The Future of the Booze Business

RNDC and LibDib join forces

It was announced recently that Republic National Distributing Co (RNDC), and Liberation Distribution (LibDib) have formed a strategic alliance and will be working together.

I consider this a huge development for the wine and spirits industries and I was anxious to learn what it means for the future. I very much admire Tom Cole of RNDC and Cheryl Murphy Durzy of LibDib and was thrilled to have an exclusive interview with both of them. The three of us talked about how this development came about and what it means for the distribution of both large and small brands.

RNDC is the second largest distributor in the US, operating in 22 markets with a long history dating back to before Prohibition. It is an organization built on the strong foundations of three family-owned companies. What I’ve always admired about RNDC is their values, marketplace effectiveness, and people you enjoy working with.

LibDib is the first technology company to offer a 3-tier compliant model that provides an option for the growing number of makers (suppliers/manufacturers) that are entering the market. Launched in June, 2016 and they describe themselves as: “A wholesale distributor of alcoholic beverages enabled through a web and mobile platform.” (An earlier article I wrote about LibDib is here.)

As reported by Wine and Spirits Daily, LibDib suppliers will be able to use RNDC’s logistics and expand throughout their footprint, while RNDC will have access to LibDib’s technology and data. To me, it is also a union of the traditional and new routes to market.

So, what does this mean?

Tom Cole, CEO RNDC

 

 

According to Tom Cole:

“When I first learned about LibDib, I was fascinated by the commitment to the 3-tier system…I believe in and am a passionate protector of that system, so the LibDib approach offering effective online ordering, satisfies the need for small makers that are having difficulty getting to market…”

Cheryl Durzy, CEO LibDib

Cheryl added:

“We use the term evolve — How are we going to evolve the 3-tier system to meet the needs of the modern consumer and what they are looking for in spirits and wine.”

In effect, LibDib will have the opportunity to expand from its current operations in New York and California and ultimately operate in RNDC’s 22 markets. They’ll be able to tap into RNDC’s advanced logistics to deliver craft products to buyers in all available markets.

In turn, RNDC will have access to LibDib’s technology and data collection, thereby enabling them to further expand their value and services. In effect, they will be offering their large supplier organizations access to the rapidly changing market place by offering insights and actions into the new and evolving consumer.

What I think is particularly appealing, is that RNDC, which doesn’t currently operate in NY and CA, will have access to those markets in a new and unique way.

The problem being solved

Let’s start with craft spirits products and small brands.

IWSR has produced the Craft Sprits Report 2018, which looks at the current and future growth of craft spirits in the US.

They report that in 2017, the craft spirit volume share of all spirits sales was 3.3% which is 7.5 million 9-liter cases and up 25% from the previous year. They forecast that by 2022, craft spirit brands will account for close to 20% of all spirits and more than double its share at 7.9%.

In terms of value, craft brands accounted for 4.6% share of all spirits and, by 2022, they forecast it to be 10.4%.

What really caught my eye was this statement: “To put the current size of craft spirits into perspective, the 7.5m case total is roughly equal to the entire U.S. brandy category in 2017.”

 So, what’s the problem?

The route to market available to large brands is not generally available to small brands, particularly start up ventures or fledgling brands from small craft or other distilleries. The result is a hodgepodge of distribution solutions. Some large distributors will take on these brands but more as an exception than a rule. Come on… you would do the same if you ran a spirits and wine distributorship. It’s a volume driven business that largely depends on mass and mainstream brands. As a distributor put it to me once, “hey, you want my sales folks to stop focusing on a proven winner to sell your maybe-it-will-make-it brand?”

As a result, small spirits companies often rely on wine and beer distributors. Both wine and spirits companies will aim for importers with a distribution network or companies like MHW LTD or Park Street Imports (both with distributor licenses in a few key markets). All in the hope for an effective route to market and in compliance with the 3-tier mandatory system.

