The Seagram Heiress and the Company Plane

A Seagram Story of Yesterday and Today

From the NY Times, July 25th

Clare Bronfman, an heiress to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, pleaded not guilty on Tuesday in federal court in Brooklyn after her arrest on conspiracy and racketeering charges in connection with her role at Nxivm, (pronounced Nex-e-um) a self-help group that prosecutors call a pyramid scheme and former members say is a cult.

The article concluded with:

The hearing for Ms. Bronfman revealed few new details about Nxivm’s inner workings, but gave a glimpse of her considerable wealth. Ms. Necheles (her lawyer) said Ms. Bronfman was worth around $200 million, with about half tied up in trusts supervised by Goldman Sachs, and the remainder in real estate in New York, California and Fiji, where she bought an island for $47 million.

She was charged with identity theft and was released on a $100 million bail bond. It is part of an ongoing investigation of the group which, according to the indictment, was allegedly engaged in money laundering, extortion, obstruction of justice, forced labor, sex trafficking, identity theft and more.

Ms. Bronfman and her sister Sara are children of Rita Webb, also known as Georgiana, who was the daughter of an English pub owner. After their parents’ divorce (they were divorced twice), she and her sister lived in England. Keep that in mind, when we get to the second part of the story.

I didn’t know her but knew how much her father Edgar M. Bronfman (Edgar Sr) cared about her. I recall a phone call from his office with the instruction for us to sponsor equestrian events inasmuch as she was a world class rider and competitor. Believe me, there weren’t any brands for whom this made any sense at all. So, with a stretch of the strategy and an intense desire to keep my job, Crown Royal was selected.

The Company Airplane

Gulfstream IV (Haute Living photo)

The days surrounding the news brought a deluge of emails from ex-Seagram friends with questions and observations. But none were as interesting as the one from Tony Rodriguez. Tony joined Seagram in the early 1980s and held a number of important senior positions in business strategy and finance. He related the following story.

Edgar traveled often to and from London in the mid 80s to visit his daughters. The presence of Seagram employees was often desired in order to qualify for a tax-deductible trip. Of course, the Bronfmans flew on the Gulfstream IV whenever they chose but wanted traveling employees when possible.

Here’s how Tony began his story:

“One of my first business trips around 1985, as Budget Dept. bean counter, was to Seagram’s European HQ in London (where I would eventually work as CFO for 3 years). On one particular trip and at the last minute, they (Seagram Travel Department) cancelled my Pan Am flight reservations because Mr. Edgar wanted a “mule” to be his excuse for a company-paid corporate jet flight with his family, including wife and two daughters, to London. What ensued was a very uncomfortable cross-Atlantic flight…”

As you might imagine the flight was operated with aviation fuel for the airplane and lots of alcohol fuel for the passengers. That’s when the fun began.

Allow me to interject a thought or two at this point. While the trip on the Gulfstream was a wonderful way to fly, it was not without its own special peril. Especially when traveling with Edgar Sr, one was often cautioned to control the alcohol intake and to avoid career ending conversations when Mr. Bronfman had been, ahem, over-served. Unfortunately, the plane only held a dozen or so people and there was no place to hide.

Nevertheless, on this trip, the booze flowed, especially the Sandeman’s Port. Tony was invited to join the meal aboard the plane and to join in the booze and conversation.

There were seven passengers on the flight — Edgar Sr, Georgiana, a British friend of Edgar’s, the Seagram doctor, Tony, and the daughters. They all had lunch (except for the children) and fit nicely around a table on the plane.

Gulfstream IV interior. (Libertyjet.com)

The Seagram Doctor

Yes, that’s right, Seagram had a full-fledged and fully equipped medical office in the NYC headquarters with a full-time doctor and a few nurses. The physician was quite a character — part pedophile and part poster child for #MeToo, but his interest was men. Let’s call him Dr. G, since many of us referred to him as Dr. Goldfinger. One Seagram friend told me recently that if he went to the medical office for a Band-Aid for a paper cut, the doc would tell him to drop his pants.

Anyway, Tony, in his late 20s at the time, found himself in a very uncomfortable trans-Atlantic flight sitting next to Dr. G who kept trying to stroke his thigh during the meal.

Knowing what was happening, Edgar engaged Tony in conversation, including his upper crust British crony. The topic was shooting grouse and the conversation went something like this:

British Crony: Your name is Rodriguez, where is your family from?

Tony: Spain.

British Crony: Ah, I love Spain… I often go grouse hunting on the Costa Del Sol. Have you ever been there? Did your family ever shoot grouse?

