Article By: Robert Bradford
Photography by David Binder
In the midst of this present topsy-turvy era of dramatic change and massive business consolidations that keep escalating in beverage alcohol wholesaler markets all across America, the venerable, family-owned, Somerville-based distributorship and rectifying operation of M.S. Walker is something of an anomaly. Now beginning its 75th year of continuous service, the Walker enterprise takes on more and more significance as an uncompromising model of on-going wholesaler independence, anchored by an extraordinarily personal and, some would say, even old-fashioned way of doing business that has created a host of devoted, time-honored customer relationships often as old as themselves.
At a glance, however, some observers might regard Walker in a sort of ‘Last of the Mohicans’ scenario, conjuring up the image of that determined and principled ill-fated tribe of Native Americans in Colonial New England, who bravely resisted the relentless tides of historical change, fought nobly against the overwhelming forces of a new invading European Empire, but were finally overcome in their futile fight for independence. And, indeed, for a few years now, there have been some market Cassandras out there predicting that one of these days we’d be hearing the inevitable news that M.S. Walker, Inc. has finally decided to cash in and sell out, joining the ranks of so many other independent distributors, now merged or absorbed by larger wholesaler giants.
But it ain’t about to happen folks, not now, and most probably not ever, as we resoundingly kept hearing, while putting together this special up-close-and-personal anniversary narrative on the Walker operation. Starting from humble beginnings from what was once a tiny local South Boston bottling facility just after Prohibition in the early 193Os, M.S. Walker has developed into what has become an impressively diversified major $25O million bottling and wholesale distributorship of immense integrity in the New England marketplace, and is now also a significant and increasingly robust national player in 28 other states, besides. So, you can disregard entirely any speculations some might want you to believe about a Walker consolidation or disappearing act. All the indicators show quite the opposite and suggest that this visionary independent distributorship has never been more vibrantly stable or technologically well-positioned for the future than right now in this present day twenty-first century marketplace.
How it continues to sustain such dramatic growth and the opportunities and objectives it sees for future development were key points of discussion for this special interview report. The most revealing secrets about the survival of this company, we learned not from Walker executives themselves, but from numerous endorsements and testimonials forthcoming from a host of their long-term suppliers and on- and off-premise customers.
One can only be struck by such an outpouring of candid and sincere sentiments. “Where else could I ever find this kind of person-to-person relationship to do business with?” one longtime Walker enthusiast asked rhetorically. “The whole M.S. team is positively unique in this respect. And it’s the first of many reasons why I will always remain their customer.”
PRESIDENT and CEO
How to maintain independence in the midst of this increasing era of wholesale compaction is, of course, of keen concern to anyone in our business position. For my viewpoint, the main things have always been financial stability and an extraordinarily strong and close family. This always has been one of my top priorities and remains the key to the successful future of this company.
Keeping the family together. I can’t say it too often. And I believe if there was ever an opportunity to sell, to merge or whatever, which there obviously has been, my main concern about doing anything like that is the diminishing impact it would have on the family unit. And even though some prospective buyers have talked in a very attractive ways about maintaining the status quo, you know it’s never going to be that way.
Anyway, keeping the family as a unit is #1. And since they are strong and willing participants in the process, and because everyone who’s in my family pulls their own weight, there’s no reason to consolidate or merge or go in a different direction than what we’re already following. I’m blessed with a remarkable family nucleus. These are the elements that are completely in my corner. Everybody here is a strong contributor to the success of the company. There’s no jealousy, no animosities, no back-stabbing, or the things that so frequently can go sour with family businesses, and we’re now approaching five generations of this family with this same company.
To what do I attribute this unusual degree of success? It’s simple. The reason they all do so well together is because I overpay ’em! But, hey, I’m just joking. Seriously, the real reason is because I’ve tried hard to be very careful about delegating responsibilities so that everybody feels they’re playing important roles. Plus you need to have a knack for picking the right person for the right job, which also might be considered a form of self-protection.
Take my two sons, Scott and Brett, as interesting cases in point. Scott started with us in 1983 right after college. He was immediately sent to Europe to learn the wine business, and because this is a sales company, came back with the express purpose of going out and selling using that knowledge. He was out on road for about a year or so and made some great relationships in the trade. But the trouble was he really wasn’t well-suited for going out and recreating himself everyday like a successful sales person has to do. One day he came to me and said, “Dad, I’m really not liking this running around. It’s not a good fit for my personality. I’d like to try a little inside work.” I was able to find a niche for him working in the plant where we had some operations needs. Scott’s a person who takes everything to heart. There’s a very kind and gentle sensitivity about him. In this new position, people liked and respected him right away, and he began making some terrific inside relationships with personnel.
Then Scott branched out doing negotiations with unions and trucking companies, and I used to get reports back about him, “He’s terrific to do business with.” Occasionally, I had to talk to him about the fact that maybe he was being just a little too nice with some of our contracts. I’d point out, “Remember, next time around, see, this is where he got you.” Anyway, he really learned and has moved to the forefront in this area.
I guess the most important thing I can say about Scott today, aside from his kindness and compassionate nature, and family-man kind of attitude, is that now I have a tough time getting him to tell me what he’s doing. And this is all good, because it tells me he’s completely autonomous. Sure, he still listens to his old man for advice from time to time, but, right now, he is perfectly capable in any way, shape or form to negotiate, deal and handle these important parts of the business – whether it’s insurance, contracts or anything to do with inside personnel. He just excels at what he does now.
My other son, Brett, is an especially unusual ‘circumstance’. When he first came into the business in 2OO1, we were finalizing our purchase of Global Horizon in Rhode Island. Now, we have a totem pole here like in any other company, with longevity and authority and those who have been here the longest and have risen to levels of seniority. So, it would have been a tough position for Brett, who had just graduated from college, to come in here and be the last man on the totem pole. I had to figure out a way to get him autonomous so he could succeed. And, as a happened, I think that I partially bought the Rhode Island operation with Brett in mind, and also my daughter Brooke. Yes, of course, it was an exceptionally good business deal for our company, but it also was a great opportunity to expand our family and create openings where my children could fit in.
Of course, Brett had been weaned on the liquor business all his life. At least he knew the difference between 8O- and 86-proof! Anyway, we sent him down there to learn and to sell, with the parent company of the Brodys and the Shaws looking over his shoulder and watching what he was doing.
Then, comes the day that Mike Brody walks into my office and says, “You know something? Brett gets it. He’s learned it. We don’t have to watch over him like we did.” This is what I’d been waiting to hear. Sure, you have can have gut feelings about what people can do in various positions of responsibility, but you never know until you put a person in the field. It’s like in football or baseball, where a player can practice, do well in workouts, show progress in training camps, come up through the minors looking great, but you never know how somebody’s going to perform in the major leagues. So, I just have to say it was one of my proudest days as head of this company when here comes Michael Brody, saying, “Harvey, your son’s come into his own.” That’s when I knew we were safe in Rhode Island with this substantial investment we’d made, and with a family member in place who was such a perfect fit for the job. Also, remember that Brett had to earn this position of responsibility – it was never a given. Like with everyone else in this company, you have to succeed the old-fashioned way. You have to earn it.
Anyway, if there’s any one job that I have here, it’s making sure that the attitude that’s pervasive throughout this company is we’re all together, we work together. When we have occasional family meetings to discuss issues and any problems that might need to be addressed, I have one simple agenda: It’s simply to talk about what we really feel. “OK, guys, let’s everybody talk about their real feelings and what is or isn’t bugging you. We’ll stay in this room as long as it takes until everybody can get everything out. OK?” Call me a Neanderthal, if you want, but that’s the way I run things.
