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The man from Miller.

Each year, a sea of beer--43.6 million barrels in 1991--flows from the massive taps of the Miller Brewing Co.'s eight regional breweries to slake America's thirst. And Virgin W. Colbert, Miller's vice president of plant operations in Milwaukee knows how to grab a share of the gusto. After all, he is the senior line officer overseeing the brewing combination, container manufacturing and product distribution ensuring that a cold Miller is there whenever and wherever you want one.

Colbert knows that although many people consider his a marketing-driven business, Miller's alcoholic and non-alcoholic beer sales would fall flat if quality suffered or distributor glitches developed. "I find the challenge of producing more than 40 million barrels of beer annually, producing it at the right time and in the right quantities, and shipping the beer to the right distributor to be exhilarating," Colbert says.

He has a right to be happy. Miller's 1991 sales of $4 billion were 14.8% higher than 1990. But Colbert can't kick back and pope a cold one too often. The native of Toledo, Ohio, who began his manufacturing career with the Chrysler Corp., has too much to do. Brewing and distributing beer is a multistage process. And as operations chief, he must display short- and long-term vision. On a daily and monthly basis, he is responsible for production at: eight breweries; five can and one bottle manufacturing plant; a barley malt facility; a plant that processes hops, which give beer its bitter edge; and a packaging plant. He oversees a multi-billion-dollar annual budget and 8,000 workers.

Al Martins, a Rochester, N.Y.-based vice president in sales and marketing for the Xerox Corp. has known Colbert for more than five years. He says his colleague on the Executive Leadership Council approaches work with a mind-set that makes complex tasks easy. "Virgis is able to analyze, separate and organize issues and ideas and then bring them together in a concrete approach to problem-solving," Martin says.

A soft-spoken man of measured words, Colbert denies he has any special insight. He says his short-term goal is to continue improving Miller's bottom line. Long-term, he has several other aims. These include: integrating a radically new type of brewery and management style into the Miller's mainstream; and ensuring that minority vendors get a larger share of the keg.

Miller's name conveys marketing prowess. But it wasn't always so. In fact, this trait may be largely attributed to its parent, the $56.5 billion conglomerate, Philip Morris Cos. Inc. (PMC). In 1969, when PMC bought a controlling interest in the Milwaukee-based brewery, Miller was the nation's eighth-largest brewer. But innovative advertising, such as the Miller Life "Tastes great. Less filling." campaign, boosted Miller to second place behind Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc.

Still, PMC's pockets have not been deep enough to propel Miller past Anheuser-Busch, whose stated goal is to grab 50% of the beer market by 1995. Anheuser-Busch, the world's largest brewer boasts double Miller's volume and shipped 86 million barrels in 1991.

Ironically, although Miller is considered a highly profitable company, it is not a major force in diversified Philip Morris' bottom line. In 1991, Miller, which includes Miller High Life, Miller Genuine Draft, Miller Lite, Lowenbrau, Meister Brau and Milwaukee's Best in its product mix, had operating earnings at $301 million. By contrast, PMC's tobacco and food products contributed $9.4 billion.

The beer industry is highly mature. Market share gains must be stolen from competitors. That means brewing companies compete by spending heavily on advertising, introducing new brands or cutting prices. Brewing's top tier, which includes the Coors Breweing Co., leans toward advertising and new brands. This is because bigger profits are tied to selling beer at full price. For its part, Miller is far from chintzy in its ad spending. Beer Marketer's Insights, a West Nyack, N.Y.-based industry newsletter, says it throws more than $110 million a year at Lite alone. Miller also is considered by observers to be the most effective industry innovator at creating new markets for light beer and packaged draft.

For that reason, Colbert considers operations a key to industry success. Making plants more efficient increases margins and, he says, will free up cash for use in marketing and creating new products. "That's how the team at Miller works together. Everything is interrelated," he says.

