WSWA: Palin, Wirtz Spark Chatter

When nearly 2,000 wholesalers and suppliers get together for a few days, there are bound to be some very interesting conversations. Make Las Vegas the setting for the meetings, and things can get interesting. Tag Sarah Palin as a keynoter and you’re really stirring the pot.

There was no loss for words on a number of pressing topics among attendees at the 67th Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America Convention at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas this week. From the victory for the three-tiered system that came from the 5th Circuit Court ruling in Texas to the defeat on the gallonage cap in Massachusetts, from the recession to the recovery and from health care reform to alcohol tax threats, the place was buzzing.

Former Alaska governor and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin connected with attendees with a message of returning to core American values of hard work and character such as those that built the wholesaling business as the key to the nation’s recovery. Calling the Obama health care reform plan the “mother of all unfunded mandates,” she accused his administration and Congress of “generational theft” by digging the country further into debt and “sticking our kids with the tab.” In the end, Palin received a standing ovation from a packed house and sparked a rash of chatter among attendees about the merits of her positions and those of the current administration on the issues that most affect wholesalers’ businesses.

Rocky WirtzOne of the more interesting conversations I had during the confab was with outgoing WSWA chairman Rocky Wirtz. He assumed the chairmanship of Wirtz Beverage Group after his father passed away in 2007 and continues to loom large in the middle tier, overseeing the operation that services Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada and Wisconsin. He’s a longtime active member of WSWA and led the organization through what may have been the most tumultuous in its history. Upon taking the reins as chairman during this current convention, incoming chair John Baker of National Wine & Spirits, Inc., noted that one of his biggest challenges is “being the guy who has to follow Rocky Wirtz.”

Here are some of Wirtz’s thoughts and insights as he looks back on his tenure as chair of WSWA and also to the organization’s future:

On the State of WSWA
“The year went quicker than I thought! Our goal was to pave the way and get membership really active in volunteering time to the trade association. You can’t complain about things and not put the time in to work on the issues and make change happen. I know that in the years to come, WSWA is in good hands. Financially, it’s in good shape, with close to one year’s expenses in reserves. Craig [Wolf, WSWA president and CEO] and his staff do a terrific job. The subcommittees are working subcommittees, and we’re working with other associations effectively to further our collective business interests. We understand we are not an island, and being collaborative adds value to the association and the industry.

“We’ve organized an effective PAC. Now, we know that the last thing someone wants to do is contribute to a PAC, but we’ve got 1,200 members doing so. It’s important to advancing our legislative agenda on Capitol Hill. We’re in a highly regulated industry and we are active on numerous fronts. There are many threats from all areas and they’re coming quicker than ever. We have to be prepared to react and change.”

On States’ Rights
“As the courts are interpreting states’ rights, it can erode the three-tier system, as there are different interpretations. In the last year alone, you had a decision coming out of Texas, and then a completely different view coming out of Massachusetts. Everyone has to be paying attention. WSWA encourages state associations to be strong, and we’re working to bolster them and see how the national trade association can support them.

“As for the control states looking to get out of the business, they’re coming to see that private industry does a better job. What they want is the tax revenue. We as wholesalers can facilitate that and deliver tremendous service levels. In the end, it would be better for the states.”

On the On-premise Business
“The mission today has to be for the wholesaler to add value to the customer, who is the on-premise operator. What do we, as wholesalers, do to help our customers? We need to be seen as a resource, not a necessary evil. At Wirtz, we have sommeliers and now mixologists like Drew Levinson in Las Vegas and Peter Vestino in Chicago who work on bartender education about things ranging from the use of fresh juices to the proper ice cubes for a specific drink. Preparing consistent cocktails is important for any on-premise operator, and we as wholesalers can be a great resource on that front.

“The key for the wholesaler is to not just push product in, but to demonstrate the features and benefits of working with us and making us part of the on-premise quality proposition. We also all have to find ways to take costs out of our processes and allow that to flow through to our customers. At Wirtz, we have 24-hour online ordering system that’s really proven popular with our on-premise customers. It doesn’t replace the salesperson, but rather allows the operator to review product and pricing and place orders at their convenience – which might be after their shift – and have next day delivery. Our salespeople continue to work with the operator on finding the right products and providing the right service. The important thing for all wholesalers is to adapt to the environment.”


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