I’m a delegator. My father had a different way of doing things. You couldn’t requisition a pencil unless he approved it. He was a micro-manager, had to be totally in control and hands-on about absolutely everything. In sharp contrast, my idea is that I have a life – good, bad or indifferent – and I wanted to be sure that other people had an opportunity to achieve, because I didn’t want to have to do everything. Nor could I run a business like this by myself. No way.
Just for example, up to nine or ten months ago, I never had a computer in my personal office. Finally, my CFO, Rich Sandler, threw one on my desk, attached it, and put on one of those sticker notes that said, “Harvey, this is a computer. Now, use it!” I’d been complaining bitterly that I felt out of the loop. All these interoffice e-mails were flying around, and I was finding out about a lot of things after they’d already been put into place. “So, why don’t you get a computer on your desk?” my guys kept asking. I said, “What’s the need for all this e-mailing, when the guy’s right in the next office? Just talk to him, for crissake!” “No, no, Harvey,” they insisted, “This is the way everyone gets to know what’s going on. You better be on this system.” And they’re right, of course. I now do know what’s going on, and I feel better about it, even if I’m sometimes not allowed to make the final decision. But, at least I know what they’re talking to each other about.
For our customers, I think the advantages of dealing with an independent, multi-generational family distributor like us is that we are concentrated, focused, not solely driven by any one supplier. We do not hold allegiance to some of the big behemoths where all our decisions have to be made according to what that supplier wants. Instead, we can concentrate and give time and attention to a myriad of suppliers, who normally cannot get the kind of attention they want and need.
I also think that even though there are these continuing consolidations, continuous buying up of brands by the bigger guys, that there’s going to be a need in the near future. As long as you meet numbers, meet demands and projections and represent them properly in the marketplace, I can see no reason for us to be in a position of running out of viable and significant business opportunities. Plus, there’s the fact that we have a manufacturing business here and several high volume proprietary brands, like our line of Allen’s cordials, that help support us and which make us different from other wholesalers.
We’ve also enjoyed notable success as brand-builders. Some of the most satisfying examples in my recent years would include Skyy vodka. Reyka vodka from Iceland is another. Sobieski, the #1 vodka in Poland, is coming on strong with us right now. The Swedish vodka, Svedka, has already become huge. And I’m just talking about vodkas we’ve taken from scratch. Then there are all the Heaven Hill brands that we’ve built. And this is just talking about the spirits side. More importantly is what we’ve been able to do with wine brands. Generally, we were pioneers in the wine business even more than the spirits business because we had to go out and look for suppliers around the world that weren’t already taken up by others. We’ve always looked for little boutique wineries that would do business with us. Anyway, we’ve now grown to the point where we’re probably the leading white tablecloth wine house in the state of Massachusetts today.
But, again, fundamental to company philosophy is that, first and foremost, our business is a people business. And it’s built upon relationships, be it the salesman’s relationship with the customer or the owner’s relationship with the customer. The products are a vehicle, although of key importance in that they have to be of highest quality. But relationships are really first, and the fact that we are there to make the restaurateur or retailer money. And, also, another key part of it is why not have a good time doing it, while we’re doing it, right?
TREASURER and WINE DIRECTOR
We take great pride in our leadership role in the wine industry. We have a strong track record building significant brands with the support of our leading supplier partners. We also have tried to be at the forefront of emerging New World regions, but more recently we have also put a strong effort towards exciting new regions in the more traditional countries like Spain, France, Italy, and Portugal. There is such renewed interest and excitement in the market for wines coming from lesser known regions. It certainly enhanced our value to our customers and has helped us outpace the industry growth rate by a significant margin. So, I have to think we’re moving in a very positive direction for the future.
Our wine sales exceeded well over $1OO million per year, and we’re growing at a very rapid pace, not only in terms of revenue, but also in terms of adding new sales reps and managers, along with building our infrastructure. So, it’s a pretty healthy picture.
Most recently, we were the first wholesaler to market all our organic certified wines collectively, because we believe there is a very bright future for this sub-segment. No, it’s not a significant part of our business, but it’s an area we are growing and promoting. I guess you might consider it another extension of our basic wine portfolio philosophy, which is to offer a broad range of interesting, high quality, sometimes hard-to-find nooks and crannies and discoveries that can create a widespread appeal with consumer audiences. And we try to do it both with products from different parts of the world as well as products at different price points. And of course, the tenderloin of all the business we do is at the $1O to $15 retail price, but the reality is we have great values throughout our entire price point ladder.
Part of our ethos, clearly, is always trying to lead the charge, always trying to look for the new interesting emerging regions and products, and matching our customer and consumer needs with products that will help them tell a better story and find items of greater value. Certainly, today, with the falling dollar, it’s become that much more critical to find great values. But we still are managing to do it, both in Europe and throughout the world. There are still many phenomenal values out there. We just have to look that much harder.
Despite concerns about the economy, the reality is that wine has been ingratiated our culture in a way that makes us believe that people will not slow down their consumption. They may just purchase products in different price ranges. Culturally we’ve grown to the extent that wine is really a part of everyday life for those who partake. And the appeal of wine drinking has also been gaining in popularity with the discovery of many health benefits derived from moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages incliding wine. More people today truly do believe it’s good for them.
So, we’re very bullish even in this current economic slow-down. And, as we celebrate our 75th anniversary, it’s gratifying to see how our business continues to grow very dramatically, and our leadership position certainly in the premium wine arena continues to put us in great stead with our trade customers. What’s also apparent is that today’s consumer continues to want to explore and discover new wines and the kind of discovery products we’re noted for. In fact, this is true today, more than ever, because they’re more wine educated, self-assured and much more willing to take educated risks and chances to find products beyond their comfort zone.
But back to our company as a whole, one of the key things we always try to provide across the board is personalized customer services. And I honestly do feel we try and take an individual approach with our relationship-building with the trade and our suppliers. We’re good listeners. We really care about individual customers. And we work tirelessly, as a family and as an organization, to build solid honest relationships with our customers. Ultimately, that leads to dialogues different than doing just what’s needed for us. It becomes a combination of our needs and their needs. A lot of it has to do with having been rooted here for so long, enabling us to fully appreciate the value of great business-building partnerships along with personal friendships. And I think this shows internally within our organization, the way we genuinely care for each other.
It’s one thing for people to say about us, “Oh, the family! Oh, the management! . . . it all starts at the top.” And maybe this is true to a certain extent. But I’m a much bigger believer that our success really has to do with the people who are attracted to work here, their love of each other, of the business, of their customers. It’s our difference in the marketplace and as an organization. We are blessed with an incredibly talented and driven team within our organization.
I can genuinely say, although things are never perfect, everybody here truly enjoys their positions within this company, 0working together and their relationships with our customers and suppliers. And I guess the thing I’m most proud of is the remarkable camaraderie, the respect and the loyalty shared by everyone within this organization. I’m certain this is one of the main reasons for our success and longevity.
and DIRECTOR of
We’re presently active in 28 states, both open and controlled. This includes Oregon, Texas, Florida, throughout New England, and it keeps expanding. We really have our hands throughout the country. We’re developing more of our wines that we own. We have proprietary brands like Old New England Eggnog that are now doing well throughout the country. Our cordials have been very successful. So there are a lot of areas where our manufactured brands and our wines that we own or represent have been very successful.
Our control state business has been strong and growing both in rectified products, where we continue to be a dominant supplier in northern New England. Allen’s coffee-flavored brandy continues to be strong. It’s been a #1 seller in Maine for years, and, in fact, last year we broke through the 1OO,OOO annual case-sale barrier, which was the first brand ever to do this in the Maine market. Our spirits business in New Hampshire and Vermont is also very solid and showing double digit growth.