Ironically, early in Colbert's career he was offered a career choice that would have kept him out of operations. The year was 1968 and Colbert, who had dropped out of the University of Toledo a year earlier, was a producing supervisor at Chrysler Corp.'s Toledo, Ohio auto component plant. Then his handling of union grievances caught management's attention. The result: a promotion offer to the plant's industrial relations staff.

He rejected it for two reasons. First, he liked operations because of its direct staff responsibility and because he could see its impact on the income statement. "It's integral to what we are about as a company, what any company is about. That's where you make it or break it," Colbert says.

Moreover, Colbert says he did not want to be typecast. Back then as now, industrial and public relations were considered by many to be traditionally black corporate posts. "I didn't want to be pigeonholed. During my career, I have been approached three or four times, not recently though, about changing to the labor or public relations side of the business. I refused those offers. I preferred to stay on the operations side."

During a 13-year Chrysler career, Colbert rose quickly from supervisor to general manufacturing superintendent. And, he says, each job taught him how to choose subordinates. "Everything depends on making the right selection," he said.

In 1979, he joined Miller in the belief he could rise higher on the corporate pyramid. He was right. Since starting as a plant manager's assistant at the Reidsville, N.C., container company, Colbert has seen his business card change eight times.

Even he acknowledges his rise as meteoric. Former company insiders say Miller appreciates Colbert's leadership skills. "He's not driven by numbers and the need to make himself look good. He's a diplomat, a statesman," says Steven Forsyth, a former Miller communications director who is now vice president of public relations at Stephan & Brady, a Madison, Wisc.-based advertising and public relations firm.

In a company where politics and diplomacy play an important role, Colbert has also ruffeled few feathers. "He has distinguished himself by not being a problem. He's been there and delivered what the company wanted done," Forsyth says.

Of course Miller, a company with a national presence and a multiracial customer base also knows Colbert's value as an African-American role model and as an example of its corporate diversity. "I think he was pretty much ordained," says a former executive who asked not to be named. "They [at Miller] wanted to see what he could handle. I think he's delivered from all you see and hear."

Diversity comments aside, Colbert is still Miller's only African-American vice president.

With Miller's size, it is difficult for one man to take a hands-on approach very far within the company. In atypical month, Colbert is involved in many decisions. These include, for example, giving the approval for all Miller's freight contracts, a duty that runs the gamut from shipping beer to lining up rail cars filled with hops and malted barley. Colbert even has responsibility for the Miller division that develops uses for brewing by-products. After brewing, Miller takes some of its spent malt to make Barley's Best, a high-fiber flour sold to bakeries and institutions.

As plant operations vice president, Colbert spends the bulk of his time in meetings on production, budget and warehouse planning, engineering, research and development, strategic planning and marketing. The list is endless. He is also on the road about seven days a month visiting plans. But most of the time, Colbert jokes, "This is what I look at," he says gesturing toward a computer screen.

The reason is obvious. Jerry Steinman, publisher of Beer Marketer's Insights, says the details involved in producing beer require exceptional management skills to manage. "That person has to have a tremendous amount of knowledge. He has to be a superb administrator, a terrific leader of people, excellent at getting people to work under him. If you were the president of the company, what would you want in that person? You'd want a lot," Steinman says.

Like many in PMC, Colbert stresses a team approach and minimizes his role as an individual manager. But a look at PMC's financial statements shows Colbert's area is building profits. Last year, despite a doubling in the federal excise tax on beer, and only a 0.4% rise in volume, Miller's operating profits gres 13.3%.

A key to Miller's future earnings growth and perhaps to Colbert's movement up the corporate escalator lies in how well Miller's newly reopened Trenton, Ohio brewery performs. The brewery is an experiment in management and production techniques. Colbert admits he was involved in the planning but refuses to accept any personal credit. Instead, he says, he and a team of executives jointly chose the person who set up, staffed and trained the new plant's staff. Trenton produces one of Miller's best-selling brands, Miller Genuine Draft beer. But it is unlike other Miller plants because all work is done in teams and each worker performs multiple production tasks every day.