Tony: No sir. My family were peasant farmers and didn’t partake in such activities.

Edgar Sr: Have you ever gone grouse hunting when you were growing up? Where did you grow up, anyway?

Tony: No sir, I never went grouse hunting. I grew up in Newark… there were no grouse. But, there were lots of pigeons we shot with BB guns.

British Crony: Well then, tell me, us — what sports did you play in New Ark?

Tony: Street games…

British Crony: Such as…?

Tony: Well, stickball for one. It’s like baseball except, among other things, for a bat we used our mother’s cut off broom.

Edgar: That’s hysterical. Tell me Nigel, have you ever played with your mother’s broom?

British Crony: I can’t say that I have.

Tony went on to tell me that he was sure that neither of them ever saw their mothers use a broom, or even knew if they had one.

He ended his email to me with the following:

“So now we fast forward some 30+ years later to hear that Edgar’s cute little girl is involved in an international sexual trafficking ring.  I’m glad my family is much more boring even if none of us own an island in Fiji.”

 

*        *        *

Thank you, Tony.

For more stories about the Seagram plane see elsewhere on my blog such as here. Also, you might enjoy this one from my book:

Where to sit?

The protocol on where to sit on the company plane was well known. The owner, either Edgar Sr. or Edgar Jr., had the last seat on the right as you faced the rear of the plane (aft). If they weren’t on it, the most senior executive had that seat. Other plush seats were taken by rank, and the couches (we’re talking Gulfstream jets), were left to the more junior or lower ranking execs.           

As the story goes, while waiting for one of the Bronfmans to board the plane, a company president was talking to a colleague while seated in the Bronfman seat, when suddenly Bronfman appeared. Startled, the executive shot up, moved away, and said, “Sorry Mr. Bronfman, here’s your seat.” To which the Bronfman in question replied, “They’re all my seats.”

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Seagram’s 7 Crown: Then and Now

An iconic brand still alive and kicking

Seagram’s 7 Crown launched an interesting event last week — the first official National Dive Bar Day. No surprise that the launch date was 7/7. So, there’s lots to tell about the brand and this event. Let’s start with the event.

Dive Bars

Here’s how the folks at Diageo described this brand promotion:

“The Dive Bar is an American institution: where long-lasting memories are created, where people-watching is imperative, and where the greatest stories and a come-as-you-are attitude, live. Seagram’s 7 Crown will raise a glass to these historic hidden gems found across America, marking the first official National Dive Bar Day, fittingly taking place on July 7th, 2018 – in celebration of the quintessential Dive Bar drink, the 7&7.”

There are lots of definitions of a Dive Bar, some negative like this one in the Urban Dictionary: “A well-worn, unglamorous bar, often serving a cheap, simple selection of drinks to a regular clientele.” Whew, that’s mean.

The one that comes closest to what I think, is from my friend, Gaz Regan:

“Dive bars …. are bare bones joints where guests are treated equally whether they arrived wearing greasy overalls, or tuxedos … when the guest wants a quick shot and a beer before heading out to some swank affair. These places are great equalizers. The filing clerk can tell the CEO how to run the company better in a dive bar.  And in a real dive, the CEO will actually listen.”

Linking Seagram’s 7 and Dive Bars makes sense on many levels. First, the brand is an icon and an important part of America’s drinking history. It’s a natural link and since the purpose of Dive Bar Day is to support these places through the National Trust for Historic Preservation, it makes sense.

In addition, Dive Bars suggest fun, camaraderie, and good times. According to Jason Sorley, Diageo Brand Director for Seagram’s 7, both the brand and Dive Bars have a storied past and have been an important part of the American drinking culture. (Here’s a list of the best dive bars in every state from Thrillist.)

Seagram’s 7 Crown

As I was doing my homework for this article, I walked into my favorite neighborhood package store and asked for a bottle. (Yeah, it’s been a long time since I bought one.) The owner, who’s a friend, looked at me as though I had lost my mind. “Seriously?” he said, “You come in for all kinds of fancy shmantzy whiskies and gins and now you want Seagram’s 7? I don’t carry that. I remember it but who drinks that these days?”

I grumbled something about how any store can fail to stock an American liquor icon and one that millions of folks remember as their drinking “training wheels.” In fact, for decades, the 7&7 (Seagram’s 7 and 7 Up) was the drink of choice for entry level drinkers. It tastes great and is easy to drink. But, alas, many other booze products have usurped that esteemed rite of drinking passage.

So, I for one am delighted that Diageo is working to bring that brand back.

