CANarchy’s VP of Sales, Chris Russell & Senior Sales Analyst, Jenny Connolly:

Looking To The Future Of Craft

CANarchy’s VP of Sales, Chris Russell & Senior Sales Analyst, Jenny Connolly:

Looking To The Future Of Craft

“People that know the industry know what it takes to get the best information, look at trends, and look forward instead of just in the rear view mirror.”

As Lilypad’s first brewery client, Oskar Blues Brewing played a major role in shaping our technology. As the first brewery to sell exclusively cans, they played a major role in bringing craft to the masses. Now with the CANarchy Collective, the same team is changing the beer industry on a national level. In this interview, Chris Russell, VP of Sales for CANarchy, and Jenny Connolly, Senior Sales Analyst for CANarchy, talk with us about scaling one of craft’s most famous breweries and the new challenges they face as a collective. From the nitty gritty details of sales analysis to the future of craft beer, breweries of all sizes can glean fresh insights from the combined wisdom of the CANarchy team below. 

Jump to a topic within this interview:

The Interview:

Trey: Chris, you first joined Oskar Blues as a Regional Sales Manager and when you joined you were at 80,000 barrels, correct?

Chris: Yes. We did 86,000 barrels in 2012 and I came at the end of that year.

Which region were you responsible for?

Chris: I was the southeast. So pretty much Virginia to Florida at the time.

How many reps were underneath you in that region?

Chris: I think at the time, two and a half maybe. I don’t know if we could fully count a third person. Haha. Just kidding, we had three in the southeast when I first came on board. We quickly hired and built out the team, especially in North Carolina. About two weeks after I started we opened the North Carolina Brewery and that changed the face of the company, particularly the east coast, really quickly. North Carolina was maybe our 13th largest state prior to the brewery being in the market and then she quickly jumped up to number three and then number two behind Colorado within a matter of months. So we built that team out very quickly. Most of it centered around North Carolina, but we added people in Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia too. So the team grew very quickly.

Oskar Blue’s North Carolina location taken from First Bite Boulder

So you built the new brewery in North Carolina. Do you think it was just the brand recognition that let you grow so fast in the region or did you execute particular sales strategies that were really successful?

Chris: There was no doubt that the local aspect helped. I mean, it’s still extremely relevant and powerful today. But I think it was just great timing for the brewery. I think there was some recognition of the brand but not a ton. I think it was the combination of us investing ahead of the market a little bit in terms of having the people out there as well as our distributor network getting behind it. They were very excited to have a brewery in their backyard. And so we kind of made ourselves local and made ourselves appear much larger than we really were. I think that’s what contributed to that steep growth curve right out of the gate.

When you say appear larger, were you appearing larger to the consumer or appearing larger to your distributor?

Chris: I think a little bit of both. I remember talking to friends and people I knew around the marketplace that would say, “Gosh, you guys are everywhere. It seems like you guys are participating in all these sponsorships and you have all this presence at retail stores.” We were still a pretty small, scrappy sales organization, but we were able to get out there and get ahead of it pretty quickly. That also factored in with the distributors too because they saw the potential there. So I think we did appear bigger than we really were to our distributors as well.

If you’re putting yourself in the shoes of someone who’s hit the 30,000 to 80,000 barrel range as you guys were back then with just a few people on the sales team, how do you choose distributor partners in regions that you might be unfamiliar with? We hear all the time about suppliers having a lot of grief with their distributors and feeling as though they are not true partners. How did Oskar Blues find the right distributors and manage those relationships as a sales team at that point?

Chris: Through making a bunch of mistakes out of the gate. Haha. Earlier on we certainly didn’t get it all right, but I think it was just learning from some of the mistakes that we did make. A big part of it is – Dale has always stressed this and I’ve always believed in it as well – is looking at yourself in the mirror and asking yourself if you are doing the right things to help your distributor be more successful.

“…looking at yourself in the mirror and asking yourself if you are doing the right things to help your distributor be more successful.”

