on getting your team focused on what matters most. Did you notice that the largest brewer on the planet just released a spiked seltzer of their own instead of buying one? What does this signal? Could it be they recognize small brand values are receding?

  The share of the pie continues to get smaller as more people seek licenses to brew, distill and/or distribute. What we are clearly seeing is the inability to support these numbers at the retail or distributor level. Those who signed up to own a brewer and scale it to multiple cities or states are finding it nearly impossible to make that vision come true.

  They are being transformed into bars and restaurants. Outside sales at retail are too costly to support and rate of sale with those SKUs is not keeping up with the standards set by many retailers. Small is fine and perhaps the best way to stay true to what you do best. Most off-premise retailers (grocery, convenience, packaged liquor stores) segment brands for the masses. From a supplier standpoint, it is critical that you have the relationship with your key distributors. How your brands fit into their local strategy is one of the most important aspects in your relationship. Owning your marketplace is a great way to stay small, grow organically and be ready to scale up once the business plan indicates success. As stated earlier, with 9,000 brewers in the industry, gaining higher market share than your peers should be the first priority.

  Which companies will grow and which ones won’t? Let’s go beyond the obvious characteristics like quality. If you really want success, then you must listen to the consumer and those closest to the front line. Take action and do not deny what you are seeing in the data or what distributors, retailers and consumers are telling you. There are plenty of new avenues for consumers to order, understand and even receive delivery of your product. Disruptors in the market such as Amazon Prime, Provi, goPuff and Barley Sober are changing the buying habits of consumers. Do not try to push a rope – pouring additional effort into something that is not getting traction will upset everyone in the supply chain. Create a strong plan that covers all the bases and includes funding and support from all stakeholders.

  What we are seeing is that the successful and valuable companies are those that are the most agile and adaptable. Meaning, they have identified the complexities within their operations and streamlined them with the help of business intelligence so they can spend more time focusing on growth. The traditional approach of just adding bodies to the mix is both costly and ineffective. Having a sound plan for brand growth driven by data is how you win. As we all know, the consumer is driving this complexity. Whatever generation you want to target, there is segmentation happening. How they spend their money needs to be a factor that is applied to your planning and innovation. The next factor to consider is the occasion in which the consumers are consuming. Developing your mix shift within each segment and brand is a very key factor when planning for the now and future. Addressing these consumer behaviors is critical for knowing what brands and SKUs to carry.

  Connecting the back-office fundamentals with the front line is another solid key to success. Link your back office to your front line employees. Speed and trust is critical in the beverage environment as retailers shift from on and off premise to all premise. We see great success when the plan fits the market strategy. It is a process of zooming out and then zooming back in to understand your product attributes and how they are perceived by consumers to ultimately achieve your objective and satisfy retailer needs.

  Retailers have less and less time for a sales pitch on your latest brand. Technology has made it easy for them to figure it out on their own. Your plan of attack should consider their desire to get to the point of the pitch and be right about how well it will sell. Call frequencies of your sales team should be developed with the retailer’s business needs and schedules in mind.

  Shareholder expectations and funding requirements are issues for everyone. Getting the most out of your resources and applying solid growth strategies are foundational pillars that keep the focus of your company on profitable growth.

  To lead in the 21st century, craft beverage companies have to rely on innovation and planning. The traditional route to market is not the same as yesterday. To be successful, understand your internal strengths and protect your brands and processes. These should be the cornerstones of your plan and that plan should be a working document that increases both trust and speed to market for your entire organization.

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