Let’s Look at Some Numbers

One of the things that I’ve learned about the booze business is that it’s hard, if not impossible, to kill a brand based on its sales. Sure, a manufacturer can end the life of a brand, but, the marketplace itself will rarely if ever kill a brand.

According to the ex-Seagram people I spoke with who worked on the brand, at its peak, Seagram 7 Crown reached well over 8 million (9-litre) cases in the late 1970s. Even by 1990, when whiskies were losing dramatically to vodka, the brand sold close to 4 million cases. As to my retailer friend’s view that the brand is dead, guess what? Today Seagram’s 7 still sells in the 2 million case range. In fact, according to Shanken’s Impact, the brand is in the top 30 leading spirit brands in the US. So there, Mr. Retailer!

The Brand’s History

To stay with the numbers for a moment…

Seagram’s 7 was the 1st brand ever to reach 1 million cases. The 1st to sell 100 million cases. And, over the years sold over 300 million cases in 1983. (See close up photo below.) We’re talking a multi-billion-dollar brand, boys and girls.

The back label of the commemorative bottle from the 300 million case celebration

As the story goes, after prohibition and before WWII, Seagram introduced two blended American Whiskies — Seagram 5 Crown and 7 Crown. Why the name Seagram 7? The apocryphal story is that Sam Bronfman (the Seagram patriarch, known as Mr. Sam) was presented with a range of candidate products for a blended whiskey and ended up choosing the one he liked — the 7th one presented to him.

Whatever happened to Seagram’s 5? During the Second World War the government asked distillers to cut back on alcohol production to aid the war effort. Seagram’s 5 was not doing as well as 7, so it was discontinued. Also, Seagram’s 5 was higher in alcohol at 86.8 proof.

How did the 7&7 come to be? (Another apocryphal story.) Well, those were the days when distributor sales reps tried to build brands rather than just fill orders. So, an aggressive sales rep thought it would be clever to link the 7 in 7up with Seagram’s 7. Much to his surprise it was great and the 7&7 was born.

Here’s What Else I Can Tell You

  1. At Seagram and since then, I’ve heard it referred to differently. Internally, we referred to the brand as 7 Crown. Among consumers and generally outside of Seagram it was called Seagram 7 or just plain ‘7.’
  2. The event linking the brand to Dive Bar Day was organized and run by Greg Leonard and his company Proof Media Mix. Greg is a former Seagram and Diageo PR and activation executive and, for my money, the best in the business at making ideas and events come alive,
  3. Did you know that Seagram’s 7 — a blended American Whiskey contains a large percentage of grain neutral spirits? Check the packaging, right on the front label it says “75 per cent Grain Neutral Spirits.” Even back in the day, GNS was a significant proportion of Seagram’s 7. In fact, the US regulations for blended whiskey allows a blend of straight whiskies and up to 80 percent neutral spirits.
  4. I’ve often heard it said that brands have a life cycle — from creation to maturity to decline, and ultimately gone. Maybe. Here’s a brand that had its heyday in the 1960s and 70s and is still alive and kicking. Like I said, manufacturers kill brands, consumers don’t.

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I wish to thank the following people whose thoughts and experiences helped shape this article… Rob Warren, Greg Leonard, and John Hartrey. Special thanks to John for sharing his collection of Seagram memorabilia and photos. In fact, John has the dubious distinction of being the last Seagram’s 7 brand director at Seagram.

Diageo activation at the 2018 Firefly Music Festival  (Photo by Jack Dempsey)
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Bulleit Bourbon: The Birth of a Brand

The True Story of How the Brand Got its Start

I’ve known Tom Bulleit since the 1990s and it was under my watch at Seagram that Bulleit Bourbon was developed and launched. Tom is a terrific guy, a real gentleman, and a smart businessman.

I saw some Impact Databank sales information the other day and among the top 10 super-premium bourbon brands, Bulleit is second only to Maker’s Mark in case sales at 1.2 million 9-liter cases (Maker’s is at 1.5 million), but Bulleit’s growth from 2016 to 2017 was 12.7% compared to maker’s 4.7%.

What’s even more impressive is that in 2000 Bulleit sold 180,000 cases while Maker’s Mark sold 1.4 million. At this rate of growth, it is likely that Bulleit Bourbon will surpass Maker’s as the leading selling brand.

So, the brand’s remarkable achievement has been the result of Diageo’s and Tom Bulleit’s efforts. Its launch and positioning in the bourbon market was due to the folks at Seagram.

Its start has always been an enigma to me and I set out recently to get the full story and to refresh my memory.

