Vietnam and Chivas Regal: A Salesman’s Story

A Journey to Open a New Market in 1994 (A True Story)

Ted McDonnell was a top-notch salesperson in the Asia-Pacific/Global Duty-Free division of Seagram Spirits and Wine Group. (SSWG or ‘swig’ as it was referred to.) Ted had spent his career living in Australia, Hong Kong, and Guam as a regional director fixing problems and building brands all over Asia-Pacific.

Then one day an outstanding opportunity came his way in the form of a job with Chivas Brothers. He no sooner got settled in London when he was told that among his first assignments was to go to Vietnam to do sales training on behalf of the brand. President Clinton opened the market to trade and management was anxious to expand opportunities in the emerging market.

His excitement was palpable and, as he waited for his visa, he gathered point of sale and training materials. As he scurried about making preparations—including attending a companywide meeting—he was not able to get his ticket and visa until the last minute.  He ended up collecting five boxes of gifts and items that the sales and marketing people could use. You can imagine the effort he put in to get the right stuff and when the week’s wait was over, he ran to his office and collected the visa and plane tickets.

While hoping to stay awake on the flight to see the approach to the country, he instead fell asleep and awoke as the plane landed in a dark and ominous looking airport surrounded by what appeared to be machine gun towers. As he disembarked he felt a bit of relief, when a Vietnamese man tapped him on the shoulder and asked, “Are you an American?”

He quickly said, “Oh no I’m British, I’m here with Chivas Regal Whisky.” The man smiled and said, “Would you please tell your American friends we wish they would come back, we’ve missed them.”

With this surprising start to his journey, he collected the five boxes, breezed through customs, and left the terminal to find his colleagues who were to meet him.

Hello Vietnam

Two problems got his immediate attention. Here he is at the airport of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and it’s basically an open-air cement building—hardly what he expected from the biggest city in the country. Second, there were well over 200 people waiting to greet deplaning passengers but no one was there for him. He waited and worried.

“You need taxi? My name is Tran,” said the young man who approached him. “No, I’m waiting for my friends to pick me up,” was Ted’s reply.

A few hours passed while he stopped people to ask if they knew where the Seagram office was in the city. After a while, Ted noticed Tran hanging around the terminal again. He decided to approach him.

“Tran, bring your car, I think we will go to the city. My friends forgot about me.” So, Tran is very happy, and goes to get his car. As Ted describes it, “The car is a little more than a shoe box and I had a hard time squeezing in with the five boxes, my computer bag and the one piece of luggage I had with me.” But off they went.

Tran is very quiet as they drive along a very dark road without much lights. As they are crossing a bridge, Tran stops the car and says, “I go back and get my friend. I go back and get my friend.” Ted nervously replies, “no, no, no… I’m paying you to take me to the city.” To which Tran says, “Yeah, I know I take you to the city… but first I go back and get my friend.”

The next thing Ted knows, Tran turns the car around and heads back to the airport. Only this time the road is deserted and no cars are on the highway.

Ted starts to get very nervous

“How come there are no other cars… how come I’m the only one on the highway and there is the airport… it’s getting dark…only the lights are on out front of the airport with three men standing there and I’m thinking this is it for me. I’m getting kidnapped, you’re never going to see me again and there’s going to be a letter to my family of some sort… I’m thinking I’ve got to get out of the taxi when we reach the airport. But before I can get my hand on the door this guy jumps in the front seat and smiles and says, ‘Hello Joe. How are you Joe?’ I said, ‘Uh, uh, good’ and we’re driving back toward the bridge.”

Picture this—Ted is stuck in the back street, wedged in among the 5 boxes, computer bag and luggage while Tran and his friend are getting angry and arguing with each other. The friend suddenly reaches into the glove box, turns around and points two things at Ted, one in each hand. He can barely see what it is but is sure it looks like a gun. Ted thinks, “Why the hell did I put myself in this fix?”