Obviously, it’s a two-way street and it’s also on them, but the question is, are we bringing our best game to the table? I think we evolved over time to get to that point. We grew up a lot over a short period of time. That’s the biggest thing that I would say to anybody that is a smaller size, stop just walking into a distributor meeting and saying, “Okay, what can you guys do for me?” It’s more of, “Hey, here’s the plan we think we should go out and execute. We want your buy-in. We want your input. What is it? Let’s take that and then let’s go execute a plan.” It’s really, to me, as simple as that. I think sometimes that gets missed though.

That was going to be my next question. What were those mistakes? It sounds like most of them were just about communicating and forming a deeper partnership with your distributor.

Chris: Yeah, I mean that can be a broad word, you know, the partnership idea. But I think it’s really just about bringing the support that they need, the resources that they need, and then putting a plan in place to go and execute it.

Last question for you before I hop to Jenny. You moved on to be the Director of Business Development. How did your responsibilities change? What does the Director of Business Development do at Oskar Blues?

Chris: It’s evolved a little bit, but at the time it was mainly focused on opening up new territory and expansion. We were in, I think, 29 states when I picked up that role in August of 2013. We pretty much had a mandate coming from Dale, our COO at the time, to get to all 50 as soon as we could because we saw the industry changing so much. I think especially Dale saw where things were going.

Oskar Blues’ Founder, Dale Katechis, taken from Colorado Life Magazine

So we opened up 21 states and some countries abroad in a very short period of time. At the end of November 2013, I think we opened up number 30 and then we rounded out number 50 with Montana in May of 2016. So we did a lot in a very short period of time. In addition to the expansion side of it, my role was very much sales operations driven and that’s why Jenny and I have always worked so closely together. We were kind of building out and planning the organization from a sales perspective. So whether it was the structure of the team, how we approached bonus programs, or how we managed all of our pricing, I always had a pretty big role in it.

“At the end of November 2013, I think we opened up number 30 and then we rounded out number 50 with Montana in May of 2016.”

Got it. I’ll hop over to Jenny now. Jenny, what year did you join Oskar Blues?

Jenny: December 2013.

Can you tell me a little bit about the situation that you walked into and what they asked you to do when you first joined?

Jenny: Ummmm, sure.

Chris: I won’t be offended if you say shit show. Haha.

Jenny: Hahaha. I walked in and I didn’t have a desk and I had this little space in what seemed like a weird closet area. Honestly, I walked into a perfect situation because between Lou, who at the time was the Sales Director, and Chris, the Director of Business Development, there was always a clear plan and strategy in place. All of the moving pieces and parts always makes it difficult to execute, but at least knowing the overall direction is essential for me and somebody in a role like mine. I had worked with Oskar Blues for a lot of years; I had worked for our largest wholesaler for, I think, 11 years before that. When I told people that I was going to be leaving and going to Oskar Blues, I got made fun of a little bit. People were saying, “You’re going to freak out. They’re kind of like frenetic energy and you are not going to do well. You’re so organized and detailed and that is not Oskar Blues.” And maybe we weren’t on the surface, but we definitely were underneath everything, or at least we were attempting to be. Maybe we weren’t fully there yet, but it was a great situation to walk into. There were so many projects and so many different things going on, it was really exciting. Still is.

“All of the moving pieces and parts always makes it difficult to execute, but at least knowing the overall direction is essential for me and somebody in a role like mine.”

Can you reiterate what your title is now and what the day to day looks like for you?

Jenny: Oh, there’s no day to day. Ha. My title is Senior Sales Analyst, but, every day is different.

Chris: Jenny runs our team of sales analysts. She won’t say that, but yeah, she runs our team. Ha.