Let’s go Down Seagram Memory Lane

If you’ve read my book (forgive the shameless self-promotion), you know that Seagram was a whisk(e)y company in a world of vodka, tequila and other non-whiskey products. Starting in the early to mid 90s, the company acquired the distribution rights to Absolut, and at the same time, Captain Morgan and Crown Royal were growing by double digits each month. By the mid to late 1990s Seagram had consolidated its whisk(e)y portfolio to Canadian Whiskies (Crown Royal, VO and its line extension), Seagram 7 Crown, and Scotch brands (Chivas Regal, The Glenlivet, and other single malt whiskies).

All other whiskey brands were sold or let out to pasture. This Included such terrific brands as Weller, Benchmark and my current favorite, Eagle Rare. The sole exception that comes to mind is Four Roses, which was doing very well as a bourbon brand in Japan but languished as a blended American whiskey in the US.

The puzzle to me as I look back on it is, with the portfolio changing and growing and many whiskies being sold, why did Seagram want a fledgling bourbon with a pretty awful package (at the time)?

The old Bulleit bottle

There’s another piece of the equation that may partially shed some light on this.

In 1995, Seagram bought 80 percent of the shares in entertainment conglomerate MCA Inc. for $8 billion. The company was now in a new business and Edgar Bronfman Jr. focused his attention there. As a result, the owner “overwatch” returned to Edgar M. Bronfman (the Chairman) assisted by John Bernbach, a long time Edgar Jr. friend, an advertising and media executive, and a Bronfman/Seagram advisor.

How Bulleit Came to Seagram

John played a crucial role. At dinner one night with an attorney friend from a prominent NYC law firm, John was told about Tom and the brand. He naturally assumed that since Seagram did not have a bourbon, Bulleit would make a strong addition to the overall portfolio. He brought the idea to both Edgar Jr. and the Chairman.

Both Bronfmans were said to have some reservations. The younger Bronfman was not happy with the packaging (see photo) while the Chairman had some reservations about the taste. But, both liked the idea of a bourbon in the House of Seagram.

But why? Bourbons had been removed from the fold, Crown Royal was on fire, Glenlivet and other single malts were doing nicely, and the company’s focus was on Absolut and the commitments to the Swedish owners.

There are lots of conjectures as to the answer. Perhaps Edgar Jr. was prescient and saw bourbon’s return as an opportunity. Maybe he wanted to show investors and the company that, despite the entertainment industry involvement, the spirits business was still top of mind. Conceivably the Chairman, now returned to the forefront of the booze business, was excited by the idea of a bourbon product that was outstanding.

My guess is that when John brought in his team (copywriter and art director), he showed the Bronfmans what the brand could become. Edgar Jr. in particular loved the work of these two gents.

Bulleit 10 year old bourbon

Chuck Cowdery—writer, blogger, historian, marketer, and arguably the most knowledgeable bourbon maven on the planet—has written more than anyone about Bulleit. So, I’ll let him provide a brief history as reported on his blog:

Bulleit bourbon was launched in 1995, the brainchild of Tom Bulleit, a Kentucky lawyer who, through his legal work, learned a lot about the growing international market for American whiskey. He contracted with the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, to make it. A few years later, he moved his operation over to Seagram. They created the current bottle and reformulated the product, moving its production to the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.

Tom Bulleit

From the moment Tom walked through the door, and up to the closing of the Seagram door, Tom was a key player in the development of the brand. He worked with the production folks on the recipe, with the agency on the brand’s positioning, and with marketing/packaging on the look and message of Bulleit.

To me, this was a bit unusual. While Seagram often welcomed brand acquisitions, with the exception of Absolut, the attitude was often (to paraphrase) “thanks, we love your brand, here’s your check, we’ll take it from here, and here’s the door…” But, all of us from the Bronfman’s on down, welcomed Tom’s involvement.

There’s probably a couple of reasons for that, mainly due to Tom’s personality and approach—he’s smart, has the brand in his DNA, a team player, and overall terrific person to work with. Neil Gallo, who ran the day-to-day development of the brand, told to me recently that Tom would often say to Seagram folks something like, “here’s my suggestion, use it or not as you see fit.” His ideas were almost always accepted.

From my standpoint, I loved Tom’s “outsider” views and the way he interacted with our people.

Tom Bulleit

The Bulleit Product

Whether there was a Bulleit Bourbon product on the market or otherwise available to be bought in the 19th Century, was irrelevant to us. Tom’s proposition was 1) the brand traced its origin to Augustus Bulleit (great-great-grandfather of Tom) and 2) with strong brand credentials, the brand could be a winner. We totally agreed.