After a second or two, Tran’s friend says, “Richard Marx or Air Supply cassette player?” Ted starts laughing and so does Tran and his friend. He puts on Richard Marx and he says, “You sing, you sing for us.” Ted’s thinking, “I don’t sing, but if I don’t I may end up in a ditch so sing your friggin’ heart out.”

Now they’re tooling down the muddy roads and all singing Richard Marx and Air Supply in a bizarre (yet frightening for Ted) karaoke event. After a while, they slow down next to a house, the friend gets out and tells Ted to do the same. Ted protests; Tran’s friend is most insistent and mutters something about needing gas to get to the city.

Ted reluctantly leaves the car and is standing on the side of a dark road with all his gear, dressed in a blazer, gray slacks and white shirt. His fear has just gone up a notch or two.

Ted recollects: “But there, next to the little house were three little kids and an old lady that comes out the front door. She takes my hand and leads me inside, sits me down on a small stool. Now that could only be a small stool because if I stood up I think my head would have gone through the roof.” It turns out to be Tran’s family.

What follows is Vietnamese hospitality as Ted is served tea and some food as he begins to relax a bit. He even starts playing with the children and making duck and animal sounds while he waits for Tran to return. All the while he’s thinking that this is the craziest kidnapping ever.

At long last Tran appears and announces, “Okay we go now.” Ted is relieved and delighted and can’t wait to get to Ho Chi Minh City, a shower, and a comfortable Marriott bed. Goodbyes, smiles and happiness is shared all around. In fact, Ted is so happy, he lightens his load by opening one of the boxes and handing out Chivas Regal shirts.

Welcome to the city

“It’s the city, we’re coming to the city,” Tran joyfully announces.

So again, Ted is getting a little nervous being an American in Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City. He says, “Tran, ahh what street are we going to?” Tran answers, “I don’t know. I ask the policeman.” Before Ted can object, Tran is out of the car with my paper written in English. The officer looks at Ted and asks, “You Yankee?” he says.

Ted decides that it might be best to claim he’s British and puts on his bad English accent. To which the officer replies, “Ahh too bad … I love baseball, I love the Yankees.” He goes on to inform Ted and Tran that the street they need is too small for the car and they need to take two nearby tricycles. The officer offers to watch the taxi while they head off.

So, they get into the tricycles, with the boxes and other gear, ride down narrow roads, just barely missing other bikes and Ted is thinking what the hell is going on. There are bright neon signs but all are in Vietnamese. Finally, they pull over to a really dark and dingy building and over the doorway it says Marriott Hotel.

Ted is elated but still a bit worried. He goes inside, finds the desk clerk, who fortunately speaks English and asks about Seagram, the colleagues he’s supposed to meet, and Chivas Regal. The man replies no—he has no idea who these people or companies are. Ted says, “I’m looking for the Marriott, maybe it’s a little bigger than this.” To which the desk clerk replies, “Ooh you want the other Marriott.” He writes down the address for Tran in Vietnamese. They collect his stuff and put it in the tricycles, go back through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and find their taxi and the policeman. Once again Ted opens a box and hands out more t-shirts to the smiling policeman.

Off they go to the address and twenty minutes later they arrive at a decent looking hotel but certainly not a Marriott. It doesn’t take long for him to learn that it’s the wrong place and they need the Marriott by the water. He is assured that it’s close by. Off they go.

As Ted describes it:

“I was happy when he said, ‘Not far from here.’ Okay. We’re so close I can almost taste the Marriott air. It was hot, it was steaming. I was so tired, it was like 24 hours since I last slept. It had to be about 11 o’clock by then. So here I am, we’re back in the car we’re driving to the next place. Nearly half an hour passes—not five minutes—and we finally pull up to another hotel but something didn’t feel right.”

Ted goes in and asks about Seagram, his colleagues, and Chivas and receives no, no, and no in reply. By now he’s questioning his sanity, his belief in God, and thinks that he’s still sleeping on the plane and this is a dream, or worse, a nightmare. And, things get interesting.

He asks the clerk for a phone so he can call one of his colleagues. He gives the man and Tran the number and they look at each other quizzically. They speak animatedly in Vietnamese. Finally, Tran turns to Ted and says, “Your friend is not here.” To which Ted replies, “I know you already told me he’s not here.”