Observers, who know Colbert, say thisteam concept has his management philosophy written all over it. "He seeks advice. He involves people," Forstyth says. "He seldom yells at anyone. He'll get angry, but he's not the one to start pounding his fist and looking for heads to roll."

That doesn't mean he can't or won't take decisive action. In 1981, Colbert says he was promoted to the Milwaukee container plant manager's post and found it was performing below expectations. "Early on in that assignment I made some tough and aggresive decisions regarding personnel and technology," he says. Translation: he got rid of some people and when existing managers could not decide whether or not to buy a certain piece of equipment he made the decision for them. "By the time I was promoted to my next position, the plant was achieving all of its business objectives," he says.

Colbert sets the same standards for himself. "I don't think there's any substitute for hard work. I set my level of acceptance at excellent. Invariably, if you set it at excellent, you get above average performance. If you accept mediocrity, you get les," he says.

The urge to create a talented workforce is found in Miller's ongoing minority vendor program. And Colbert, as oepration's chief, ensures that equal opportunity is the program's hallmark. Miller currently has more than 400 minority vendors, but Colbert says he expects a 30% increase in that number by the end of 1994.

The Central Michigan University graduate brings the same commitment to equality to his free time. Among other things, Colbert helped create the Milwaukke Tutorial program, a project bringing third-graders to Miller's headquarter twice a week for tutoring from company employees. He is a member of the Inner City Task Force of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, a prestigious business group that shapes Milwaukee's civic activities. And he ardently supports the Thurgood MArshall Scholarship Fund. Miller and the Office for the Advancement of Public Black Colleges set it up and now it gives scholarships to students attending more than 36 historically black colleges and universities.

Such civic involvement is respected. Snow Mitchell, North Milwaukee State Bank president and a member of Greater Milwaukee Committee task force, says Colbert "clearly believes it's important for people who had attained certain positions to give back to the community. He does as much, if not more, than would be expected."

Colbert, the youngest of 10 children, minimizes his role. His goal: to be a role model. "My father and mother get role models for me. That's something to aspire to," he says. Any extra time is devoted to Colbert's family and his passion--golf. In 1991, his wife, Angela, recently resigned as an attorney with Quarles & Brady--Wisconsin's second largest law firm--to spend more time with the couple's children, Jilian, 5; Alyssa, 4; and V. Wiliam, 10 months.

Colbert, whose six figure salary is supplemented by stock options and profit-sharing, does not speak of future jobs. "You have to stay focused on getting results in your present position. If you don't do that, you take yourself out of play for future promotions," he says.

A former Miller employee is less reticent. He says Colbert is "next to God" at Miller. But that does not mean he is a shoe-in for the president's office. His next logical step would be senior vice president of operations, a post which Billy R. Apple has held since 1990. Apple reports to Warren H. Dunn, president and chief executive officer.

Miller has fooled pundits in the past with its choices for high posts. Dunn is a former attorney for the Federal Bureau of Investigation who joined Miller in the legal department. He was promoted in 1991 over Charles W. Schmid, a former Philip Morris corporate employee who was Miller's executive vice president of marketing. Last June, Schmid left the nations's second-largest brewery for the Minneapolis-based Carlson Companies Inc., which, among other things, is involved in incentive promotions and food premium programs. He became president and CEO of the organization's travel and marketing group.

Colbert receives high marks from the Miller CEO. Virgis' strong knowledge of the industry, his focus on total quality management and his style of leadership have proven to be an effective combination for Miller Breweing Co." he says.

During 13 years with Miller, Colbert has mastered every task given him. This record of achivement calls for a paraphrase of Miller Lite's new slogan: when it comes to making beer Virgis Colbert " is it and that's that."
COPYRIGHT 1992 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Miller Brewing Co.'s Virgis W. Colbert
Author:Doherty, Chuck
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jun 1, 1992
Words:2324
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