Stone Brewing’s National Sales Trainer, Steve Ponsetti:

Leveraging Your Craft Culture To Grow Your Brand

Stone Brewing’s National Sales Trainer, Steve Ponsetti:

Leveraging Your Craft Culture To Grow Your Brand

“I think the information flow from the rep to the manager, to the director, definitely sets us up for success because we can anticipate things in the market.”

As a respected leader in craft beer, Stone Brewing has set the tone for breweries that aspire to bring their unique culture to the national stage. Now distributed in all 50 states, as well as internationally, Stone’s sales team is delivering big, hoppy beers to consumers across the globe. Steve Ponsetti, an industry veteran and National Sales Trainer at Stone, is responsible for making sure their sales team is executing at a high level. In this interview, he spoke with Lilypad about his early days at Stone, what it means to be a sales trainer, and how their team is using tools like Lilypad to grow and keep their culture alive. We hope Steve’s perspective inspires smaller breweries out there to feel confident leveraging their own unique brand as an advantage for growth.

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The Interview:

Trey: I know you joined Stone back in 2011 and before that you were working for a distributor, right?

Steve: Yeah, I actually went from Ben E. Keith to Left Hand Brewing out in Colorado, then to Stone.

What were your titles at Ben E. Keith and Left Hand?

So at Ben E. Keith, I was an on-premise manager – just a sales rep. Then at Left Hand, I was a Regional Sales Manager for 6 states – all through TX and the midwest. Then I came to Stone as the South Texas Brewery Rep and my role has changed quite a bit since then. Now I’m the National Sales Trainer.

How did you find yourself jumping between positions? Did you want to get out of distributing?

I actually started with the distributor when I was in college. I had been in the distributor world for quite a few years before I made the jump to the supplier world. Actually, at this point in my career, I have more years working in distributing than I do as a supplier. It was definitely something I wanted to change. I was looking for a new challenge so I moved over to the supplier world.

Got it. So when you joined Stone in 2011 what did your position entail?

I actually came in as the South Texas Rep and my job was just to sell as much beer out of Texas as I could.

Stone secured distribution in 50 states in 2017 – image taken from Stone’s blog.

Obviously, now you’re the National Sales Trainer which means you were probably a pretty good rep down in Texas, right?

Yeah, I was okay. I had a great brand and a lot of really good support from our distributor. I think when I started with Stone in Texas we were doing 70,000 cases. Then Texas was the first distributor outside of California to break 100,000 cases and then we were the first distributor outside of California to break 150,000 cases while I was still a rep. Now we’ve been passed by a couple other states, but for a long time Texas was the big dog outside of California. I kind of got in at the right time and I had the right things going for me.

So what do you think made Texas that big and what do you think made Stone so effective?

I think it was just the timing, man. In the craft beer world, it’s all about timing. Stone had been around in Texas a few years before I came along and we had really developed a very strong following. As we started bringing in new beers, doing different programs, and supporting those things in the market we just kept growing. I mean it was the stuff I was doing, the stuff we were doing with the distributors, and we got some different chain business. It all worked really well together and hit at the same time. As Stone has grown we’ve definitely seen some challenges as we get bigger but when I first started at Stone six and a half years ago it was still somewhat organic. You’re still driving a lot and pushing a lot today, but back then you could go out in the market and sell a lot of beer every day. There wasn’t nearly as many breweries or as many reps in the market as there are now.

“You’re still driving a lot and pushing a lot today, but back then you could go out in the market and sell a lot of beer every day. There wasn’t nearly as many breweries or as many reps in the market as there are now.”

That’s something I hear a lot from clients and was talked about at the California Craft Beer Summit, too. It sounds like back then it was almost a momentum thing. You had the right events, the right chain programs, the right brands being pushed, and you had good beer so it worked out back then in Texas.

Yeah, I think that’s still what we live by today. We have the right people, the right beer, and the right stuff going on. Really for us, it’s about the beer man. If the beer is good, the people will drink it. It’s really that simple.

When did Stone decide they needed a sales trainer and that it was going to be you?

Well, I actually created the role. We had talked about it for a little while internally. I made a pitch to our Vice President of Sales at the time, Todd Karnig, and he liked the idea. It seems like it took forever, maybe a year of development and closing in on what the role would look like as well as what my responsibilities would be. We rolled it out and at first, I was doing both jobs. I was still a regional brewery rep and I also was working all over the country with reps. I think we developed it in 2015 and I went full time in 2016.

So what do your responsibilities look like? What does a sales trainer do at Stone?

I’ve been working a lot with the reps in the field. I’m also responsible for things like Lilypad. I work with the guys to develop actions and tasks in Lilypad. I spend a lot of time working with your team as well as any other sales training we do. Right now we’re working with the Tom Fox PROFITS training group. It’s really effective for us in the field. Those kinds of things are my responsibility. I wear a lot of hats. I travel a few times a month and the rest of the time I’m working on developing plans or helping people develop plans for their markets.

Stone chain display taken from the Lilypad Social Wall.

How much has having dedicated sales tech helped the team move forward? Have you seen a big improvement in efficiency for the reps?