Tran explains further, “No, your friend is in Ho Chi Minh City… in the south.” “Well where am I”, asks Ted.

“You’re in the North, you’re in Hanoi,” he learns from Tran.

Ted, takes out his plane ticket and looks at it. Sure enough, the ticket and documents he grabbed at the last minute say Hanoi, but the phone number is for Ho Chi Minh City, 700 miles away.

Ted asks, “Tran why didn’t you tell me that when you had the paper?”

Tran replies, “I don’t read English.”

“So why did you have the paper, Tran?”

“Because you gave it to me.”

Ted sits down in the lobby, is about to cry but decides he might just as well laugh. Then realizes what he has to do next.

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Join us next time for the continuing saga of Ted McDonnell, Chivas Regal and the trip south to Ho Chi Minh City, aka, Saigon.

By the way, Ted is the CEO of Liberty Lighthouse Group an international alcohol sales and marketing agency. Their mission is to help develop new brands or to further support established brands throughout Asia/Pacific and other Global markets.

Ted McDonnell in full Chivas Regal attire
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Robert Lehrman, Attorney

Need Label and Formula Approval? Better Call Robert.

Robert C. Lehrman is a lawyer at Lehrman Beverage Law, PLLC in metro Washington, DC. Since 1988 he has specialized in the federal law surrounding beer, wine and spirits, such as TTB permits, labels, and formulas.

He has helped hundreds of companies formulate beverages to ensure that they are taxed and labeled in an advantageous manner while in compliance with relevant laws and regulations. These companies produce beverages in dozens of countries around the world and range from the largest to the smallest in the beverage industry.

Robert has efficiently reviewed thousands of food and beverage labels over the years. He has also helped to design the labels and get them promptly approved.

When a client calls about a new product they would like to launch, among the first things I tell them is to contact Robert. Neither of us can recall under what circumstances we met, but have some interesting “war stories” about collaborative efforts.

So, I thought it might be fun and informative to interview Robert and for you to learn more about him and his practice.

BB: You are considered among the leading experts in federal regulatory law for alcohol beverages (wine, spirits, and beer). How did you get into this area of specialization?

RL: I stumbled in, like a graduate student into a college bar. I am glad I did. To be honest, it was not a good fit for me in the early years, and I was not wild about the job. It involved a lot of digging through old, tissue-paper pages of dusty old rules, in the CCH Liquor Control Law Reporter. But as I spent more time at it, and got more autonomy, I could change the shape of the job a bit. I think the job changed more than I did. The dusty old pages morphed into up-to-date computer screens. I feel lucky to have been there as law turned from its old, paper ways, toward email and the web.

Anyway, I graduated from law school in Buffalo in the late 1980s. I looked around in DC and the first job offer was from the leading alcohol beverage law firm of the time, Buchman & O’Brien. On that we have something in common because the second of those named partners made his name as general counsel, at a young age, for the leading spirits company of the 20th century — Seagram.

I stayed at Buchman and toiled away in the DC office for a total of about 13 years. At the dawn of the Blackberry age, I decided to embrace the new possibilities and work from anywhere. I started my own little firm in the suburbs, with only a couple of clients. But it really does seem like we have added at least a few clients every week, since that point almost 16 years ago now.

So, getting back to your question, it’s largely happenstance that put me in this position. The internet helped a lot. The rise of small producers helped. Heck, even Arthur Shapiro helped. I am not sure I would enjoy being, for example, a contracts lawyer in a big firm. But, in my current role, what I enjoy most is being at the intersections of law, business, food, branding, and technology. If there is another job that so beautifully blends all these things I like, I can’t think of it.

BB: What are some of the more noteworthy accomplishments you’ve had over the years?

RL: I think the work we did on behalf of absinthe is interesting. It’s a long story so you can find all the details here. The short version is that I worked on absinthe legalization, from 2004-2007, when everyone thought it was impossible. We got the law changed after a 100-year ban. It taught me that there is lots of junk science and junk law out there, and our predecessors didn’t always know better.