Jenny: Day to day is just whatever it needs to be. And I think that’s one of the fun and exciting things about this industry. Given the fact that we do interact with all of the different parts of the tiers and then some of the messed up states who have additional tiers, we’re dealing with distributor reps, the consumer, and our sales team. There’s so many different elements and I very much like information and data, specifically working with people to try to get them the information that they might need for more information based selling. So obviously a tool like Lilypad plays into that so nicely. My job is a lot of back-end work, in terms of making sure that information is correct as well as some not so exciting things with wholesaler data. But, you know, working with our teams and trying to get them the information that they need at all different levels is my responsibility. So there’s inventory management and trying to make sure that our wholesalers even have what they need to sell. There’s working with somebody on a specific sponsorship that they need and trying to look at the results. Was this effective? Did this make sense? Should we replicate this? Um, yeah. I don’t know. Everyday is different, which is awesome. Except for the bad days. You don’t want to do those days again. Hahah.

Jenny with the Lilypad team taken from Lilypad’s Instagram

I have a lot of questions for you because I’ve had a few other interviews where people are talking about this trend of breweries being much more conscious of their data than they ever were before. Do you feel like you were ahead of the curve when you were brought to Oskar Blues as a Sales Analyst and do you think that breweries today need to be thinking about hiring someone with your skill set earlier than they ever have before?

Jenny: People that know the industry know what it takes to get the best information, look at trends, and look forward instead of just in the rear view mirror. I feel like it’s absolutely necessary to have someone in a role like mine. I don’t know if we were ahead of the curve. To my understanding, there was somebody before me, but I guess it was somewhat of a different role then. At the wholesaler I worked with there were definitely other analysts that worked with a lot of the breweries, though maybe not some of the smaller breweries. I feel like as things become more complicated and more competitive, having more information can only help you.

“As things become more complicated and more competitive, having more information can only help you.”

I’m sure a lot of breweries out there are trying to justify the cost of hiring someone like you. Could you tell me more about some of the key data points that you use regularly to help guide sales strategies? What kinds of data should smaller breweries and midsize breweries be looking at?

Jenny: So for starters, Lilypad has helped so much with so many different projects and taking time off of those projects. For smaller breweries, looking back where we were two years ago, it’s the small things that add up. When a sales rep gets a new placement, do they remember to follow up? It’s maddening when you go back and look at the time and effort that somebody put in to get a new draft line or to get that package cut into the shelf set and they don’t follow up. It probably boils down to people are busy or they think it’s fine, but they don’t follow up. And then you see six weeks later there is no re-buy. Then you look again after that and there’s no follow up on that package and that placement is lost.

So starting out at the smallest levels, in terms of what gets you volume, you need to be looking at how you can help communicate to either your wholesaler or your sales rep. Making sure that they are maintaining those placements that they get. Looking at where they are hunting for new placements and working with distributor information to try to help with that. That’s something that wouldn’t necessarily come through Lilypad, but if your wholesaler will share with you – here are some of our top accounts, here are some places where we think you should hit – then you can put that in Lilypad with Target Lists or key accounts.

Learn more about Activity Management & Execution in Lilypad or Schedule A Demo.

Then for some of the projects that we’re working on now for planning, we’re looking at total projections and where our end balance will be this year. We’re looking at how we think next year is going to look by month, by brand, and by wholesaler. It’s a lot of information, but what we can do with that when you take it down to that level, is fuel so many other projects. You can hold the wholesaler accountable as well as build out different projections and budgets with them. You can think about how you’re going to work with the distributor sales team and build similar parallel programs with your own brewery sales team. So it’s a lot of information, but the more detailed and organized you can be, the easier it is for everybody to be marching to the same cadence, you know. Hopefully, that has the biggest impact for everybody at retail.

“It’s a lot of information, but the more detailed and organized you can be, the easier it is for everybody to be marching to the same cadence.”

With the CANarchy collective bringing in all of these extra data sets and different sales practices, what are some of the challenges that you’ve ran into unifying the team, be it on the data side or on the sales organization side? Alternatively, are you just giving these breweries the freedom to do what they were already doing before they joined CANarchy?

