Roughing it — A Vodka Fable

The Chairman of a global spirits company decided that he wanted to build a distillery in the land of his ancestors in Eastern Europe. After all, he reasoned, the communist regimes had recently fallen and since most countries in the region were impoverished, it would be economically beneficial for all. The country was known for its Vodka capabilities (not to mention consumption) and had the manufacturing infrastructure. With some upgrading and reasonable investment, world class Vodka could be produced and sold by his company.

Perhaps the rudiments of manufacturing infrastructure existed but everything else in the country was in a state of economic disrepair.

Nevertheless, the wheels were set in motion. The executive in charge of the European business unit was given the assignment of making it happen.

Things moved along well. A plant with capacity for expanded growth was found, production experts were engaged, top-notch grain was somehow located, distillation and formulae were worked out and the plant began to produce Vodka.

Proud of the achievement his idea set into motion, the Chairman decided that he would come to the country to officially open the factory and visit with the leaders of the newly democratized country. He also thought it would be a good idea to meet with the leaders at a lakefront villa or dacha.

This was a major problem for the executive in charge. Even the most lavish dachas were shabby and dilapidated and the Chairman and his entourage were used to the very best.

What to do? His colleagues in New York told him to spare no expense. The Chairman was known for his anger and disappointing him would be a career ender.

So, the head of Europe found a dacha, engaged workmen from the country and flew in top-notch carpenters and plumbers from England to assist. Floors and ceilings were repaired, electricity was enhanced, plastering and painting took place and the rundown dacha was transformed. Furnishings were rented and flown in.

About a week before the scheduled arrival, the team realized that getting food the Chairman enjoys was an additional problem. No worries … a container of provisions was purchased in London and also flown in.

All was set for the arrival of the Chairman after much last minute scurrying and concerted effort.

His private plane was met and, since it was late at night, the entourage was driven right to the dacha and went to bed.

The next morning the executive arrived at the dacha and was asked by the Chairman to join him at breakfast, which was an elaborate meal.

The executive (holding his breath) said, “So, Chairman, how did you enjoy your first night?”

To which the Chairman replied, “Oh you know me, I’m used to roughing it in these third world countries.”

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Seagram and Vodka

Until the “acquisition” of Absolut, Seagram was not just a vodka-less company; it was an Ostrich hiding its head in whiskey pretending not to see the world of booze change.

Sam Bronfman’s aversion/reluctance to sell vodka is widely known. Perhaps for him, liquor needed to be aged or brown or have the word whiskey on the bottle. Whatever his reasons, the company was never a vodka player. In fact, when I was in market research, one of the older executives told me the story of how Mr. Sam reacted to a research project about changing consumer alcohol tastes. It may be apocryphal but it sure has the ring of truth.

One of the most notable researchers of the 50s and 60s, Alfred Politz, was an early leader in the techniques of polling and opinion analysis. He was commissioned to do a study of changing consumer alcohol tastes and attitudes. The presentation of the findings took place at an executive retreat and, in an unusual display of bonhomie, Mr. Sam suggested they review the results while sitting around the pool.

Page after page of the report pointed to the potential rise of vodka at the expense of whiskies. Politz was said to have been very clear that the evidence overwhelmingly leaned in this direction. It was also clear that Mr. Sam was getting angrier and angrier. Finally, he got up from his chaise, grabbed the report out of the researcher’s hands, threw it in the pool, muttered some obscenity and stormed off. Politz was said to have been relieved not to join his report.

So while competitors were developing Smirnoff, Popov, Stolichnaya and other brands, Seagram was struggling with entries like Wolfschmidt, Nikolai and Crown Russe.

Finally, someone decided to create a new vodka brand but, unlike most of those on the market at the time, it was to be imported vodka. In fact it was called Seagram Imported Vodka or SIV, as it was lovingly referred to. Imported all the way from Canada.

Management at the time knew that the “white goods” race was passing Seagram by and the pressure to succeed was very strong. So much so that when a presentation to a major California chain was set up to expand distribution, the “brass” decided to attend.

Picture this, a president, an owner, the head of marketing, the head of sales, brand managers…all fly off in the company plane to attend this meeting on SIV. They get to LA early with time to kill before the meeting. Since a few of them had never seen the inside of a chain store liquor department, they decide to visit a few stores.

Next thing you know there are 4 or 5 suits walking the aisles checking the shelves and watching consumers make decisions and purchases. They’re paying particular attention to the vodka section and spot a man looking at the brands and seemingly trying to make a decision.  A member of the entourage goes up to him, takes a bottle of SIV off the shelf, hands it to the man and says, “check this one…it’s imported.”

The man studies the bottle for a moment or two looks at the exec and, as he puts it back on the shelf says, “that’s not imported, it’s Seagram.

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Keeper of the “goodies”

At a recent visit to a Mets game (sorry I can’t bring myself to call it anything other than Shea Stadium) I was reminded of a story about baseball tickets.

Like many companies that entertain customers and clients, Seagram had a designated employee that handled customer/trade events and trips, national sales incentive programs and – the big prize – season tickets to sporting events in the NYC area.

One of these individuals, who I will call Mr. Keeper, was a nice and friendly guy until the subject of tickets came up. He didn’t see himself merely as the guardian or custodian of the coveted seats. Oh no, he was the protector, the de facto owner. Requests for tickets to a game were more often than not subjected to interrogation as to the identity of the intended customer and the rationale behind the request. And, invariably, unless the requestor was of significant ‘rank’ the request was denied outright or “someone else already got them.”

The management of the US operation passed to a new team and Mr. Keeper got an assignment outside of the US operation but still based in NYC.

The team that took over had its own designated employee to handle the customer relations, events and incentive trips. But when the first need for ballgame tickets arose, Mr. Keeper informed the new designate that the seats will be staying with Mr. Keeper and will be doled out as he saw fit.

Needless to say the new team was incensed and a (gentle) management skirmish erupted. But, with bigger issues to be addressed, the matter was set aside — not forgotten, just temporarily tabled.

One day, a senior executive asked for and grudgingly received tickets to a top notch Mets game.

While he knew the general vicinity on the field level where the seats were located, he wasn’t sure as to the exact location. He stopped an usher at the top of the section and handed the tickets to him. The usher looked at the tickets, looked at the executive, then back at the tickets, then at the executive again.

“Anything wrong?” asked the executive.

“Oh no,” said the usher. “I’m just surprised that you’re sitting in Mr. Keeper’s seats.”

For all I know he still has those seats.

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