And as we look to the future with the concerns about the economy, people are starting to look again at value brands and the value end of the business as more viable than ever. It’s always been a very high volume part of the business. But just because it wasn’t sexy, and you’re not talking fancy packaging, it traditionally hasn’t gotten a lot of coverage. The media attention has been so focused on people drinking less, but drinking better, it’s become a cliché. And, yes, for a while I think it was true. But now I think you’re seeing a definite growing interest back to the value end of the market.
We’re also continuing to develop and diversify in so many of these areas above and beyond our proprietary brands. The company really started moving forward with its national brand portfolio and discovery products from all over the world about two decades ago. A tremendous amount of our growth continues with our wine side. Brands that we own continue to grow, and brands that we represent, acting as the New England agent, have had tremendous success with our representation.
We’re fortunate to have outstanding partners with Spanish suppliers, which is a category we’ve really pioneered and been instrumental in building. South Africa, Australia, Chile, and Argentina are certainly other examples of where we’ve been very active with our supplier partners in promoting these products throughout New England. And I think, even more so, that our ability to be full service to our wholesale partners we have here in New England and the greater Northeast, including New York, is another big part of our success.
Being distributors ourselves puts us in the unique position where we really understand our wholesale partners’ mindsets. It takes one to know one is what it’s all about and it starts with the people I’ve been fortunate enough to hire and their commitment to their wholesale customers’ needs. Because we are a wholesaler, selling to other wholesalers, our people always have to keep in mind that, for the most part, we are not selling these high-volume national brands. People don’t need our products. The only thing we can provide is great products, and create a demand through better service to our wholesaler customers. Our job is to get them looking at our portfolios as ones they want to promote, and for two primary reasons. One is because of the services they get from us, and the other, because of the profitability they inherently have in these brands.
For us, service is paramount. We have multiple people in our marketing department dedicated to the out-of-state business. They create wonderful support material for our wholesalers – we’ve instituted electronic newsletters, that go out directly to our wholesalers’ customers, which incorporate product knowledge, information, and category perspectives. It’s been a very effective initiative and a great help to our wholesalers, demonstrating that we’re going beyond just selling products and are doing everything we can to support these products directly with their customers. Also, our M.S. Walker people who are in the market, our managers, have developed very strong relationships not just with our wholesale partners, but also with the retail on- and off-premise trade, helping them sell a lot of products.
So our success has been trying to over-deliver customer service to our wholesalers’ customers and over-deliver our support directly to our wholesalers.
All this has been an extremely successful effort for us. We’re dealing in a fiercely competitive market, and we know we’re up against other suppliers with very strong national budgets and advertising. And for us to capture the attention, today, it’s all about our ability to be able to corral some of our wholesalers’ time and our control state partners’ time. So we try to over-deliver that sales support so we can garner some of that attention.
I travel quite a bit, 45,OOO to 5O,OOO miles a year just in my own car. Even though I have a lot of great people out there in the market, and get a tremendous amount of feedback from them. For me, personally, it’s always been hands-on out in the market, spending a lot of time with my wholesaler and key retailers. I have my own personal relationships within the key markets, control state officials, and I think it’s critical, particularly as a smaller company and supplier, to have these hands-on relationships. I also want my people in the field to know I understand what barriers are there in front of them and I work closely with them to help overcome them. And I need to keep my wholesalers realizing that there’s a family member watching out for their best interests, as well. And it’s not just the local state manager. I want to be in the position that when someone asks me a question, I don’t have to go any further than my own desk and be able to give them an answer and provide what they’re looking for.
This is what particularly differentiates us. I deal in control states where we now have our own brokerage operations in New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont. But the relationship with those states originated and continues to develop from our office headquarters here in Somerville. Many wholesalers who have opened up brokerage operations have relied on the brokerage operation they purchased as the source of the relationship with the state. But, because of the personal relationships we’ve had from our home office with control state officials, I’ve been able to add a lot of additional support to my people out in the field rather than rely on just their relationships. But, again, what makes it work is that the people I have out in the field also have outstanding state relationships.
The growth opportunities I see ahead are the markets we’re not yet doing business in. We’ll continue to grow in the current markets, but having a portfolio that allows us to open up new markets and develop new partnerships with wholesalers around the country is my principal objective. The challenge isn’t getting any easier, because most markets have just one or two wholesalers that dominate. But there are a number of smaller wholesalers around the country that are looking for new products and are looking to be niche wholesalers, and we’ve refocused a lot of efforts on some of these smaller players in other states and had some real success with them.
Again, the key to our success comes back to the total team effort we’ve assembled here. It’s all about having a pretty good understanding of the people you’re hiring and what their values and philosophies are. You can train them technically but you can’t train value or work ethic. So, if you have someone with strong values and ethics going in, then it just flows from there.
SALES and MARKETING DIRECTOR
One thing has always been true about this family business, starting back with M.S. Walker, himself, then with Leo Allen, then Harvey and all the rest of us, is simply this: “If your customer says something, you better be listening.” And think about how true this is. These guys know your business sometimes better than you do, because they’re on the other end of it. You might be thinking something is working a certain way, but in reality maybe it isn’t. Your retailer and restaurateur will be the first to tell you exactly what’s happening, ’cause they’re the end user. So, you better have your ears open at all times.
A few years ago we were listening when a Mass Pak group came to us at a time when discounting was changing. They were having issues with other company invoices and wanted to have invoices that made sense and which they could understand. I remember Ron Maloney, the owner of Julio’s, saying, “Jeez, you know, if I had the name of the product and what the list price is, what the post-off is, what the discount is, and what my final bottle cost is on that invoice, it would help me immensely.” So, we designed our invoices from the retailers input about what they needed that would make our invoices better. It wasn’t just the inside of our operation deciding what’s easier and best for us.
Our most dramatic recent improvements, of course, are all about our new warehousing facility in Norwood that we took over from Whitehall, and all the new and very costly management technology we’ve put into place. It has actually revolutionized our business operation, while dramatically adding value to the quality of service we can now provide to our customers. I can’t emphasize too strongly what a positive impact this has had on our whole operation.
We’d been operating our business in Somerville for 25 years, and had completely outgrown the distribution facility. Fortunately, Whitehall’s warehouse became available. It was state-of-the-art at the time it was constructed a little over 2O years ago. Fact is, they had people from distribution companies all over the country looking at how they’d built it. A lot of the features were years ahead of their time, and are still not being done even today. It’s somewhat of a green building, because the air-conditioning and heating comes from underground water supplies. On top of that, they had management systems in place and a whole IT department. So, when we moved in, we were able to overlay a new best-in-class 3-M High Jump warehouse management system, which is the softwear brand selected by our IT department head, Michael Saitow.
Obviously, this was a huge move for us. And to give you some idea of just how perfect a fit this basic facility was for us, just consider that when other wholesalers have made this kind of a move, it usually takes them six months to a year to get their service correct. We were able to make the move by closing our doors on a Friday and open our doors there the following Tuesday, totally back in operation.
This all happened about the same time that my son, Dana, was getting out of college. He’d been involved in the company for several summers and now wanted to get up and running as a salesman on the road like his brother, Craig, who tripled his territory in two years. Instead, Scott Allen told him, “Hey, we’re moving into this new warehouse and need to put all these 9OOO SKUs in racks, and your job is to put a sticker up on every single location.” He says to me, “Dad, I just graduated from GW, and the family’s got me doing this?” Of course, he quickly learned that you’ve got to learn the warehouse from the ground up, and that it’s actually a very dynamic responsibility. He’s now the high jump manager, dealing with all our people, teaching everyone how to use the system, and the bottom line is that we are now 99.7% accurate.
