The Control States

A close look at an important segment of the alcohol industry

header_logoThe National Alcohol Beverage Control Association (NABCA) is the national association representing the Control State Systems – those jurisdictions that directly control the distribution and sale of beverage alcohol within their borders. There are 17 member jurisdictions, 16 states and Montgomery Co, Maryland and they control 24% of US spirits volume.

Additionally, there are municipalities in Minnesota and South Dakota that act as retailers and there are three other smaller

The control state jurisdictions (in blue).
The control state jurisdictions (in blue).

counties in Maryland that are also considered control jurisdictions.

Last week NABCA held it’s 78th annual conference.

In some states, liquor stores are state-run and basically in the retail business (e.g., Alabama, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Utah, New Hampshire). In many, the states are the “wholesaler” and appoint agents (private businesses) to run the retail business (e.g., Maine, Ohio, Vermont). There are a number of other variations but the common denominator is that the state government in these jurisdictions is in the alcohol business.

Until a few years ago there were 18, then the State of Washington voted to privatize and that’s where our story begins.

What has been the result in Washington?

I recently spoke to a friend in Seattle and asked him what changes have resulted from privatizing the liquor business. My friend’s politics are such that I wasn’t surprised by his response that “government doesn’t belong in private enterprise.” I next asked him what happened to the prices of spirits in his state. He said he wasn’t sure and thought they went up. Then revealed that he buys his liquor in Oregon (a Control State) because it’s much cheaper.

In fact, according to an article in The Seattle Times last June:

Many saw privatization as a win for business, government and the public… The state would get more revenue from newly imposed fees. And consumers would get cheaper, more widely available booze.

Well, most of that happened: A nearly $1 billion business is in private hands, the state has enjoyed a short-term revenue windfall, and liquor is ubiquitous. But on average it’s not cheaper, and certainly not perceived as such.

KREM TV in a story earlier this year reported that the state now has the highest prices in the country.

In Washington, a gallon of alcohol costs about $35. Compare that to two years ago when it cost $27 before it was privatized. Washington’s liquor prices are currently the highest in the country and cost $25 more than what it would cost just a few miles away in Idaho.

The winner in Washington is Costco, not the consumer. Unless of course, you want to buy one of their limited selection brands in gigundous sizes.

Control State confusion

Over the years, I’ve always felt that misconceptions abounded when it came to attitudes toward the control states. So I check with two former Seagram colleagues about the system. One was Steve Bellini, EVP Business Intelligence/Trade Development at Sidney Frank Import Co. and my former (and last) boss at Seagram. The other was Gregg Mineo, a Seagram and Absolut alumni and currently Director, Maine Bureau of Alcohol Beverages and Lottery Operations.

Both confirmed my view of the past. Once upon a time, the control states were run by political appointees whose knowledge of business in general and the spirits industry in particular was minimal. Gregg and Steve agree that the situation has appreciably changed. If it was ever true in the first place.

Further, suppliers (other than Seagram I might add) did not understand the control state structure and how to operate in that world. Everyone knew how to go to a distributor and beat him over the head but presenting to a control state board was uncharted waters for most.

Besides – and here comes my jaded perspective – when you need to make a “number” you can poke your finger in a wholesaler’s chest but can’t do that with a commissioner or director. You can load a wholesaler with merchandise if you have the clout; you can’t do that with a control state.

By the way, I just read this in Wine and Spirits Daily

Control States represent 45% of Diageo’s group earnings before interest, tax (EBIT), per Morgan Stanley.

Why I love control states

Education Awards Program Report
Education Awards Program Report

When I ran market research, I always felt that the data provided by NABCA was the most accurate snapshot of consumer behavior or ‘takeaway.’ DISCUS numbers were important but dealt with sales to wholesalers. Nielsen data is consumer driven but is limited to 10% of the market and extrapolated for a holistic view.

As a result, when I ran new products, I always wanted a control state market as part of my test markets because I felt that the feedback would be more indicative of the product’s potential. Further, I was able to more easily determine the impact of programming and strategy with the information I received.

Today, I’m happy about the control states system because they provide easier entry points for smaller brands (think craft and other startups) and these brands are likely to be given a fair chance to get off the ground if there’s a reasonable amount of support by the supplier. Not to mention giving consumers a wide range of choices.

So, there are many reasons to be a fan of the control state system.

Meet Jim Sgueo

Mr. Sgueo is the President and CEO of NABCA and has been with the association for over 40 years and served in various capacities including, Systems Analyst, Director of Statistical Operations and Deputy Director. When you ask Steve Bellini about him, be prepared for a long, glowing series of comments such as “He is one of the industry’s unsung heroes… Humble but extremely knowledgeable and a real driver behind moving the control states forward.”

Gregg Mineo is no less effusive. He cites example after example of how, under Jim’s leadership, the association has become more sophisticated and more effective in providing information and education to its members.

