Monthly Archives: January, 2019

Major Succession – Beverage Media Group

As CEO Of Missouri’s Major Brands, Inc.,  She Is The Only Woman To Run A Major Wine And Spirits Wholesaler In This Country. But That’s Not All That Makes Her Unique.

By Kristen Bieler

In 2012, Susan McCollum took the helm at Major Brands after the passing of her husband, Todd Epsten, from brain cancer. While attending law school at Washington University in St. Louis and raising two teen-age sons, she added representing the third generation of family ownership for the 84-year-old company. McCollum was quickly immersed in the complicated world of wine and spirits distribution, and tasked with leading a 600-person organization that represents over 400 suppliers and serves over 9,000 customers.

After surviving multiple legal battles and business challenges early in McCollum’s reign, Major Brands is stronger than ever today. I spoke with her about what she has learned, the importance of doing more than just “selling liquor” and why she believes local wholesalers have a very bright future.

Kristen Bieler:

You entered this industry after success in other fields. What surprised you most about this business?

Susan McCollum:

This industry remains intensely relationship-based—at every level—in ways that other businesses are not. Many things in this industry haven’t changed with time. Think about it: If you go to the corner bar, that bar owner still has the same role as he did decades ago. He has more power over what he puts on his back bar than almost anything else in his business. It’s a personal choice based on his relationships with his customers and his distributor.

I believe that with massive consolidation at every level, the less impactful brands become and the more important relationships become. It’s not that brands don’t have power, but the consumer is becoming more fragmented and the wholesaler-licensee relationship influences what choices consumers will have.


KB: You have extensive experience in law, marketing, communications and public affairs. What skills from your past careers have been most useful in running Major Brands?

SM: My favorite Steve Jobs quote is: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” I firmly believe we must take every experience and make it meaningful and then take meaning from every experience we have. I can draw upon every experience in my life for my role now, starting from my time as a waitress at Friendly’s to being a marketing consultant to earning a law degree. I’ll never forget Friendly’s first rule of customer service—greet customers within 15 seconds of their arrival. What’s more universal than that? We must let our customers, suppliers, employees, community—anyone—know they matter, right away.

A wholesaler is essentially the local marketing team and sales force for our supplier’s brands, so my background lines up pretty well. Our job is to bring our brands to life in Missouri; to take national brands and make them local treasures. My experience in law and public affairs has also been helpful in this highly regulated industry. Those of us who have come from outside this industry bring a different lens that is beneficial; we see opportunities where others might not.


KB: Major Brands has faced many legal and business challenges from suppliers and competitors. What did you learn from these struggles?

SM: First, I learned that this is a very tough industry. We were dealing with legal and legislative battles which could have terminated our business. On the positive side, I learned again and again how important relationships are in this industry. So many of our retailers were calling us and asking us how they could help. They wanted Major Brands to stay in business. I learned just how important we are in this community and to our customers; they see us as a value-add. It wasn’t just the job we did, but how we did it. Sometimes being small is a huge advantage; biggest isn’t always best.


KB: I would imagine that being the only woman at this level in the industry must have been an additional challenge?

SM: Absolutely. The culture of the wholesale industry has not changed; the sheer language of the industry often feels like stepping back in time. Stereotypes play strong. There have been presumptions made about my ability because I am a woman; some thought that I “wouldn’t have the stomach” to weather the legal battles.

Additionally, many still assume that women aren’t interested in this industry, which is so wrong! Wholesale businesses should be filled with women; wholesalers depend on collaboration, communication, attention to detail, all things women excel at. Besides, our customer base is diverse and this industry doesn’t reflect the diversity of our consumers.


KB: With your legal battles behind you, how have you found growth as a single-state wholesaler?

SM: Some assume the only way to grow is to expand your footprint. Our strength is that we are local. It’s a very different platform than that of a multi-state distributor. We aren’t brand collectors; we are looking for the right mix of brands that we can do a great job with. Years ago, Major Brands made the decision to go deep, not broad. To do that, we looked at our portfolio to determine how we could grow our local business as well as improve our value proposition to our retailers. Today, 10% of our business is in beer, primarily, craft beer. We carry the fastest growing local brands. We are doing the same with craft spirts.


KB: Please explain what you mean by “values-based leadership” and how you build this into the Major Brands culture.

SM: The opportunity to lead a large organization with such wonderful people and to create an atmosphere where they want to work is a true privilege. To be able to make decisions based on what is right, along with performance, is so rewarding. A few years ago, Major Brands established an Emergency Hardship Fund, a relief fund for our employees and their families, to help people in times of crisis. I know first-hand that really bad things happen. When I lost my husband, many people had my back and I want to have theirs. For our employees and their families, we created the Todd Epsten Scholarship Fund, in honor of my husband.

We are also passionate about community involvement; it’s who we are as a company. Every year as a team we alleviate the Wheels on Meals crew on Thanksgiving and deliver meals. I’m always thinking: How do we make what we do more important, more relevant? We do more than just sell liquor.


SueMcCollum_boxKB: Women Who Whisky is a non-profit you founded to support several local charities—and challenges the perception that whisky is a “man’s drink.” But it’s much more than that. Please explain.