Jenny: It’s both a positive and, well, not a negative, but it can be an opportunity or a little bit of a struggle. Everybody is independent and everybody does have their own retail strategy, ya know, how they want to approach things. That is one of the amazing things about CANarchy, there are a lot of different personalities and a lot of different cultures, so it’s amazing to see how different the individual breweries can be. On the other side of the coin, we do try to establish sort of a baseline for the sales teams, sales interactions, and sales tools, Lilypad being an example. We would like to see some commonalities. People could be structured differently or have different priorities, but in order for us to all be on the same page, it is easier if everybody aligns on certain key elements even though they have their own flavors and directions.

The CANarchy Collective at Great American Beer Festival taken from Lilypad’s Instagram

Chris: It’s been a learning process for us in many ways. As far as best practices in the sales process, there’s a fine line that we’ve tried to walk. We don’t want some corporate structure where the management team is forcing these new team members to adhere to some process like, “You have to do it this way,” because every company has their own culture and their own approach. I think that’s a really important thing and that’s something that CANarchy has always placed a lot of value in. But at the same time, we feel like we can provide a lot of resources, a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge of the market, a lot of guidance on how to manage distributors, and a lot of strategies on how to go about things to be much more effective. Going back to what I mentioned before about making some of our own mistakes and learning from them, we can hopefully help a brewery that’s coming into the collective that’s getting ready to expand to new states or that’s getting ready to start selling more beer in chain accounts. The collective knowledge that we all have hopefully makes it smoother the next time that we go about doing these things. So I think it’s certainly a process that you have to get people on board with and hopefully we create an understanding that we’re not just trying to make people adhere to everything that we’re doing, but rather, we’re sharing a lot of things that make sense to do. People get that and come around to it pretty quickly. So it hasn’t been any sort of a major issue from where I sit.

“The collective knowledge that we all have hopefully makes it smoother the next time that we go about doing these things.”

For the last few minutes I’d like to do some rapid fire questions between the two of you. I’ll start with you Chris and then go to Jenny. Chris, you talked about your experience with managing these expansions to different chains, be it grocery stores, restaurants, etc. Do you have any pro tips to share with someone who may be trying to pick up their first chain deal?

Chris: I think put yourself in their shoes and don’t just sell what you think they need or what you think they want. Actually ask them what it is they need and what it is they want. That, to me, is half the battle. I know it sounds overly simplified but, to me, a lot of the bigger chain wins come just from listening rather than just trying to sell.

Jenny, if you were starting a brewery or in an early stage brewery and you were about to hire your first data analyst, what would be the things that you would want that data analysts to focus on first and foremost?

Jenny: Understanding the brewing costs and pricing of your product to retail. Regardless of if you’re self-distributed or working with a distributor, just understanding if you can be profitable would probably be the first thing. How to maximize your profits.

Chris, now that you are the VP of Sales for all of CANarchy and have more reps working with you than ever before, what are some best practices for communicating with all these different teams that are spread out across the country?

Chris: I mean I think Lilypad is a big part of that. We try to plan, direct, and measure people’s daily efforts through that. So, as you are spread out more and more, utilizing technology can certainly bring you together. We have eight regions across the country and we also have a chain department. Every one of those managers has a lot of autonomy to manage their teams the way they want to. There are certain things that are expected and processes that we have people adhere to, but otherwise it’s kind of up to them. It could be conducting a weekly call or a biweekly call to bring everybody together and make sure everybody’s clear on the game plan. That’s a big part of it. We try and get the management team together as much as possible. It becomes complicated when you have people that travel and are spread out, but it is certainly an effort that we try to make.

Learn more about Activity Management & Execution in Lilypad or Schedule A Demo.