The large company conundrum

Developing new products/brands and getting them to market is difficult for the large makers as well.

Imagine you’re a major player in a leading spirits and wine company. You look around and, while your mass brands are doing okay, the craft/small batch brands are eating away at your volume. The cocktail focus has won the attention of bartenders and consumers alike and your mainstream brand is in danger of becoming yesterday’s newspaper.

Your options are to stick your head in the sand and ignore the changing market place and consumer behavior. That won’t work because your kid needs braces so your bonus might be in jeopardy. So, you figure out that you need to enter the fray and either start acquiring some of those fledgling brands or build your own through your innovations group.

Now you have another problem. The distribution and business models are based on large volume and you don’t want your people, or your distributor’s people, focusing on your new “baby” while ignoring the brands that need the attention. You can either launch a small brand-focused business unit or find a better, more cost-effective solution.

As many of you know, at Seagram I ran new products at one point and this venture of combining the clout of RNDC and the LibDib model would be just what I needed to succeed. In short, this strategic alliance between a top distributor and a company focused on small brands would have made my mouth water by allowing me to get into the small producer game, while still keeping my eye on the (big brand) ball.

How this came about

My hats off to Tom Cole who has the vision and smarts to see where the industry is going and to move his business in an advantageous direction. And to Cheryl, whose tenacity and foresight will reap benefits to her innovation.

I’ve known Tom a long time and he’s a visionary, always attuned to the changing marketplace, and willing to explore new opportunities and directions. It’s no surprise, therefore, that when he learned about LibDib, he looked into it.

Cheryl and her family ran a small winery in northern California and learned firsthand what a nightmare it is for a small company to get to the shelves of restaurants, bars, and stores. She created LibDib as a solution. In a relatively short period of time the company has attracted large numbers of makers and retail (bar and store) accounts in New York and Los Angeles. LibDib has become a viable and growing go to market resource.

After a number of exploratory phone calls, they met at the WSWA and learned that they had a great deal in common — the yearning to find a solution for new brands, a shared vision of the future, the support for the 3-tier system, entrepreneurial focus, and approaches to business management. Back and forth conversations and due diligence followed and a year later RNDC invested in LibDib and they are now partners.

What’s next?

There is much work to be done to maximize the potential of this venture and 2019 will involve some beta testing in NY and LA. Beyond that they will be exploring efforts on a state by state basis. There’s a lot to learn and this is a work-in-progress, undoubtedly with a slow and steady pace, making sure all the kinks are worked out. As Tom put it, “We will do things thoughtfully and correctly and increase our likelihood success.”

So far as I’m concerned, this development changes everything.

RNDC markets
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Liberating the Alcohol Distribution System

LibDib—The Web-Based Distribution Platform

The actual name of the company setting out to address the booze business wholesaler problems is Liberation Distribution (known as LibDib). The Founder/CEO is Cheryl Durzy and I spoke to her at length recently and, let me tell you, her business model could very well be a game changer in how beer, wine, and spirits come to market.

Cheryl has close to 20 years’ experience in the wine industry, managing wholesalers of all sizes, and learned firsthand what a nightmare it is for a small company to get to the shelves of restaurants, bars, and stores. She set out to fix the problem.

I’m very impressed with her web-based platform and think it’s a major positive development for producers (she calls them Makers) and restaurants, bars, and retail shops (RB&R). As Cheryl puts it, “Our goal is to make it easier for small businesses (Makers) to do business with other small businesses (RB&R).

But, as you’re about to learn, it’s much more than that. It’s a boon to the producers, the retailers, the consumer, and, even the current wholesalers.

The Problem

First, the background, as I’m sure nearly all of you know.

The three-tier system of alcohol distribution was set up after Prohibition and consists of producers, distributors, and retailers. Producers can only sell to wholesale distributors who, in turn, can only sell to retailers who sell to consumers.