Just stop for a second and consider what this means for our business. We’re doing millions of cases out of there, so even this three-tenths of a percentage point is a lot of cases. But it’s absolutely minimal compared to what it used to be in Somerville, where we were running only about 9O% accurate. So, with our business growing as dramatically as it has in the past few years, to have a system that improves your distribution accuracy by almost 1O% is simply phenomenal. We had also so seriously outgrown our facility in Somerville that we were using backup warehouses, where we had to have orders shipped over to us before we could make the actual deliveries to customers. During certain holiday periods, we were even replenishing almost the whole place every single day. And you just can’t run your business that way today.
What I’m really saying is that we probably went from worst-in-class to best-in-class with this new warehouse move. With our old system, I’ll be the first to admit there were too many times when a retailer might call me with issues. “Hey, Mike, I took these palettes in. These are the wrong cases.” Or, “I ordered 1OO, but I only got 75. What’s going on?” Sure, we’d handle it, of course, but this is more like crisis management, not a smooth-running business operation.
What we’ve also been able to accomplish with this is a huge cost saving on the overtime factor, which was enormous in our old Somerville warehouse. Now, we can get everything done within our regular scheduled shifts without additional overtime. And, again, in the wholesale business today, with the cost of gas rising almost a dollar a gallon from last year to this year, and when you’re using something like 1OO,OOO gallons a year, that’s a $1OO,OOO increase just to fuel your trucks. So, you have to find a way within your service to recoup this money by driving down operating costs in what we call the back-of-the-house, meaning warehousing, picking and shipping. Obviously, the better your efficiencies are in this area, enabling you to get it all done in a timely fashion, the more cost-efficient your total operation becomes. And I don’t need to emphasize how much it improves services and helps keep costs down for our on- and off-premise customers, too.
These warehouse technological upgrades were just a start. We’ve also implemented a sales management system called EIS (Executive Information System), which enables us to message all of our selling information, so, we’re able to send it to all our sales people on remote order units. With these personal assistant palm pilots today, it’s phenomenal the interaction we can have between our sales management and our sales force. And now we’re going still further, coming up with best-in-class purchasing, so we can work with suppliers and bring all our goods into our warehouse in the proper amounts in a timely fashion. This will dramatically cut costs because our inventory can come in and move out very quickly, and we can replenish in such a way that we don’t have to have millions of dollars in extra inventory.
The name of the game for any wholesaler today is that you have to add value, especially in the three tier system that we have in this state. We’re the middle tier. This is a big reason for all these technological advances in sales management, warehouse management and now in the purchasing area. And a lot of it represents added value for our customers. Our objective is to be best-in-class from start to finish. Once we’ve accomplished all this, and truly have it all in place, we’ll have the lowest possible costs and will be the most efficient in the business. It puts us in a very strong competitive position for the future.
As to remaining an independent in this industry, I also have the greatest confidence in our company’s position. Luckily, for us, Massachusetts happens to be a franchise market, which is one of the reasons you can remain independent in this state. You also see it in states like Connecticut and New Jersey, which also have independent wholesalers who have been able to survive because of their franchise laws. What this means is that a supplier can’t come in and take brands that we’ve built away from us. And, because of this, it gives us an edge and means we can be in business as long as we so choose.
We don’t have any one supplier with a contract that can control our business. So, without binding contracts, we basically can run our business and get the job done for the balance of spirit and wine suppliers. We’ve built a fine wine business and a spirits business with both national brands and even local brands from different companies over the years. Because no one’s calling our shots.
But what has happened with major suppliers today is that they have become so powerful with wholesalers that they control the wholesaler’s business. And if they threaten to dual them or take a brand away from someone, they can put people out of business. They can force people to sell. And we’ve seen several instances where it can happen almost overnight. Anyway, sure, we do business with a lot of suppliers, but not one of them controls our business – we get the job done for all of them. Thus, we’re not up against this kind of threat.
Of course, part of what this requires from us is a careful selection of the companies we partner with. Like most markets, Massachusetts has seen its share of consolidation at the wholesale level. The major suppliers will always receive the time and attention their brands demand. After that, the problem is that the mid-tier suppliers can’t get any time and effort anywhere because the houses are jammed in with all the brands from these majors.
This, of course, is what gives us huge opportunities. We become the go-to alternative. And there’s not a doubt in my mind we’re going to continue making it by staying in this position. But I think the best and most comprehensive perspective you’ll ever get about any business is by talking to the customers they do business with. So, rather than us talking about how we view our own success, I’m confident the best way to evaluate this company today is hearing from a broad range of the people we do business with and why they think M.S. Walker as an independent is not only well-positioned for the future, but also may be one of the very few who will still be in business for generations to come.
As a business model, I think one of the great strengths M.S. Walker has going for it has been their wisdom to stay at just about the right size, with a blend of enough independents but also enough national brands in their stable to be a great wholesaler to partner with. They have a wonderful niche market – a huge breadth of products both in their independently rectified spirits and in the boutique wines they make available, which aren’t tied up with the big supplier companies. But they also have some very significant bread and butter staple products to help fill the trucks and get some name brand recognition for their salesmen to walk into an account with.
Then, you consider the people in the relationship. When you’ve got that many family members in a company, you’ve got a lot of people who really care and take pride in the success of that company. And these are people who are positioned at all different touch points. It’s often been said on the outside that Harvey’s very good at sitting down with each family member and finding the right business niche for them. He has a gift for finding areas they are particularly well suited for and which they can feel passionate about. And it shows.
People we deal with a lot – like Mike Brody, on the business and spirits end, and Doug Shaw, on the wine end – are very different people with very unique strengths, but both of whom represent the family passion for the business, and put the relationships and long term success of the partnership right along side with the business. They understand these are very much interconnected. M.S. Walker offers a unique service to retailers in Massachusetts by providing this independent resource for us to get the products they think are interesting, plus some name brands as well.
A lot of the big guys are committed to providing good services, too, of course. But the one thing that Walker did not so long ago was consolidate most of their warehousing operation in Norwood, dramatically increasing their level of service.
They also made a tremendous investment in the software required to run all this smoothly. Anyway, this is an excellent example of Walker listening to its customers, realizing the need for change, and taking the necessary steps to eliminate a big problem. It’s a particularly big step for an independent to take over and secure that real estate, put a very costly software system in place, to better service their customers.
I’ll just say that as far as we’re concerned, and it certainly also applies to all the retailers I know, we hope to be dealing with the whole Walker team family for many years to come. I won’t single out any particular brands as success stories, although there certainly are many I could cite. But the biggest strength of this company in terms of products is the sheer multitude of brands. They’re not chasing any one-trick pony. They can give guys like me the breadth of product I need and want.
I’ve been in this business for 6O years so I go way way back. One of my best friends was Leo Allen. His father-in-law started the business, but Leo brought it up to unprecedented heights. So, we’ve enjoyed 6O years of close association with M.S. Walker.
Of course, I know Harvey and the whole family today. And to truly appreciate what they have accomplished, you just have to stop and remember the enterprise you’re seeing now developed from a little rectifying plant in South Boston that was falling apart and has grown into this major progressive wholesale operation. And we’re not just talking in Massachusetts, but on a national scale. Every big wholesaler in the country knows and respects the Allens and M.S. Walker.
What sets them apart in my mind is this is one of the few companies that I know that has so many family members involved. I’ve seen a lot of wholesalers come and go, but I’ve never seen anything so closely knit with three or four generations of key family players. And they keep coming in. These younger kids keep emerging and getting into the business. As far as I know, there’s never been any dissention.