Jim Sgueo President and CEO of NABCA
Jim Sgueo President and CEO of NABCA

I spoke to Jim and was not surprised to learn that he has indeed been at the forefront of change. He points out that in the distant past, state commissioners might have been political appointees without strong business skills. Since the 1980s, Governors have appointed directors and commissioners with general and alcohol business experience. Many of these directors have transformed their agencies and implemented 21st century business practices. This is the new generation of control state leadership that NABCA is geared to.

Here’s the part I like the most…

Those data resources I mentioned? The proceeds of the sale of that information go back to its membership in the form of education grants, research, the conference and other activities.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many associations that use the proceeds from selling information to fund activities.

Despite his many years at NABCA, Jim Sgueo strikes me as a man that doesn’t rest on his laurels and is open to change and adaptation.

I know many business executives that could use those attributes. So the next time you hear discussion about privatizing a control state because government ‘intervention’ in the market is wrong, just tell them to look at Washington. And, to realize that control states are moving more and more to balancing commercial interests with their regulatory role.

Continue Reading

Control State Battle: Washington

The initiative in the state of Washington, called I-1183, seeks to “get state government out of the liquor business.”

I find the Control State situation a tough one to deal with in developing a point of view. Opponents say that it’s an anachronism reflecting prohibition-based values; government doesn’t belong in private enterprise; the world has changed in the 75 years since prohibition and there are ample other regulatory means to control the sale of alcohol; and on and on.

I feel differently about Washington.

First, I-1183 gets the state out of the liquor business and opens it up to stores measuring at least 10,000 square feet. The exceptions would be underserved areas and existing state run stores. But small boutique/specialty liquor stores will not exist.

Second, the initiative would make Washington the only state to allow retailers to buy directly from the distillers. In effect, the wholesaler role in the mandatory 3-tier system would change if not end. Guess who is pushing I-1183 and spending millions to promote it? Costco. (Their headquarters are in the state of Washington.)

That’s what bothers me. Don’t get me wrong, we love to shop at Costco and get all those juicy bargains. And, who knows, maybe one day in this decade we’ll finally use up the paper products that live in our spare bedroom. But Costco in the booze business isn’t all good.

Sure, the prices are terrific, so long as you buy what they want to sell in 1.75 liters (half gallon sizes). You don’t go to Costco for selection. Often, you don’t get the same brand twice. It depends on how badly they beat up the distiller in that time period. When I was at Seagram, we didn’t mind the abuse by Costco’s buyers, we got to move a lot of volume and even a few closeouts.

If Costco dominates the state’s liquor business what happens to the smaller brands? The northwest is the spiritual home of artisanal alcohol products. Small distillers in Washington are growing and their local liquor stores have a great selection of spirits. I would expect that to end if Costco starts running the show in the state.

Ironically, the initiative in Washington replaces the monopoly of state run stores with the oligopoly of the large distillers and the power and clout of Costco. I don’t think that’s a good thing.

Continue Reading

Governmental Booze

Here we go again.

The press about initiatives concerning the privatization of alcohol sales has started to heat up once more. Looks like the Washington initiative will be back on the ballot; Ohio is pushing across the board privatization, not just alcohol; and Pennsylvania lawmakers are expected to file legislation that would auction off the state’s wine and spirits wholesale operations and liquor stores to private vendors.

But wait a minute… Didn’t I just read that the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board  (PLCB) just reported record sales and contributions to the state treasury?

In fact, the control board hit $1.9 billion in sales (up 4%) and claims to be the largest buyer of wine and spirits in the US. The sales volume generated some $500 million in sales tax and profit transfers.

It seems to me that, in addition to being a monopoly, they have tried to use marketing efforts more like a private enterprise than government. They run ads (print, billboards and even radio); lots of price promotions; and have initiatives like an online store and supermarket wine and spirits kiosks.

But it’s a government enterprise and, as such, I’m not sure they speak marketing. Their ads are okay but hardly comparable to those run by large private enterprise retailers. Despite the blasé nature of their communication, the PLCB still gets criticized for running ads. Imagine how much louder the criticism would be if the ads were compelling.

Their retail initiatives are worth applauding even if Wegmans ultimately rejected the kiosk idea because of customer complaints.  According to Bloomberg Business Week, “customers who use the kiosks insert their identification, and a state worker at a remote location verifies it. The wine buyer must then use a breath machine to prove their blood-alcohol level is below 0.02.”

Where I come from all of this is referred to as “close, but no cigars.”

I don’t mean to be harsh, but government running a private enterprise – no matter how well intentioned and creative the employees are – just doesn’t measure up. The obstacles are too numerous and strong.

I read an article today that the wineries in New York have appealed to Sen. Schumer because the federal government is hurting business by taking too long to approve new labels for wine bottles. Schumer said, “Often, when wineries finally do receive feedback, it is with a rejected label and the necessary corrections. And, at that point, labels must be resubmitted and the process must begin again.” He went on to point out that delayed label approval means delayed sales that in turn means less tax dollars.

Maybe the folks in Pennsylvania should work for the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).

Continue Reading