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One man's view: Walter Driskill offers his perspective on the issues.

One Man's View

Walter Driskill recently stepped down as president of Dribeck's Importing, the company he founded in 1964 to handle importation of Beck's beer from Germany. Driskill sold his company to the German brewer last year, and this year, at the age of 76, Walter Driskill announced his retirement. Although John Kucich (formerly of All-Brand) will now serve as president of Dribeck's, Driskill will continue to be affiliated with the company. Modern Brewery Age recently visited with Walter Driskill at Dribeck's Greenwich, CT. headquarters. MBA: Mr. Driskill, you seem to have developed an exceptional working relationship with your supplier over the years. How has that developed? WD: I guess we hit it off from the beginning, and at least one of those original guys is still around. We've had a great relationship for 25 years now, and I couldn't be more pleased. MBA: How did you first link up with Beck's? WD: Well I'd heard about it, although I'd never been to Germany. I was actually at Miller in the marketing division at the time. A fellow I knew praised Beck's to the skies and it sounded like a good opportunity. And it's worked out very well. It's a damn fine product. MBA: Did you ever consider adding brands to your portfolio? WD: When we started the business, it was a one-man operation, so we didn't have the time, although we might have had the opportunity. MBA: You've been a part of the importing segment during an period of remarkable growth. What do you see as the major factors in fueling that growth? WD: Well, efficient distribution was certainly a part of it. The American public also grew more sophisticated as this country became more active in the world economically, and politically. It started when the GI's came back from Europe after World War II with a knowledge and taste for more sophisticated products. That consciousness has continued to grow, and recently, of course, there has been a certain snob appeal for these kind of products. MBA: Now that imports seem to have reached a plateau, do you think we'll start to see increased brand attrition among the imports? WD: Yes, certainly. Anyone coming in with a new product faces a tough market. There are fewer wholesalers today, and it's getting to the point where there's no place for a 3rd or 4th place import. It can't be sold effectively. MBA: Has consolidation been one of the primary factors then? WD: Well, naturally there has been a whole combination of factors, but economics has also been a big part of it. With higher state and local taxes, it's been getting to the point where retailers have to charge around $4.00 for a six-pack. There's only so much money that consumers will be willing to spend on a bottle of beer. Sometimes I think they're trying to tax us out of existence. MBA: Won't this situation continue to worsen as taxes push prices even higher? WD: Certainly it's going to be accentuated by these new taxes they're talking about, and by other regulatory moves. With all these proposals you see in the newspapers. We've already had the drinking age legislation take a bite out of us. Now we've got these so-called sin taxes - that's enough to cripple the industry right there. Now when you go out to buy a six-pack of beer, particularly an import, it's going to double the cost. The industry is in a lead-pipe cinch with these potential sin taxes. MBA: Do you think sin taxes are inevitable at this point? WD: Yes, I think so. The state and federal deficits are going to force the government to get the money from somewhere. MBA: Are the brewers whistling in the dark with their anti-tax campaigns? WD: Unfortunately, I'm afraid they are. I don't think they can reach enough people with their message. The problem with this industry is we've never really spoken with one voice. You've got the Beer Institute and the NBWA, but with so many people shooting at us now, it's become very important to speak together. Now the dogooders are even trying to link beer drinking up with cocaine. MBA: How have the industry's opponents been able to make this linkage between drugs and alcohol? WD: In my opinion it's worked because they're the only ones speaking in this vein. They've managed to roll all these evils into one, and it gives them an easier target. They realize that if they repeat something enough times, people will believe it, no matter how wrong it is. No one should mistake the seriousness of these people. MBA: How can we reclaim the image of beer as a moderate beverage? WD: It'll be very tough - and I'm not sure you can anymore, with so many people shooting at us from the other side. It's pretty hard for the industry to toot its own horn in this situation. MBA: Will this lead to a drastic decline in national consumption? WD: It's flat now, and all this negative press certainly won't help matters. Sin taxes, MADD, SADD, CSPI, we're getting beaten over the head... MBA: Surely no one actually wants a return to Prohibition? WD: They'd certainly be fools if they did. That whole thing was a farce last time we tried it. MBA: It sounds like it'll be a difficult environment to sell beer in. WD: No doubt about that, with so many things against us. Unfortunately, from a logical standpoint that's the way it looks. These new taxes are going to give us a lot of trouble. MBA: Well, I hope it's not quite that bleak. WD: I do too, but that's a candid opinion. It