For many years they were a rectifying plant and sold labels with your name on it. And they were involved in a lot of states. Several of the brands that carry their names continue to be major successes. And in the last 3O years, they’ve managed to get national brands and raise the business to higher and higher levels. They distribute all the way down the East Coast. I see their products in New York and New Jersey. For me, Allen’s cordials have been very successful.
Anyway, they’ve got a great organization, and youth is on their side. I think today, with the elimination of a lot of wholesalers, they’re in a great position to take major brands from some of the leading distillers of the world and really give them some new legs.
Now you’ve got me thinking about the old family again. I mean Leo Allen was such a charmer. And his brother Haskell – oh, how I loved that man! – what a visionary! He really pointed the way to opportunities in the wine field, when hardly anyone was even thinking about it. Starting with his inspiration, Walker has now become one of the most enterprising large wine companies with a tremendous range of selection. Now, it’s obvious this has become one of the brightest trends for the future of this entire industry. And, again, here’s Walker with a whole staff of young and exceptionally knowledgeable wine people in place, from Doug Shaw and his brother Gary on down, to sell and grow this end of the business. Like I said, this company is in extremely good shape for many years to come.
CHESTNUT HILL, MA
The relationship between our store and Walker goes back three generations. We’ve been in business for 66 years now, and doing business with them from the very beginning. My grandfather started having some immediate success with their rectified products like Cossack Vodka. As we’ve both grown over the many decades since, our business philosophy as retailers is not unlike what they’ve been achieving more and more as distributors.
We like to discover and have become noted for stocking a very broad selection for our customers. Side by side, both our businesses have grown and greatly developed. They’re one of the first wholesalers to really invest their resources heavily into the wine market. They have pioneered and developed a market for some very expensive, lesser known cordials from around the world. Look at their rums, tequilas, vodkas, and other spirits, you‘ll find a whole lot of stuff you just don’t necessarily see in other big houses. In fact, the most unique thing about Walker is that they’re not the largest distributor in the state, so a lot of secondary niche market and up-and-coming brands, which have a tough time finding their way into this state, can really find a foothold in the Walker portfolio. And, at this point, the Walker sales team is without peer in taking these experimental items and giving them full hands-on attention. It’s a remarkable sales team effort.
You can actually tell how a company is run by the way sales people operate. So many of the Walker guys have been around for many many years. And in-house allegiances like this, in this day and age, is very rare. It offers a huge advantage for retailers in my position. You’re not only dealing with salesmen who are exceptionally experienced and well-trained in product knowledge, but also these guys also go back generations with their customers and have an intimate understanding of their territories, and specifically what we might be looking for. I mean, they’ve still got reps in the business who broke in with my father, for heaven’s sake. It’s this kind of loyalty and familiarity that you can’t put a price on. As a retailer, it’s pretty hard to go elsewhere. Also, this kind of customer understanding saves me a lot of time listening to a guy who’s just trying to push something into my store.
The overall Walker portfolio is very big for us. On the value end, Allen’s cordials are still very viable. Allen’s Coffee-flavored brandy is still the big gorilla in this line-up. Just an amazing customer base for us, Allen’s Ginger brandy is another. These are brands that just transcend time. They’ll probably sell forever. Brands like this are also huge for image, believe it or not. They keep a company’s persona thriving in the marketplace, and keep reinforcing credibility with consumers as they move ahead in other areas. Maybe the rectifying business is not where their future is at, but it gives them quite a different approach paying calls on a retailer, where they can still offer a lot of unique brands and a lot of different price-point-friendly staple products that are hugely popular.
Most of your large national wholesale companies just don’t deal in this area anymore. For Walker, I feel this is just an invaluable and completely viable market niche. It may not be the most glamorous, or even a particularly significant path to the future, but it definitely is a very significant part of what they have going for them right now for a lot of activity in the retail market.
One of their most impressive areas of development is what they’ve done with wine. Doug Shaw started working in this wine division back in the early ’8Os, about the time I was breaking in, too. I remember some of the brands they started bringing in after their acquisition of Grapevine. They got labels like Fetzer and Louis Latour out of that deal. Brands like these really started moving once Walker began working with them. They’ve had great success with Frederick Wildman, the Stimson-Lane Chateau St. Michelle-Columbia Crest portfolio, Kendall Jackson, and all of Jess Jackson’s wines. And now they have a new division that they’ve partnered with Jess Jackson.
A lot of this has to do with Doug Shaw, himself, and I’m not just saying this because I’ve known him for so long. But Doug is one of the true gentlemen in this business. He’s scrupulously ethical and fair. I’ve even had people come to me who’ve had dinner with him, and they ask, “Is he really like that or was it just an act?” I’ll tell them, “No, he’s actually nicer.” And there’s really no one who’s better at building all these successful relationships.
Look at all the artisan wineries in their book. These are cult-status type wines like Chateau Montelena, Justin, Paul Hobbs, Staglin, and unbelievable dessert wines from Canada, like Inniskillin. And then there are all the very good staple commodity items, like Toasted Head and Blackstone, and tremendously successful imports, like Excelsior, and the whole Cape Classics portfolio from South Africa. And they have an amazing Italian book, too, including major brands, like Antinori, and many others that are hard to find.
Most recently, they’ve started to branch out into Greek labels. And, of particular interest, they’re now starting to develop an area that’s in the back of their book, and something where they’re really on the cutting edge. They’re one of the first distributors to really bring this out in the wine business. They now have a section devoted to certified, organic and biodynamic wines. I am not aware of any other distributor who’s marketing this increasingly significant consumer niche the way they’re doing it. They’re the first to really react to this trend.
Biodynamic means not totally certified as organic, but there’s a whole methodology of agricultural practices about how you have to grow your grapes and guidelines about no sulphites, no chemicals, no pesticides – all that sort of thing. A lot of wineries, today, steer away from labeling themselves like this because they don’t want to get tripped up doing something not quite right, and there’s also a connotation with some consumers that the wine itself may not be quite up to snuff, which isn’t at all the case. But this is a trend that is definitely growing. I’m seeing a lot of increased consumer interest here in my store. We’re living in a dramatically more health-conscious society. You’re seeing the notable success food store chains like Whole Foods are having, focusing on pure, natural, organic products. And Walker now has almost a full page of these specially designated wine selections in their book and they’re sourcing these items from all over the world. It’s just another excellent example of Walker’s cutting edge ability to identify and respond to trends, and bring products into the marketplace.
About their quality of service, it’s not only about if you need something, where they’re quick to react. But, in a company where there are so many family members involved, there isn’t a time you can’t call them and speak to somebody about something. It’s the personal touch you get, not an “Oh, well, I’ll connect you to so-and-so,” and then you get voice mail after voice mail, and someone calls you back two days later. There’s nothing more frustrating to a retailer than that.
The really important thing especially about the retail trade here in Massachusetts, where there are three-store laws and the largest stores are still family-run businesses, is that here you have a family-run distributorship with so many family members that can relate to that. They don’t treat you like a corporate customer number when you call. They haven’t lost that touch. M.S. Walker has managed to maintain a tremendous balance between their expanding size and their uniquely personal customer relationships.
I could go on and on. But, I’m just trying to illustrate that such a key part of the Walker story is all about extremely astute brand selection and hands-on marketing. Another part of it is knowing the right ways to really launch a brand in retail and really kick it off the ground successfully by getting it going in the high end establishments in Boston. They’ve proven to be masters at doing exactly this. You hit the high end traffic in these on-premise places, and it sends all kinds of customers coming to my store. That’s Chip Coen’s baby. He’s been just outstanding with on-premise initiatives.