Another interesting recollection is about an older man who wanted to put the American flag on his beer cans. Not only that, he wanted Iwo Jima, and In God We Trust on the can to complete the patriotic theming. I patiently explained that TTB would not normally allow American flags on beer cans, turns it down regularly, and has at least a few rules directly banning it.

He was unimpressed and showed me another can and asked why our government will allow Russian flags but not the good old American flag. As we encountered various roadblocks, he would intermittently ask if he should go on the Rush Limbaugh program, or send some cash, to get this thing moving. I assured him there was no need to send extra cash, and assumed he was exaggerating, when he threatened to air it out on talk radio. No. A few months later, I picked up the phone and it was Fox News. “Your client is on the way into the studio and we want to verify a few things about his beer label.” A few hours later, TTB called to say the label is approved, flags and all. I would have liked to believe it was dazzling legal skills but in truth, it was good teamwork with a good client. I was sort of hoping he would go on to make a lot of money with this beer, but in short order Budweiser took the idea and ran with it, and I did not see too much action on my client’s product.

BB: Thinking about the label and formula approval process—both at the TTB and the predecessor ATF— in what ways has the process changed over the years? What’s gotten better and what still could use some improvement?

The main changes are that everything has moved from a paper-based to an internet-based system. When I started, in the late 1980s, I would actually walk over to TTB/ATF’s offices, at least five times a week, and talk directly with the decision-makers/reviewers, at their desk. It was a great way to learn. If they said no, they explained why, on the spot.

The old system was a bonanza for Beltway types. It didn’t make sense to mail the labels to Washington. It took a long time, and the government was quite picky in those days. So, you would be just as likely to get a sheaf of rejections, a month after sending your papers to DC, as approvals. And, the rejections might be as trivial and maddening as, there is a comma missing, or one letter is too small. On the other hand, if you sent the labels to a DC law firm, it could be expensive.

The internet gradually changed all that. The processing times were pretty quick, during that old-fashioned setup. You would show up, wait your turn, meet with the reviewer, and walk out with some label approvals, on the same day. Then, as COLAs Online (Certificate of Label Approval) rolled out, things got very slow for many years. Things are good right now. TTB has eased up on the trivialities and is processing most labels quite rapidly.

Another big change is that the system is quite a bit less personal than it used to be. In the olden days, you might sit with a Pamela Jamieson and go over some labels. These days, the rejections are fairly anonymous, you rarely meet with the reviewer, and even if you go in to TTB’s offices, there are many who work from remote locations.

BB: You’ve been front and center in the craft distillers movement. How is this burgeoning business changing? Is it here to stay? Are the entrepreneurs entering the business better equipped to succeed than in the past?

I am a little embarrassed to say, the craft boom was happening all around me, but I did not really notice it. Maybe I was too busy working.

When I started, I suppose there were several dozen busy distilleries in the US and now there are thousands. I remember when Sam Adams was a scrappy little upstart. It may be a lame comparison, but let me try comparing it to the iPhone phenomenon. First you saw it and wondered if it was overhyped, and whether the phenomenon would persist. Cut to ten years later and you can’t really imagine life without it, and it seems firmly entrenched almost to the point where it should have been obvious from day one.

Just like I think the free-for-all among Android, Apple and others is leading to an embarrassment of riches, for consumers, I do think the craft movement is having a similar effect in the libations space. All the fervor and ferment will lead to lots of great new ideas, and even the big stodgy companies to get on their toes, all to the benefit of consumers. It is certainly good for glass companies and liquor lawyers.

Are the barriers to entry too high? Well, they are certainly there, and alcohol beverages remain encrusted in old and new, important and dubious rules. Recent history shows that thousands of scrappy young companies have been able to form and thrive amidst all the barriers and competition.

BB: Finally, it seems to me that your practice has grown over the years in terms of people and expertise. What areas of legal advice/needs do you handle today that you didn’t in the past?

