Charity

I recently learned that the Wine & Spirits Division Dinner of the UJA-Federation of NY is honoring Charlie Merinoff. It made me think of a couple of things.

First, Charlie is a good guy and one of the brightest people in the industry. The Merinoff family has been great for this business and Charlie is a real mensch. It’s an excellent cause and they can use his support. I hope the dinner raises a bundle.

I also thought about the Seagram experience with the UJA fund raising event. It wasn’t pleasant. Here goes…

I came to Seagram as the VP Marketing Research, so I started in a senior position. That was in the spring of none-of-your-business. Three months later I received a memo telling me to report to The Glenlivet Tavern on the 5th floor of 375 Park Ave. for the UJA “meeting” of the executive group. I had no idea what to make of this gathering. The folks who were on my staff said things like “Uh-ho, they are going to call you by name and expect you to announce your contribution to the annual spirits and wine fund drive for the UJA; going to cost you lots of money but don’t worry the company will match your gift.” What?

I quickly  realized that 1) this was organized extortion 2) I didn’t want to appear stingy 3) I also didn’t want to appear obsequious and 4) it was a good cause but why do I have to stand up and publically declare my gift? I later learned that it was the “tithe” that made the family look good. (Although, in fairness, I should add that the Bronfmans always made a significant contribution in their own right. But, their gift, plus the executives’ gift plus matching funds meant that the Seagram “family” would be giving enough to sustain a small developing nation for a year.)

I came to the decision that I had to do what I had to do and decided on a number that my staff had suggested. You don’t want to know how much. It was over the top.

So I was locked and loaded and ready for the “calling of names” at the meeting. Unbeknownst to me, my colleagues had been through this many times before and knew how to beat the system. They called each other beforehand and decided on the amount that would be given by each managerial level. (Hey folks, thanks for telling me!)

Since my name begins with an S, I had ample opportunity to see what my associates were giving. My planned contribution was way out of whack. I quickly made a readjustment downward.

Lessons learned: After only 3 months I realized it was us against them. I also learned that the advice you got from some was not necessarily reliable. In short, I got the lay of the land pretty quickly.

Please forgive me if the UJA is not at the top of my charitable giving list.

Blame the Bronfman’s.

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No extra charge

Gregg Mineo sent me the following story about Sabra Liqueur. It was originally developed and introduced in 1963 by  Edgar Sr. Currently it’s produced by Carmel wineries, I believe.

Back in the days of the Seagram Empire, before the industry centralized and contracted, there were small companies like Park Avenue Imports.  They sold cordials and niche products like Vandermint, Cherry Suisse and, of course, the inimitable Sabra.

Sabra was a quality product, made from Jaffa oranges and Swiss chocolate.  It was packaged in a unique bottle similar to a Genie bottle, but unfortunately didn’t have a long shelf life.  I think in my early days of sampling Sabra, I gave more away than I sold.  It was a hit in assisted living care facilities, and of course Miami.

Well, as the story goes, one of the established retailers in Miami started selling Sabra at a brisk pace, and developed a loyal following, especially with a particular gentleman who was buying a bottle once a month.  He began buying it before the brand took off in this store, and one day came back to return one of the bottles he purchased.  He complained that this bottle of Sabra was not the same product he was used to, that it lacked something special he really enjoyed.

The retailer asked what the difference was, and the customer responded that “it didn’t have the chocolate bits in it.”

Stifling a laugh, the retailer offered him something else; all the while knowing that the bottles of Sabra the customer was used to had passed the expected shelf life. Obviously, the customer didn’t care.

What I want to know is — were the chocolate bits available at no extra charge?

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Those Seagram Folks

I was talking to a fellow Seagram Alum the other day and the conversation turned to what made Seagram unique and where people are today.

He pointed out that ex-Seagram folks occupy top positions in many companies in the industry.

He’s right; all of the top 5 spirits companies have former Seagram people in very senior spots. When you think about it further, the Seagram folks play important roles throughout the industry – suppliers, distributors, retailers and service providers.

I suppose it’s because of a number of things that characterized the company back in the day. Perhaps it was the combination of self-confidence (some would say arrogance) and humbleness. A belief that there was a Seagram way to do things and getting it done didn’t have to be in an overbearing manner. Strength of conviction combined with respect.

Me? I think Seagram people learned to adapt, survive, flourish and succeed because of the common enemy. Sort of like a successful person who grew up with dysfunctional parents but knew he could survive if he relied on his siblings. In short, it’s called camaraderie.

They did us a favor by shutting the lights.

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