Again, here’s a guy who’s been with them over 2O years. And, again, it all leads back to Harvey Allen’s style of leadership and selecting the right people for the right positions. He’s absolutely one of the greatest guys in this business. I can actually say I love him. He’s got the greatest business cards in the whole world. All it has on it is, “Harvey Allen . . . I’ll Call You” No phone number. Nothing else. That’s it. Can you beat it? It almost tells you all you need to know about Walker. He’s not only an exceptionally sharp business guy, but he’s one of the funniest and most personable individuals on this planet. His relationships are such that he makes every customer feel important. He’s one of my only vendors that, if I see him when he’s outside or he comes into the store, he doesn’t shake my hand, he hugs me. He’s the best. And his late uncle Haskell also has to be mentioned as a Walker legend. He was a quiet kind of guy, very different from Harvey. But all the top sales guys like Mike Brody and Russell Allen were trained under him. Haskell was also a visionary, identifying a future trend for wines. And Doug Shaw has picked up where he left off.
To be in this industry right now, I guess we all have to be a little soft, what with the falling American dollar, so many worries, so much inconsistency and uncertainties about so many things. At least with Walker, there’s a sense of some stability and longevity. It’s a family-run business that’s important to me. You actually know who you’re dealing with. They’re a relationship-driven company and in business for the long haul, not here to service you for the day. I’ve seen the same faces in the same positions for a long time. These are friends you can depend on and this represents a huge advantage for customer relations. It’s what counts.
What they really provide that I benefit from is they have a plentiful book of spirits and fine wine and definitely the right goods. And they recognize what a retailer needs. People sometimes think that we just sit behind a cash register and ring up big dollars, and maybe it can seem that way. But this is a very labor intensive industry, and everything has to be considered whether it’s a single bottle of water, a bottle of wine or a can of beer. It has to be loaded off the docks, put on the shelf, kept clean, and then of course carried out the front door with the whole customer involvement. Walker has a great understanding of all these little things we have to do to try and keep our customers happy, and they bend over backwards the same way.
They are by far one of the most service-driven wholesalers without a doubt.
DOMANEY’S LIQUORS GREAT BARRINGTON, MA
I can’t tell you how genuinely delighted I am to be contributing some personal thoughts and feelings to a tribute piece about the great, and I really mean great, M.S. Walker distributor organization. I’ll just start at the top of the ladder from Harvey Allen on down. The guys like Mike Brody, Chip Coen, Doug Shaw – I’ve known them for years and years. And the beautiful thing is that I’ve known them for all this time the way my customers have known me for years since we started our store in 1973. There are other companies where the management comes and goes, and it drives us crazy. You never develop a real rapport with anybody. But right from the top of this company, they all know us as a store. From Harvey right down to the guy who works the warehouse and every truck driver who works western Massachusetts. It’s just a great feeling.
It’s a hot market out here in the Berkshires. All the New Yorkers drive in in the summertime. And Walker has sort of recognized all those tourist markets in a great way, and they’ve got one of the finest wine books that really keys in on what so many different people want, including all the highly rated wines. They’re also extremely astute buyers and have gotten rid of a lot of the gimmicky stuff which a lot of other companies have gotten stuck with. They’ve been able to focus on what are really quality core products.
I have a good relationship with all of my wholesalers, but there’s a little special feeling when I know that every dollar spent at M.S. Walker goes to a small family, and that the money gets redistributed right down to the sales people. You feel that you are not a number, but that you really truly count. Not a knock on anybody else, but it’s the way you feel doing business with these guys. They’ve been smart. They are big enough in their business area to be a powerful player, but they’re small enough to still know everybody. They know what’s going on, what stores buy, what stores need, who to contact and when, what brother-in-law is on vacation. If I’m gone for three weeks, they know it.
I can’t know the name of every one of my customers anymore, but when people walk through, I generally know their names, know their kids and am familiar with their families. It may sound like a small town mentality, but it’s been a key to my success in the business. Walker reflects a similar kind of approach. They know me. They know the owners of Trotter’s, the Red Lion Inn, and also the owners of the small little Trattoria IL Vesuvio in Lenox that’s open four nights a week.
They also have a knack for getting the right rep for each account. The man I have, Anthony Gambrioni, is an amazing salesman, one of the best we’ve ever had ever. And I couldn’t be happier than with Steve Dixon, our fine wine rep. Known him for years. I don’t even look at him as a rep anymore. He’s a close friend. I doubt if there’s anyone in this state who knows more about wine, but when Steve walks in, he’s humble, and never throws around his knowledge. Just comes in low key every week to discuss any needs. And even a slow week when I’m not going to buy, I like to give him at least a small order. Both he and Anthony are so understanding. It’s sometimes like friends dropping in just to say Hi.
I vividly recall my father, Joe, God rest his soul, when we bought this business from a family uncle on my mother’s side. I was still in high school and starting to work in the business. I came home one afternoon and Dad had a whole load of wine, including Allani Lambrusco and a lot of other Walker stuff. “Dad, what the hell is this?” I asked. “We can’t sell this stuff. Riunite is the one that sells. And Costa del Sol.” He just said to me, “Look at the price, Ed, and put it next to the major brands, and let’s see what happens.” He explained that there’s nobody else out there who has stuff like this, and we’ll have something no one else has.
This is how far I go back to these days of unheard of brands being introduced by Walker, and they’ve been flourishing with us ever since. There really wasn’t a name brand in this company, back then, but the reps continued to sell and sell and sell, despite the fact that they had no national products. And so much of it had it to do with these top quality sales reps. The thing is that today they have many more sales reps, and, now, many of the bigger brands, too, but they haven’t changed their operational style in the slightest.
And another thing, back when we started, was that, on a lot of stuff, they gave a small store guy, like we were, an opportunity to make a nice dollar when we weren’t able to buy the big giant drops like a lot of other stores. So, for over 3O years, we’ve had an unbelievable relationship with Walker growing at about the same rate and with their products. It’s a nice mutual success story to think about. Today, they’re a big and powerful wholesaler, and I feel in about the same position as a retailer. But we’re still intimately in touch with our people, in touch with our employees, members of my family, and speaking for myself, anyway, I’ll never change. A zebra doesn’t change its stripes. That was how I was brought up in this business, staying humble and working hard. I feel M.S. Walker shares exactly the same values.
I remember Mike Brody at a wine dinner we had. I didn’t know him at the time. It was a spectacular showcase of Italian wines. Chip Coen was the main speaker. Anyway, after the dessert, Mike was about to light up a cigar, but had the courtesy first to ask the restaurant owner if she’d mind. No, of course not, she said. Go ahead. But then, he also turned to me, a peon kid right out of college sitting next to him, and asked me if I minded. I told him I happened to love cigars and smoked some of the best with my Dad as a special treat sitting out on our deck at night.
“Here, have one of these,” said Mike, handing me what was probably a $2O Macanudo at yesterday’s prices. He clipped it for me and we sat together smoking these incredible stogies, with him asking me about my business and my father’s failing health, and me talking about our needs. It was an unforgettable bonding experience. I like to freeze that moment in time, because it was such a class act I will never forget and because it was so entirely genuine. Just a nice moment in establishing both a business relationship and a friendship that continues to this day. It really defines my first exposure to the M.S. Walker experience. Of course, I didn’t realize the full significance when it happened, but as the years went on this memory is indelible. That’s M.S. Walker in a nutshell, right there. You can never forget it. And ever since, whether with Mike Brody or Billy Livingston or Doug Shaw, Chip Coen, or anyone else, this is the way it works. It’s the entire people-to-people business ethic that built this company and remains today among its greatest strengths.
