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.”

Continue Reading

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.

*          *          *

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)
Continue Reading

The Missing Prosecco: A New York City Story

This can only happen in NYC

The City of New York has a building ordinance called Local Law 11, described as follows:

To keep buildings safe, owners of properties higher than six stories must have exterior walls and appurtenances, such as balconies, inspected every five (5) years – and they must file a technical façade report with the Department.

Recently, the building in which I live was inspected by our engineering firm and it was determined that we needed to inspect the building—particularly the balconies—and that repair work needed to take place.

So, starting in July, a pedestrian bridge (also known as a shed) went up all around the sidewalk of our building, scaffolding was deployed, and a team of workers began to prepare the façade and mainly the balconies. It’s a complicated process so I’ll spare you the details. It’s sufficient to say that we could not use our small balcony in the summer or fall and it took until mid-December for the work to be completed.

Despite the slight inconvenience, I was in awe of the men riding the scaffold each day to do the job. Imagine going up and down a 31-floor building, doing this for more than eight hours a day, and getting on and off to work on balconies. I get dizzy and wobbly getting on a step ladder to change a bulb. There is not enough money for me to even contemplate getting on a scaffold—including what Diageo paid for Casamigoes.

Now on to the story…

One day last week, our balcony was finished and I opened the door, partly because I wanted a close look at the work (fabulous) and mainly because I could, for the first time in six months. I didn’t stay there long; it was freezing out.

It just so happens that on that particular day we had a small group of friends coming over for a cocktail party. I bought what I needed from the nearby wine and spirits shop—hey, it’s NYC and there’s one every other street. Included in my order was four bottles of prosecco… Mionetto Prosecco to be exact. Sparkling wine is fun, celebratory, easy to serve, and some folks prefer it to other drinks.

My order arrived but the problem was how to keep the prosecco cold; the refrigerator was full of food and I could only get two bottles in. How to keep the other two bottles cold was a bit of a dilemma.

I know, I thought, now that the balcony was accessible, I’ll do what most of my neighbors and I do in the winter and store two bottles out there. If you live in an apartment in the city, you don’t have room for an extra refrigerator, so a balcony, or even a fire escape, when the temperature is low enough, will do the trick.

Two bottles in a plain black plastic bag were put outside to keep cold. But different types of alcohol freeze differently. An 80 proof (40%AbV) spirit will not freeze but a wine at 8 to 14% AbV will first turn to slush then freeze after just an hour or two. I had visions of frozen sparkling wine and shooting corks taking out neighbors’ windows.

So, around fifteen minutes before our guests were due to arrive, I went out to the balcony to check on my cache.

The balcony was empty.

No booze. Gone. Disappeared.

I live on the 11th floor of the building so, unless Spider Man was in the upper east side and decided to climb up to my balcony and take the prosecco, there was only one other explanation—the workers took it.

I called the building superintendent, a good friend, and laughingly told him the situation. He immediately deduced that they were on a scaffold going down and finished for the day, so they must have thought the wine was a gift for them. Hmmm. Made sense to me. “Never mind,” I said. “Let them enjoy it.” His reply was a terse, “Let me see what I can do.”

I shrugged and immediately called the liquor store and, reminding them what a good customer I am, I begged them to send up two more bottles asap.

Ten minutes later the doorbell rang. Two gentlemen were standing outside. One was the delivery guy from the store and the other was one of the building employees. Each had a bag containing two bottles of prosecco. We now had six.

The aftermath

I felt really badly about the building taking the assumed gift away from the workers. These fellows worked long and hard and a couple of bottles of booze was small additional compensation. But my friend the super thought he was doing me a favor. I shouldn’t have called him.

What really pissed me off was that of the six bottles of prosecco, only one was consumed. A couple bottles of Eagle Rare Bourbon, seemed to be the preferred libation.

As we say in New Yawk, go figure.

My building
Continue Reading
1 2 3 17