The production folks were energized by the fact that they would be working on a new whiskey (a bourbon no less) and would be able to use the outstanding bourbon stocks they had. According to Art Peterson, who was VP of Quality Assurance and Technical Services, the team presented samples from mingling bond stocks from inventory. These went to Tom and the master distiller for approval. Ultimately, as was the case with all Seagram products, the final approval of the liquid came from the Chairman.

Tom, for his part, had his ancestors recipe in mind—a high rye content bourbon. What was produced was two-thirds corn and one-third rye. (The bourbon corn requirement is 51%). Today the brand’s recipe is very similar—68% corn, 28% rye, and 4% malted barley.

Here’s how the Bulleit website describes the product:

Inspired by his great-great-grandfather Augustus Bulleit, who made a high-rye whiskey between 1830-1860…

The Concept and the Packaging

John’s Bernbach’s team (with Tom and Neil’s involvement), came up with a simple yet powerful message. This isn’t just a bourbon, this is a Frontier Whiskey. A powerful slogan followed— “When men were men and whiskey was bourbon.” I loved it, approved it immediately then brought it to Edgar Jr. for his final okay.

The slogan is gone but the Frontier Whiskey is still prominent in the current Bulleit packaging.

To me, the Bulleit packaging that was developed by Sandstrom Partners in Portland Oregon captured the concept perfectly. All the elements were there—a flask shaped, apothecary-like bottle, embossed branding, cork closure and, a minimal wraparound label that is slightly askew as though it was hand applied.

About that label… It was put on deliberately misaligned because it fit the imagery and positioning of the brand. It is part of the brand’s personality. However, in almost all operating committee meetings someone from production would invariably say something like this: “Great news Arthur, we fixed the label. It’s now perfectly straight.” This “great news” was always met with a groan and a request to leave it alone.

The Reactions

Not everyone in the organization loved or cared about Bulleit. Most of those in sales welcomed the brand since it had the backing of the owners or because they saw an opportunity in the bourbon business. At the same time, there were many who felt that Bulleit detracted focus and attention from the phenomenal growth of Crown Royal—a known winner vs. an upstart. Besides, there were other brands in need of focus such as Absolut and Captain Morgan, both recognized winners.

The brand limped along from the mid-1990s until the end of the decade. Then the lights went out as Seagram was sold to Pernod-Ricard and Diageo. The brands were split up and Diageo acquired Bulleit Bourbon.

The situation for the brand changed appreciably. According to data I’ve seen, the returning growth of bourbon began in the mid-2000s. Unlike Seagram, Diageo, while strong in scotch, did not have much going for it in American whiskies, particularly bourbon. Dickel and Rebel Yell hardly fit the bill to compete with the rapidly growing brands. As a result, Diageo had nothing to lose and much to gain by pushing Bulleit and its unique package and positioning. I’m told that Diageo’s sales folks loved the brand and strongly focused on it.

Today

In 2017, to meet the demand of Bulleit, Diageo built a distillery in Shelbyville, Kentucky which will produce 1.8 million proof gallons annually, with the opportunity to expand further over time. It’s on a 300-acre campus with barrel houses at a cost $115 million.

At the current rate of growth of the brand, I wouldn’t be surprised if the expansion were to happen very soon.

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Lessons Learned

1. The role of focus

Seagram had strong and rapidly growing brands requiring concerted and sustained effort. Bulleit would have had to push itself to the forefront of the portfolio at the company. Even if Seagram had survived, I have my doubts as to whether Bulleit would be where it is today.

2. Managing a portfolio of brands

Diageo, seeing the emergence of a return to bourbon, had the good sense to back Bulleit at the expense of George Dickel (a Tennessee whiskey) and Rebel Yell (which was ultimately sold to Luxco in 1999). In short, Seagram’s roster of brands had no real room for Bulleit while Diageo did.

3. Hey marketing folks—don’t overthink it

I think there is a temptation among marketers to show relevance and authenticity by claiming a brand’s recipe dates back to 1830. It was smart to go a different route—just being inspired by Augustus Bulleit is sufficient. As a consumer, I care less about a brand’s history and background and more about what it is today.

*          *          *

I’d like to thank the following people who helped refresh my memory or otherwise corrected my recollection in writing this article. These included Neil Gallo, Rob Warren, John Bernbach, Greg Leonard, Sam Ellias, Art Peterson, and, of course, Tom Bulleit.

The Bulleit portfolio of brands
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