The system favors wholesalers, especially in view of the consolidation of this tier—which has reduced the number significantly and increased their size. At the same time, it favors the large producers, who have the clout to get attention. Both work closely together for obvious mutual benefit. As I’ve written many times before, “follow the money.” The produce-wholesaler business model is based on volume; the distributor sales rep compensation is based on volume as well. If you were a sales person for a large distributor, which would you focus on—a 3 bottle placement of a craft product or a hand truck of a leading selling brand? Let’s be fair; they are in business to make money,

As a result, small and mid-sized wine, beer, and spirits producers have limited distribution and face many obstacles. Often the large distributors will turn them down or worse, take them on and not pay attention.

Oh, and don’t forget the small RB&R operator who also suffers from the focus on bigness. I follow many bartenders and managers on Facebook and Twitter and there are complaints aplenty about delayed shipments around holidays and long weekends when they can’t get their craft products their customers want. As one prominent Food and Beverage manager told me, “my customers come here for boutique brands that are not mainstream … and getting a timely delivery around the holidays is a nightmare.”

According to Cheryl:

Efforts to change distribution laws have been ineffective, however the market is ripe for disruption. Just as the hotel and transportation industries were disrupted by technology, the alcohol distribution market now has a technology platform that is shaking things up with a new option for small to mid-sized Makers.

The LibDib Solution

If you look at what the platform offers both producers and accounts, I think it’s very impressive. So much so that I have suggested to a number of startup clients of mine that they give this serious consideration.

Currently, LibDib is operating in CA and NY (with more markets on the way) and here’s how it works for producers:

  • A producer enters their information and license online.
  • Product is stored at a producer’s location including their production facility, personal warehouse or third party warehouse, depending on the producer’s choice.
  • It’s delivered by a common carrier, also based on producer’s choice.
  • The charge/fee from LibDib is 15% – 20%, less than what other distributors and wholesalers currently charge.
  • There are no bill backs, no aging inventory, and no buying back product.
  • Producers are free to leave LibDib at will; they will not enforce Franchise Laws. This makes them effective as an “incubator.”
  • They handle the billing, collection, and reporting, which makes them a virtual back office.
  • A producer can invite any account to purchase their product by sending them a link to the LibDib site. (See this video.)
  • And, LibDib is developing a team of platform sales people whose role will be to recruit bars, restaurants and retail stores. These folks can ultimately become brokers and sales people for the brands.

The accounts benefit by being able to buy what they want and when they want it. There are no minimums. There is no middleman, since the accounts can communicate directly with producers through the LibDib platform. Sales materials and POS are current and easily downloadable. Best of all, in my view, an account can provide the experience of unique, local and limited available products, with no hassle.

As a consumer, I’m perfectly happy buying Buffalo Trace or Bulleit Bourbon, but often I want a Koval or Dad’s Hat whiskey and can’t get it. It would be nice to suggest to my retailer or favorite drinking hole, that it’s pretty simple for them to stock less mainstream brands.

Other Potential Winners

When I was at Seagram, new products, no matter the potential, were an annoyance. It meant deflection of assets—people, money, and other resources—that could be applied to mainstream brand growth and, making the annual sales plan. That problem still exists, although companies like Diageo and Pernod Ricard have established venture groups to facilitate traction from a new brand or idea. But, at the same time, wholesalers still have to deflect their resources to address a fledgling brand’s needs. Oh sure, there are dedicated craft and startup resources at the distributor level but not all are equally effective at building brands.

It seems to me that LibDib, with its incubator capability, just might be the answer for the big boys. I know that if I were still at Seagram, I’d definitely give it a shot.

Finally, wholesalers themselves can benefit from LibDib. It’s a way to test market a new product before taking it on. It can augment and amplify the efforts of craft divisions and personnel. And, it can lift the negative feelings and imagery surrounding how and why large wholesalers overlook small, startup brands.

Like I said, LibDib has the potential to be a real game changer.

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