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