Chris: But, you know, I think it’s evolved. We’re trying to figure out better ways to do it. One of the things that makes Eric (Lilypad CEO) laugh every time we bring it up – we had some surveys that we put out a couple of years ago for one of our national sales meetings and one of the questions that somebody came back with was, “When is Lilypad going to be everything?” Eric loved that, obviously. You know, in many ways it has the potential to be everything from the sales organization standpoint – in terms of how you manage and how you communicate and all of those things. So I can see it becoming a bigger and bigger part of what we do because there’s just so many ways you can overcome communication gaps through it. People just have to buy into it and use it.

“For one of our national sales meetings one of the questions that somebody came back with was, “When is Lilypad going to be everything?”

Back to Jenny. You’re probably looking at one of the most interesting data sets in all of craft beer with numbers coming in from all of these different breweries across the country. Have you identified any trends that you think are going to be really important for CANarchy’s growth in the next year?

Jenny: Wow. Hah. Yes.

Are they all secrets? Haha.

Jenny: Well, not exactly the question that you asked, but there is one thing that I’ll mention. After looking at so many different brands and different regions, it’s important when you’re looking at anything to not go in with preconceived notions. There are times when I will see consistent out of stocks at wholesalers and you’ll see it directly impact trends that are totally unexpected. Like really dark heavy beers in Florida sometimes do really, really well even though I think that sounds gross because it’s so hot there. Why would you want to drink a thick beer that you need a spoon to drink? Haha. So, don’t prejudge a consumer. Let the data tell you, “Hey, this is an issue, this is where things are going, this is what we can do to fan the flame.”

“Don’t prejudge a consumer. Let the data tell you.”

Jenny: You can’t always just assume that things are going to go the way that the rest of the market is going. There isn’t one cookie cutter answer for how it’s going. Every region, every brand, and brewery plays differently. There are different brands that rise to the top and those should be the focus in each individual market. That’s how we maximize not only our growth as a brewery but our wholesaler partners’ and retailers’ growth as well.

The CANarchy Collective map taken from CANarchy’s website.

One last question for both of you. CANarchy is doing something different than anybody’s ever done before. There are a lot of concerns about oversaturated markets and buyouts of smaller breweries. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you two this question: what do you guys think is the future of craft beer?

Chris: I think it’s only going to continue to accelerate. By that I’m mean this time that we’re in where breweries are having trouble surviving. You never want to see businesses fail, but I think there’s been a lot of clutter that’s been created in the last several years and it’s hard sometimes to cut through that. I think there is still going to be the smaller, localized, almost nano approach, but it’s going to be harder and harder for breweries to break beyond that. So I think there’s going to be a lot of room for breweries that have their stuff together to come out of this period and get back to winning. Obviously we’re still winning pretty big with some parts of our portfolio through expansion and some really hot brands, but we’ve still got a lot of strong legacy brands that have been on a larger national scale that I feel are ready to jump back out there with some innovation and proper planning. So it’s more optimism than concern from where I sit. I know we’re in a pretty tumultuous time now. It certainly has been more challenging than I think a lot of people anticipated, but I think we’re in a pretty good spot. Craft beer is only going to continue to be relevant. We’ve got a lot of things like wine and spirits creating headwinds out there, but it doesn’t slow people down from wanting to drink a really good craft beer either. I think we’re ready to offer them a lot of great ones across the country with what we’re doing.

“You never want to see businesses fail, but I think there’s been a lot of clutter that’s been created in the last several years and it’s hard sometimes to cut through that.”

Awesome. What about you, Jenny?

Jenny: I would say in the next five years, cans, local and independent are the things that are going to win. We are super lucky with CANarchy because we get to be all of those.

I’m excited for you and obviously, we’re glad to be a part of the growth as we have been for five or six years now. Thanks so much for your time guys. It’s always a pleasure and we’re really grateful to have you on our journey and to be part of yours.

Chris: Yeah, I really appreciate it. Enjoy GABF this weekend!

Jenny: Yeah! Hopefully, I’ll see you down there.

For sure! Cheers!

This article is part of the Lilypad Sales Leaders Interview Series.

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