SM: I wanted to tap into the power of strong, innovative, risk-taking women in senior leadership roles in this region and honor them, while at the same time doing something wonderful for the community. Our group of leaders traveled together to Maker’s Mark distillery in Kentucky to create our own barrel of Maker’s Mark Private Select Bourbon—about 200 bottles worth, which we donated to four St. Louis nonprofits led by women. The response was extraordinary. We named our batch Major Brands Whisky 4 Good and to date we have raised more than $250,000 for local causes.


KB: Where do you see Major Brands in ten years from now?


SM: I see us as who we are today, and perhaps even more significant in Missouri. We are unique in a way that is a defense against bigness. And as the industry continues to change, I think being local makes us closer to where the change is actually occurring.

Glass half full: Major Brands’ McCollum addresses disparities in the liquor business

St. Louis Business Journal  By   – Reporter, St. Louis Business Journal

Several years ago, Sue McCollum was facing near insurmountable odds.

She had just taken over leadership of Major Brands from her husband, Todd Epsten, who led the family-owned beer, liquor and wine distribution business before his premature death in 2012. That’s when her company’s position in the industry was challenged. By 2014, after several supplier contracts were abruptly terminated, Major Brands’ revenue had plummeted to a historic low of $350 million.

But McCollum always viewed the glass as half-full.

“I am as passionate as ever about leading the organization and sharing the importance of values-based leadership, which was a major part of how I navigated through our challenges,” she said. “Life is made up of a series of defining moments and how we respond at each turn informs the outcome.”

Today, her company has revenue of $414 million and features solid relationships with some of the top craft beer brands in the region, including Urban Chestnut and 4 Hands.

McCollum spoke to the Business Journal ahead of the 14th annual Women’s Conference and shared insight she’s learned as a woman in business. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you navigate stepping into the CEO role when you previously had no formal role? Though I had no titled role at Major Brands before I joined the company in 2011, I had been involved in the business for a long time. Whether it was by association or through participation on the Major Brands Advisory Board, I had knowledge of the business and knew our leadership team well. I like to say that when I joined Major Brands, I just moved from the background to the foreground, formalizing and expanding upon my involvement. I also had extensive business experience from prior professional positions. I had undergraduate degrees in economics and journalism, as well as an MBA. At the time I joined Major Brands, I was in my second year of law school at Washington University.

What challenges have you faced since becoming CEO? How did you overcome them? Shortly after Todd passed away, the company faced nearly insurmountable challenges. In a period of 24 hours, two of our largest suppliers terminated (contracts) without cause or warning, and we lost almost 40 percent of our overall business. At that point, I had to decide whether to fight for the business, and if so, how I, along with our 600 employees, decided to fight for the company and for Todd’s legacy. Through multiple legal challenges and lawsuits, Major Brands prevailed. Since 2014, we have gradually rebuilt our business through outstanding performance and service while remaining true to our values of community, integrity and teamwork.

The beer, wine and spirits industry is dominated by men. How have you been able to navigate that disparity? The industry is traditional in many ways, including remaining dominated by men and without much diversity. I’ve navigated the disparity by ignoring it. Additionally, I think the fact that there aren’t many women at my level has actually opened doors. My approach and viewpoint may not be the same because I am a woman, but it’s welcomed. Next time you’re in the wine or spirits aisle of the grocery store or at a restaurant, take a look around. You will likely see as many women, if not more, as men enjoying or buying our industry’s products. Women make up half of the consumer base. We guide in-store purchase decisions. We already are key influencers in the industry. We just need to become a greater part of the industry itself. As a woman in this industry, I’m often asked for my input, from how to get more women to drink whiskey to how to encourage more women to enter and stay in the business. Women are naturals for all aspects of this business: beer, wine or spirits, producer, retailer or wholesaler. At the end of the day, this industry is about relationships. Women are great at building relationships and understanding the value of service and collaboration.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in your industry? Our numbers. We need to see the fact that there aren’t many women as an opportunity, not an obstacle. We also need to approach this industry with resilience. It’s not an easy business, but with confidence and persistence, women can have great careers in an exciting industry, centered on celebrations, friends and family.

What advice would you offer to women who want a career in your industry?Jump in. Now. There’s plenty of opportunity for women who are willing to work hard, take risks and share their perspectives. The industry needs us. I’d also like to add that the industry is increasingly comfortable having conversations about our need to increase diversity at all levels. Our industry needs to better reflect the consumers that enjoy our products, and we know it.

How do you maintain a work/life balance? I believe that work life balance can only be achieved over a lifetime and not in a day. Frankly, right now, I’m not sure I have much balance. Honestly, that’s never been one of my objectives. Rather than focus on balance, I try to focus on finding something joyful and meaningful in each day.

Which female leaders do you admire? There are many. Michelle Obama, Shannon Watts, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But on a day-to-day basis, I have wonderful women friends, who are leaders, in their homes, the workplace and the community. They are professors, CEOs and mothers. They are full of energy and kindness, and always listen with an open heart. One of my first bosses was a woman. She promoted me to a management position when I was fresh out of college and was a true mentor in all things. She gave me the confidence to believe in myself when others didn’t. And, she told me to pour my Diet Coke in a coffee mug, so I would look more mature. Two great pieces of advice I’ve never forgotten.