This is true. We are moving up the food chain so to speak. In my early years, I handled mostly labels and formulas, because that’s what I was handling at Buchman. Other lawyers handled things like trademark, for example. We did not really set out to diversify. My first 10 years on my own, confirmed that I could stay busy even within a fairly narrow niche (just federal, just TTB, just alcohol beverages).

But as time passed, I met talented lawyers and their skills drove the diversification. I met Dan (Daniel J. Christopherson), about five years ago and he adds IP law and beer law to our skill set. Lindsey (Lindsey A. Zahn) had a strong interest in appellation law, and wine law nuances, and later developed her skills as an FDA lawyer. Mike (Michael E. Volz) came along and wanted to see what he could do with retail law in the mid-Atlantic states.

At this point, I am pleased to say that we can handle most federal issues that arise for alcohol beverage companies. While we can handle all this in-house, we still reach out to other experts, to supplement our capabilities. In the past, we have reached out to EPA experts (pesticides) and former TTB experts. Just last week I collaborated with one of the top lawyers in the cannabis space, related to CBD-infused spirits. We have federal well covered, for beer, wine and spirits. We also have good coverage in NY, DC, Colorado, Virginia and Maryland. For the other states, we like working with in-state experts.

My goal is to provide excellent service to alcohol beverage companies; I am much less interested in getting bigger, especially if we can keep getting better without adding more people.

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There are a number of outstanding law firms that specialize in alcohol in general and government approvals in particular. Abelman Frayne & Schwab, for example, is a leading full-service firm who I’ve used in a number of areas including intellectual property matters. They do outstanding work. But, Robert Lehrman’s expertise in the approval process leads me to often say, “Better Call Robert.”

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Dorothy Parker, Gin, and the Center Bar

Drinks with Stories to Tell

Allow me to set the stage for you.

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) was a writer (short stories, poetry, screenplays), one of the founders of the Algonquin Round Table, and a wisecracking, witty critic of 20th-century idiosyncrasies. Dorothy Parker’s quirky remarks and crass opinions were her hallmark. Here are two samples:

“I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
after four I’m under my host.”

The other player is the gin by the same name—Dorothy Parker Gin, produced by New York Distilling Co., an outstanding craft distiller in Brooklyn. (I will write more about NYDC specifically, in an upcoming post. For now, suffice to say that these folks make outstanding gins and rye whiskies. You can find them here.)

Last but by no means least, there is Center Bar, an elegant restaurant, wine bar, and cocktail lounge located on the 4th floor of the Time Warner Center. Under the direction of Chef Michael Lomonaco, whose neighboring Porter House Bar and Grill has established itself as one of the city’s leading modern steakhouses. Porter House is far and away my favorite NYC restaurant and arguably the best steak house in town. Drinks at Center Bar and dinner 50 paces away at Porter House—well, in my opinion, it doesn’t get better than that.

By the way, Porter House was judged to be the Absolute Best Steakhouse in New York and Michael Lomonaco’s creativity is an important element in the story.

The Center Bar
Porter House Bar and Grill
Michael Lomonaco

Here’s to Dorothy

August 22nd is Dorothy Parker’s birthday. So, in 2015, Allen Katz, one of the founders of NYDC and Michael Lomonaco, chef and partner at Porter House and Center Bar decided to pay tribute to her and create drinks and a fun experience in her honor. They’ve been running the event every year since.

This year they lined up some of the foremost bar chefs and mixologist and had them create a “Here’s to Dorothy” drink menu. The cocktails were spectacular from the name to the ingredients to the luscious taste.

Be sure to look for the event next year. I’m told Michael has something special planned.

Oh, and if you stop by Porter House, try the Wagyu New York Strip Steak. Unbelievable.

Here are the drinks and their creators:

Honey, I’m under the Host
Jena Ellenwood, The Sparrow Tavern
A Walk in the Parker
Lucinda Sterling, Middle Branch
A Certain Lady
Alissa Atkinson, Precious Metal
Know-it-all
Estelle Bossy, Del Posto
The Mighty Tux
Tonia Geffy, Highland Park
Love Dot
Brooke Baker, Dead Rabbit

The Menu

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