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.