DAVIO’S and AVILA RESTAURANTS
In our restaurant business you got to have quality products, right? M.S. Walker has quality products, and this is #1. Number two, you got to have service that really addresses a specific customer, which means sales people that are highly trained and know what’s going on. You need a driver who knows which door to be sure he delivers to and makes sure he gets there on time. And this too is what Walker ‘delivers’. They’re a niche company that has exceptional ability to take care of customers and make them feel good.
Now, if they had lousy products, I don’t care how good their service is. But they’ve got an incredible book. For me, being a northern Italian steakhouse, it starts with their superior Italian wine portfolio. But they’ve also got California and so much other stuff we need. Also a lot of name brands, too, not just small wineries that no one’s ever heard of. So, they have a little bit of everything. But you can’t discount that service and personal touch.
Let’s face it, Harvey Allen is one of the most loved people in the city of Boston. Take his philanthropy, for example. You’ve got to be a player at the top. You got to pitch in when help is needed. We do a lot of benefits, and anytime I need anything, Harvey’s one of my first calls. Doug Shaw, his nephew, also does an incredible job. But it all starts with Harvey, let’s face it.
The old saying about liking someone is “Do you really want to go have a beer with him?” With Harvey, forget about the beer. I’d happily spend a week with him. Oh, yeah!
When Harvey’s in the room, let’s just say you know he’s in the room. And I’ve been fortunate to be in many places with Harvey, personally, like a couple of days in France. We eat out together. I’ve gone on trips to Napa with him. We’ve been friends along time. And I can assure you he’s not full of it. He might be funny and loud and appear a little crazy sometimes, but it’s all real. What’s truly real is that he’s such a caring guy. And he’ll also be completely at your service. Underneath all that boisterous joke-telling public persona, he’s one of the most genuinely thoughtful people I’ve ever met in this business, and also one of the smartest businessmen, too.
In particular, he has an incredible memory. I’ll tell him something about my kid or a personal detail about my life, and maybe we don’t see each other for a couple of months. Next time we’re together, he’ll ask me about son Michael or about other things which I’ve already forgotten myself. He never ceases to amaze me. I mean think of all the accounts he has and all the people he knows. Anyway, there are few people in the city I feel so strongly about. And he’s the kind of guy I’d do just about anything for.
His other huge talent is the whole organizational team he’s been able to build and put together over at Walker. It’s a family achievement that’s second to none in this wholesale industry, and, again, a reflection of Harvey’s administrative skills. You’ve got nephews like Doug, and Gary, his own sons like Scott and Brett. You got in-laws like Mike Brody, and key top executives who’ve been with the company for decades like Bill Livingston and Chip Coen. There are now grandkids and grandnephews entering the business. The total roster is almost endless. What Harvey can look at with richly deserved pride today, I think, is that his whole company is so set up for the next century, and it’s truly incredible.
Sure, this all about running a business, where money is supposedly the only thing that matters. And this might sound weird, but if a business relationship has grown into a deep personal friendship, and you love somebody so much, you feel almost guilty doing business elsewhere. In this case, everybody charges pretty much the same. Money doesn’t really matter. It’s not like the food industry where it’s more competitive. This beverage industry is so regulated. Price really doesn’t matter. Terms are the same. Everyone’s got 6O days, right? The prices are in the book. Every so often someone will do a deal, but everyone gets the same deal. It’s not like all the back door stuff that was going on many years ago. And, so, if a couple of suppliers are carrying the same products, where’s the difference and what makes your choice? You choose the guy who makes you feel good when you make that purchase. And this is the distinctive reason why Harvey Allen’s M.S. Walker team gets so much of my business. You call and he calls you right back. You feel wanted. You feel serviced. Anyway, that’s who I want to do business with.
Anytime I open a new restaurant, they’re right there with me. All his on-premise team. What we do is that every night, around 4:45pm, we have a wait staff briefing before dinner service begins. We go over service issues, problem areas, who’s coming in, special functions. And we often bring in guests to talk to the staff, so they don’t get bored listening to us all the time. Walker guys are always ready to come in to these sessions and talk about some wines or a new vodka product or whatever and implant some extremely effective on-the-spot product info of immediate selling value. And they’re especially good in these presentations. They sometimes even have the guy who makes the product show up for a little hands-on tasting briefing. They’re passionate, know all the details, and our staff can then go out and pass it on to customers.
Their on-premise director, Chip Coen, is the guy who orchestrates a lot of this. He’s just amazing. Like with Harvey, I don’t know how he keeps so much of this detail stuff at his fingertips and in his head. He’s great in front of a room. He’s entertaining. But he’s particularly gifted at conveying what our waiters are looking for, valuable little tips about selling certain wines, and is just on top of everything that’s going on. When he talks, our people are listening. He’s like the Boss. We have two wine stewards who are out on our floor every night, advising and working with customers. This kind of prep stuff for them is a huge benefit.
In the age of consolidation where major products are kept up front, but little products get lost in distributor portfolios, if they’re available at all, what are the other advantages of dealing with a smaller and independent house like MSW, I ask myself? Well, this is why they’re important. They keep the little guys going. I’m a big advocate of trying to help the little guy. Nothing against the Mondavis of this world, and Masi Amarone is a great Amarone. But there’s nothing wrong with small boutique Amarone from Veneto. I go over to Italy many times and have gotten to know a great many outstanding small producers in all kinds of regions. I want to include many of them on the wine selections in my restaurant. Where can I only get several of them? They’re in the Walker book.
I’m starting up a new Davio’s that will be opening up this summer on Patriot’s Place at the Gillette Stadium location in Foxborough. We’re building it right now. It will be my third Davio’s following the first one here in Boston and the one in Philadelphia. I’ve gotten to be close friends with the Krafts and this is an exciting new opportunity. It’s our first venture into the suburbs. We’ll see how it goes. And you can be sure I’ll be consulting with the Walker team about what we’ll be needing for wines and spirits.
CORPORATE WINE DIRECTOR
NO.9 PARK and
BARBARA LYNCH RESTAURANT GROUP
The thing about M.S. Walker for me is that they go the extra mile of humanity. And our chef-owner Barbara Lynch couldn’t agree with me more. It definitely starts with the Allens and the Shaws. Harvey and Doug and many many members of the Walker company family are not only great appreciators of our restaurants, but also regular diners, bringing in their wives, their children, relatives, and friends. And then it extends to so many managers within their company, particularly, for us, with their star vice president of on-premise sales, Chip Coen, who’s unlike anyone else in the trade. There’s no one more gregarious and there’s nobody who’s given himself more to his art, so to speak, in terms of being out and wining and dining. That guy knows every chef and restaurateur from Nantucket to the Berkshires.
Twenty years ago, Chip was my sales person when I was the young wine buyer at Grill 23. It’s been fun growing up together in the trade. But I think the most valuable thing he offers us now is perspective, because he does know the market so well and so many types of restaurants, and how people perceive menus, wine lists, service. So, he always has interesting and helpful perspectives on what he sees happening in other places, trends, new waves, and he’s a master at customizing a wine list for a particular establishment.
In our case, since we started 15 years back, we’ve always made a big point out of trying to work with the handmade and the artisanal. And I think this is another strong point about Walker. They’ve never tried to fit square pegs into round holes. You might think this should be obvious, but I’m really surprised at how many wholesalers actually just believe that the wine they have is the wine you want. But Walker people really listens to all kinds of different accounts and these different things. They just don’t blink at that, and I like that flexibility. There’s never a wine du jour they’re trying to cram at you. They don’t even think that way.