just keeps getting worse, and in the next few years we'll continue to be faced with all the laws in the various states tightening up. In some states can't even change your wholesaler, so you better make sure you choose a good one. They seem to be putting new restrictions on every day. FL, TX, CT...damn few laissez-faire states left..lot of people feel we as importers would change horses in mid-stream willy-nilly if we were allowed to... but you can't do that. MBA: In all your years of selling beer, how have you seen sales tactics evolve? WD: When I first started out, I went around toting my wares into saloons. It happened there was a shoe company named Beck's in those days, and everyone used to ask me why I was bringing shoes into their place. I still think you've got to build the brand bar by bar, on the street. Although, today, the off-premise business has gotten much more prominent. MBA: How do you sell most effectively to an off-premise market? WD: Well, you've got to put more money in displays. We've also used quite a lot of television advertising that we've found quite effective. We put 99% of our advertising dollars into television. We try to produce short spots that leave the consumer with an impression of the product. Nonetheless, it's a never-ending struggle. MBA: An American brewer once accused Beck's of using adjuncts in the U.S. version of Beck's. How did you respond to that? WD: First of all, that's totally false. I actually wanted to take legal action, but the brewery wanted to keep a low profile, so we just ignored it. That was Jim Koch, and he wasn't one to be talking about truth in advertising at that point, because he was saying his beer was brewed in Boston, and it was all produced in Pittsburgh. MBA: How do you respond when critics claim that imports aren't fresh? WD: You can say that all you want, but there's no way you can prove it. MBA: Have small American brewers made any impact on your market share? WD: Oh very little, not too many of them brew more than 5000 barrels a year - we ship more than that in a day. MBA: What do you see as the biggest obstacle to building the Beck's brand? WD: It's like everything else, you try to increase efficiency. We've worked to reorganize the company. MBA: Have you seen changes in the way that wholesalers have done their business? WD: Not so much. The best ones still can manage to make a profit out of a very thin dollar. MBA: You've had to deal with the practice of transhipping over the years, how do you view it? WD: Transhipping is rampant everyplace. Everyone says they're not doing it, but you turn around they do it anyway. There's no way to stop it in my opinion, and I've been trying for years. I don't know if anyone else has come up with any ideas but I'd like to hear them. MBA: What means did you use to try and stop the practice? WD: We used to limit orders, this and that, anything we legally could do. But with wholesalers and even retailers dropping like flies, the value of the almighty dollar can turn people's heads. MBA: In terms of wholesaling, do you think multi-brand houses will find business more difficult in today's climate? WD: Frankly, I wouldn't want to be in the wholesaling trade unless I was a Bud house. MBA: It seems like some of the major brewing companies are putting pressure on wholesalers to limit them to carrying their major brands, has that been a problem? WD: That's true, and with Miller and Bud controlling 60 percent of the business, that's developing into a problem. MBA: Does that put importers in a box? WD: Well, there's certainly no way we can compete on an economic basis. It's also tough that the domestics have locked up every promotional event they could get their hands on. Every racing car is sponsored by Bud, and every speedboat is covered by Miller. MBA: Do you think wholesalers have done a good job in the past selling imports? WD: Sure, if they were pre-sell. Years ago route-selling was the only thing known. The better wholesalers today are all pre-sell. MBA: Given this environment, what do you think the industry will look like a few years down the road? WD: Well, in our category, I think you'll just have four or five importers left, and there will be even fewer wholesalers than there are now, down to a few houses in each state, particularly sparsely settled areas. MBA: You were known as a street man in your day, getting out and working the street... WD: That I did, years ago. MBA: Do you think that kind of philosophy has been lost? WD: Oh no, in many cases that's still the way to sell. Budweiser has young guys spreading out around the cities selling. They're reaching a lot of people, but whether its cost effective today I don't know. MBA: When you look back with over the years are you pleased with what you have accomplished? WD: Well, I think building a successful company was something. I don't know if one man could hope for more than that. MBA: Will you remain involved in the industry? WD: Oh yes, as much as I can without interfering. That's all I've done for so long, so that's what I know how to do. But I'm 76, and I felt it was time to bail out, from my point of view. MBA: Thanks very much for speaking with us, Mr. Driskill.
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Title Annotation:brewing industry
Publication:Modern Brewery Age
Article Type:interview
Date:Sep 10, 1990
Previous Article:The A-B, C's of alcohol education.
Next Article:Serving the customer.

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