Best Practices: Beer Wholesaler Agreements

By: Kary Shumway, Craft Brewery Financial Training

The wholesaler agreement can be a point of contention between breweries and wholesalers. Before any beer is delivered, the agreement must be reviewed, negotiated, and signed.

  The challenge with many agreements is that both parties want the terms to be in their favor. Breweries want options to get out of the agreement, and freedom to move their brand if the business relationship isn’t working.

  Wholesalers want the brewery to be committed to them indefinitely. From the wholesaler perspective, they invest millions or tens of millions, in infrastructure and want to be sure that brands stay on the trucks to pay for all the investment.

  Both parties want the advantage, but at a minimum, neither party wants to get taken advantage of in the agreement.

  With so much emphasis on the wholesaler agreement, what steps are you taking to ensure you get the best arrangement possible?

  Below are five steps you can take to improve your agreements, and contractual relationships.

Five Steps to a Better Agreement

1.   Seek first to understand (Basic agreement structure and terms)

2.   Know your state laws

3.   Do your research, ask questions, determine the wholesaler options

4.   Play a game you can win (Develop your own standard agreement)

5.   Self-Distribute (Enter into an agreement with yourself)

  Since we’re talking legal contracts, here is the important disclaimer: I’m not an attorney, and this is not legal advice. The guidance here should be used for informational purposes only.

Basic Agreement Structure and Terms

  As any business textbook will tell you, the primary purpose of agreement law is to enforce an agreement between parties. In this case, the parties are the wholesaler and craft brewery. For there to be an agreement, an agreement must exist, and the parties must have freely intended to be legally obligated. A breach occurs when one party breaks a big promise in the agreement.

  The requirements of a legally binding agreement are: 1) offer, 2) acceptance, 3) consideration, 4) obligations by parties, 5) competency and capacity, and 6) a written document.

  In other words, a wholesaler offers to distribute the beer of a craft brewery, and the brewery accepts. The brewery agrees to brew beer and sell it to the wholesaler. The wholesaler agrees to pay for it. The brewery is obligated to make a saleable product, and the wholesaler is obligated to sell it.

  Both brewery and wholesaler state they are competent and have the capacity to fulfill these obligations. All this is then wrapped up in a written agreement.

  The wholesaler agreement contains a variety of clauses and terms that you should understand: Trademarks, Terms of Sale, Assignment, Transfer, Ownership Changes, and Termination to name a few. A typical wholesaler agreement can be 20 pages in length and contain a dozen or more different clauses. It’s a lot to understand, but very important to do so.

  To begin, read over the agreements that you already have in place. Highlight any items that you don’t understand and start asking questions. What you don’t know can hurt you in a contract situation.

Know Your State Laws

  Thanks to the 21st amendment, we have 50 different sets of laws related to alcohol distribution. Many of those laws are difficult to understand and a giant bore to read. Get a lawyer and get a commonsense interpretation of what your state laws are. Specifically, know your rights and obligations.

  The Brewer’s Association does a nice job in summarizing the various state laws. However, the summary only scratches the surface of what you’ll need to know about the rules of engagement. Know the rules, use them to your advantage, and build them into an agreement that works best for your brewery.

  Agreements and State Laws: Agreements and state laws are often intertwined. There may be sections of the wholesaler agreement that refer to the applicable state laws. For example, ‘wholesaler or supplier may terminate this agreement in accordance with applicable state laws.’ An understanding of the state laws in combination with a working knowledge of agreement rules will give you a leg up when negotiating your wholesaler agreement.

  Lastly, there is a common assumption that the agreement really doesn’t matter that much because the state law will over-ride the agreement anyway. For instance, in a case where an agreement says one thing and the state law says another, the state law wins.

  I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve hired lawyers to deal with this issue. What I’ve found is that the question doesn’t have a clear answer. Bottom line – the agreement still matters.

Do Your Research

  When opening up new sales territories do your homework to find the best wholesaler partner. Talk to other craft breweries, talk to retail accounts (on and off premise), and of course meet with prospective wholesalers. Do your research to find your best match. There’s no point in learning about agreements and state laws if you wind up with a lousy partner.

  Many of the larger craft breweries hire consultants to conduct market research in advance of opening a new territory. The consultants talk to retailers, learn the nuances of the market, and find out who the best wholesaler is. Then they gather information and report back to the brewery with a recommendation.

  Key Questions to Ask Your Wholesaler:  You may not have the resources to hire a consultant, but you can do some leg work yourself. Below are sample questions to ask wholesalers during the research phase:

•    How do you assess opportunities for my brands at retail?

•    What is a recent example of a brand launch success?

•    What are the demographics and tourism of the market?

•    What is the pricing landscape?

•    What did you do for craft beer week?

•    Tell me about your draft line cleaning process and personnel. If line cleaning is not allowed by state law, ask what they do to ensure lines are cleaned (surveys, education) and to determine if they are cleaned (logs, vendor, and frequency of service)

  Invest the time upfront and do you research on your wholesaler options. An agreement helps define a partnership. It’s up to you to find the best wholesaler to partner with.

Play a Game You Can Win

  A wise friend once told me: “always write the agreement.” In other words, if there is an option, don’t let the other side present you with the agreement. Do it yourself.

  Writing the agreement ensures you have control over what gets included or excluded. It allows you to shape the language and create an agreement that works best for your brewery. Have your lawyer develop your own standard agreement. Talk with them about what’s important to include and what isn’t. Use your working knowledge of agreement law and state laws to shape an agreement that works.

  Use Your Leverage: When you meet with a wholesaler, simply present the document as a matter of fact: “This is our standard agreement.” They may negotiate certain points, or counter with their own standard agreement, but they might just sign what you give them.

  Many craft breweries have their own agreement these days, even the smaller guys. Craft breweries have leverage with wholesalers. If you have a brand that multiple wholesalers would like to have, they will make concessions on the terms of the agreement to ensure they get your brand.

  Recognize and understand where you have leverage and use it to your advantage. Develop your own standard agreement, include the terms you want, and insist that it is used to govern the wholesaler relationship.

Self-Distribute: Enter into an Agreement with Yourself

  Another option related to wholesaler agreements is to avoid them altogether and self-distribute your own beer. State laws will dictate whether you can do this, and what the guidelines are.

  There are many advantages of distributing your own beer: you keep the gross profit that normally goes to the wholesaler, you control where and how the brands are presented at retail, and you ensure the brands get 100% focus and attention. Despite best efforts, a wholesaler with hundreds of brands can’t possibly present your beer during every sales call. But you can.

  There are many challenges with self-distribution: increased capital costs for trucks and warehouse space, more people needed to sell and deliver the beer, and a new business model that you need to learn. Nothing wrong with learning, but it can be expensive.

  The fundamental question to ask is whether self-distribution can be profitable. To answer the question, check out the short guide on creating a financial pro forma for self-distribution. This will walk you through the steps of putting together your sales projections, expected margins, operating costs, and capital investments needed.

  Research your state distribution laws, do the financial analysis, and determine if self-distribution is the right move for your brewery.

Wrap Up

  The wholesaler agreement is important, and it’s important that you get it right. Understand the agreement terms and know the state laws. Do your research on the market and the wholesaler options. Create your own standard agreement and use your brand leverage to get the wholesaler to sign it. Lastly, explore whether a self-distribution option makes sense for your craft brewery.

  It’s up to you to find a great wholesaler partner. It’s up to you to ensure you have a good agreement that governs the relationship. Use the steps outlined here, talk to other craft breweries, and consult your attorney. A good wholesaler agreement is within your power to achieve. Now, go and get it.

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