Their wine suppliers are another of their big strengths for me. They’ve been very successful at establishing some long relationships with excellent importers, including Vindivino, the Austrian and Italian import company, which is very important for me for artisanal products, and Walker is their distributor. Another one they work closely with is Eric Solomon’s European Cellars. These are companies with portfolios specializing in the smaller size of wineries, and Walker gets lots of different things from them. You just don’t find a lot of this stuff in the books of larger distributorships. And yet Walker is large enough so that they aren’t a one-page company in the massachusetts beverage business, so they also can supply chains very dynamically. And I respect that mix of sales. But again, they never try and foist the wrong stuff on the wrong accounts. It’s sort of a company ethos they’ve always stuck to which helps a lot.
In this age of wholesaler consolidation, where a broad range of product choices can be limited, Walker’s size represents still another big advantage for us. They’re both large enough, but also small enough as an independent distributor, and, for me, they’re the perfect size. They’re not so small that they can’t be supportive in terms of some of the bigger issue needs, like whether it’s a wine by the glass we want to order 3OO cases a year of. They can be there for you. But they can also access very small and intimate products, too, because they’re independent.
Anyway, most of us tend to think of Walker as a middleweight fighter. A middleweight can maneuver quickly and is very fast in the ring. That’s really the way I perceive Walker in the wholesale industry. They respond fast and think fast. The same goes even for how they take inventory. They can supply many restaurants, and yet aren’t over-burdened by supply which I think happens in larger scale operations. There still is a family ethos and a company ethos going on there.
Barbara is about to open three new venues on Congress Street, and I’m her corporate wine director for her three main restaurants, No.9 Park, B&G Oysters, and The Butcher Shop. They have very different wine lists, but are similar in philosophy of representing smaller wineries with hand-made stories. Oyster Bar is almost all white wine with very shellfish and oyster-driven cuisine. Butcher Shop is, of course, red wine-oriented to go with chops and steaks. And No.9 tends towards more elegance with more burgundies, Bordeaux, more Rhone, more champagne, more formality. For me, this is a dream job and very exciting being able to buy for so many different venues. No.9 location is ideally located for up-market consumers. The top of Beacon Hill location is in the shadow of the statehouse with a wide panoramic view of the Common. We’re a popular destination restaurant for international tourists and business people. And with the Euro being so strong, we have more European visitors than ever before.
Anyway, Chip and his sales force have been working very closely with me at all these venues, and one of the most helpful things he’s done is to make sure that I’ve gotten to deal with not only the principals in the Walker organization, but that I know many of the brand managers within his company. This means any direct question I might have about an import company or an inventory matter, I have four more people over there that I can easily call, like the California brand manager, the European wine buyer. The door is always open, in other words. I’ve got a whole team working for me. It’s not just one salesman I never see anywhere else. It has made the whole Walker company team a part of their service model, and I can’t tell you how much all of this has helped me.
I’ll just add that both Barbara and I love it when any of the Walker people come to dine. There’s a special joie de vivre about this company. These guys really do enjoy being out, and they’re some of the nicest customers imaginable. They’re entertaining to be with. They have wonderful spouses. They love to eat and drink. They love the spirits business, and they obviously have a total belief in their products. Love is a word that is sometimes used too loosely, but I can honestly say that Barbara and I love this company, and we really believe in them, too.
SAXCO INTERNATIONAL GLASS
We don’t sell M.S. Walker products. We sell them packaging – their glass and plastic bottles. We’ve been doing business since as long as I can remember. A fellow who was our salesman in the Boston region was the best man when Leo Allen and his wife eloped back in about 1935, I think it was. This relationship goes back a long long time.
Their business philosophy is entirely about people-to-people, something a lot of people have lost sight of today. Harvey’s company has not. It’s why my relationship with Harvey now goes back about 4O years. He’s 1O years older. I just attended his 7Oth birthday on February 14th. He’s a bon vivant, works hard and has a huge heart. And what particularly distinguishes him is his unusual loyalty. This goes for the rest of the family, too. They give you the benefit of the doubt. They honor length of service, if you will. They don’t take that lightly. And this attribute is A#1 in my book.
I’ve watched the company evolve into a major league distributor with guys like Mike, Doug and Gary. Where I come in is all about the rectifying, the Allen’s Coffee brandy and that sort of thing. They’ve done it for all these years, and continue doing it to support and round out their relationship with other wholesalers, being able to offer that service of having bottled goods. This has an importance all its own, and is a very steady and stable end of the business. Anyway, they remain a very valued customer of ours, and are also important because of the volume that they do.
I think they are a unique company. And I’ll tell you this. There will never be another Harvey Allen nor anyone with his approach to the industry. There are very few people around today that have that tie to the way business used to be done. And this is a distinct advantage for any company that can do it well, because it’s so much appreciated. I myself would do anything for Harvey and consider him one of my closest personal friends, and I think this goes both ways. I know, if I asked Harvey for anything, if it’s within his power, he’ll get it done.
There are certain people who do a lot of talking. Harvey’s the one who backs it up. It’s oh, so rare and important to have a person like this you’re doing business with. It’s why I’m so loyal to Walker. Trust in business is a wonderful thing. And if Harvey tells me this is the way it is, I don’t need it in writing or anything formalized. I also would just want to add that I consider it an honor to be asked to say a few words and be included in this Walker 75th anniversary project.
HEAVEN HILL DISTILLERIES
I think you could characterize M.S. Walker’s relationship with us, and most of their other suppliers, as one that combines the old traditional relationship building between suppliers and distributors with all of the updated and sophisticated marketing technology that you need to bring to bear on selling today. It’s a combination of the old time-honored people-oriented way the industry used to be, adapted to the usage of the highest degree of technology, innovation and service available today. And as far as our friendship is concerned, you have to understand that this is one of those rare relationships in the distilled spirits industry between a supplier and their distributor which actually goes back three generations. It goes back, at least in our case, to right when Prohibition ended. And my dad knew Harvey’s dad and uncle intimately well. They worked closely together building brands. And then Harvey and myself have come along in the next generation, and now my son, daughter and son-in-law are in the business and have great professional and personal relationships with Harvey’s kids and in-laws like Mike Brody, and the rest of the team, as well. So, you’re seeing here three generations of closeness that harkens back to the founding of my company in 1935. It’s really very unique.
Our brands have grown substantially in recent years, and growth in the Massachusetts market has been particularly good on a broad range of projects, from what I’d consider one of the most traditional of our brands like Evan Williams to the most cutting-edge brands like Hpnotiq and Pama. Each of these require different and uniquely separate selling techniques and market audiences. And they’ve been able to understand the objective of those brands and have built them into significant players within their respective categories. And, again, each one requires a slightly different skill set to appeal to different audiences, different styles of marketing. Some are more off-premise, others more on-premise. Some are more Club-oriented, others more food-oriented. It takes a whole lot of sophisticated savvy talent to pull this kind of thing off.
Walker’s key advantage is that they have a mind-set of owner-managers. And while many distributors are well-run today, both large and small, it’s just a different kind of perspective than what an owner-operator, in effect, brings to the table day in and day out. It’s a higher degree of invested interest. There’s a more passionate and personal motivation to succeed. It’s a more proactive and reactive involvement in the entire business. And they’re able to accomplish a tremendous amount because ‘outsiders’ are attracted to this, they can feel the underlying pride, and, in the end, it’s something they want to become or remain connected with, especially in today’s increasingly impersonal business environment.
But, again, the ability of their operation to have that family orientation and a broad range of their functions, from sales to administration to finance, just lends a different perspective than most companies do. I’m not saying one’s necessarily superior to the other, but this has been a key to the MSW success story.