Yeah. So at first, just like any new thing you add, and for a sales team in particular – everyone is a creature of habit – I think everyone looked at it as kind of a nuisance. Just something where you had to check the box and do it because we wanted them to do it. But our whole thing from the very beginning was that we weren’t going to institute Lilypad as a management tool. I think what that did for us is it gave reps the buy-in that this was for them. This is like the notebook I carried for 15 years. It’s a place you can put your notes and store information and it also gives you back sales information. So for us, that was the effective way of pitching the tool and getting the buy-in. We’re not going to manage you by this, this is for you. Yes, we are going to look at the numbers because that’s what we’re all about – we’re all about tracking the numbers and efficiency – but those are more conversation points than just a management thing.

“So for us, that was the effective way of pitching the tool and getting the buy-in. We’re not going to manage you by this, this is for you.”

That’s a great point and I think that transitions really nicely. We at Lilypad spend a lot of time thinking about what makes for good managers and how you create buy-in among the team. What other tips and tricks with managing reps and coaching them up have you found to be effective to get buy-in for the mission of the company or a particular initiative?

You know for me, I’m more of a guy who likes to be in the field working with people. So for the example of using Lilypad in the field, I had a lot of guys saying it took them a lot longer to use Lilypad in an account call than it would just taking notes. For the first six months, every time I worked with a rep I did the same sales call with them on Lilypad as they were writing it down. I was way more efficient and got more out of putting it in Lilypad than the rep got just writing it down.

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Kind of like what we’re doing with Tom Fox, people get into habits, we’re all creatures of it, and going in the field and using these tools in examples and showing them how it works in accounts actually has benefitted us greatly with the buy-in and people actually using the systems in the field. I think for me it’s about the engagement with the team on a one to one level. A lot of times I refer to myself as the Stone Sales Counselor as opposed to a Trainer and that’s not a bad thing. It’s because I talk to the reps and I talk to the managers and I understand where everything lies for both sides. That helps me have conversations with the different levels of our organization.

Makes perfect sense. So, you have a massive organization now, about 1,100 employees, how many are on the sales side?

We actually have 1,400 employees now, hah. With the addition of Berlin and Shanghai as well as what we have going on in Richmond, Escondido, and the national sales team we have quite a large organization. We’re actually the largest employer in craft beer, which is really cool to say.

I think it’s because we have restaurants and bistros. We also have some satellite bars in Southern California which employ quite a few people. We have large restaurants in Escondido and San Diego as well as two breweries on each coast, the brewery in Berlin, and the pub in Shanghai. We basically staff 3 or 4 restaurants and 5 or 6 satellite bars. So the majority of our people work in that part of the organization and headquarters. You know, our sales team is relatively small for our size. I don’t remember the exact number so you can’t quote me on that. Somewhere north of 50, maybe 60, on the national sales team.

Stone’s founder Greg Koch opening their Shanghai location, taken from Stone’s Instagram

I think you have reps in China too – is that right?

We do. We actually only have 2 or 3 on the sales side. It’s a pretty small organization in China. In Berlin, I think we have 7 sales folks for Europe.

So with the spread out team – obviously you can only be in so many places at once – how do you guys keep the culture alive and keep information moving down from management? I’m curious, and I’m sure people reading this will be too, as to how such a large organization stays in touch with each other and stays on top of the most important things.

We have internal tools – like we use Yammer for things coming out of the brewery. The regional managers have weekly team calls with their reps. And then they have one to ones every week with every rep in their organization. We also as a brewery have a cultural committee and basically, their job is to help us retain our culture. We have pillars that we believe in and we try to live our lives that way, which is really cool.

That’s awesome you put a concentrated effort into that. A big problem with a lot of organizations that grow as fast as you guys have is that intangible stuff tends to disappear.

Yeah, it was definitely something we needed. As we’ve grown, and like you said many people have grown, you kind of – well not necessarily get away from the culture – but it’s harder to get the culture out as you add more people. I mean my first year at Stone there were 12 sales reps for the entire country and as 12 people we could get together a lot. But now that we’re a much larger organization it’s much harder to get the entire team together on a regular basis. So we definitely have initiatives, goals, and tasks every year that support all of our core pillars. I think that’s really really cool.

“We also as a brewery have a cultural committee and basically their job is to help us retain our culture. We have pillars that we believe in and we try to live our lives that way.”

So you talked about your initiatives on the culture side, but you also talked about how regionals have one to one meetings with the reps. Can you tell me more about what kind of things have helped Stone get the most out of your reps, stay consistent, and make sure everyone is on the right path?

Sure, I think mostly for us it’s always been part of our culture. When I started at Stone I had a weekly one on one with my manager and a weekly team call with my manager. It’s kind of been the way we’ve done things since I got here and I think it has been that way since we started the sales team. There’s a hands-on approach from management that’s not micromanaging, its just about being involved in what’s going on and understanding what’s going on in each portion of their region. The big deal for us is we like to understand what’s going on in every single space because we want to avoid any pitfalls and see something way ahead of time. I think the information flow from the rep to the manager to the director definitely sets us up for success because we can anticipate things in the market.

“I think the information flow from the rep to the manager to the director definitely sets us up for success because we can anticipate things in the market.”

To kind of transition here to a bigger picture topic, Stone is approaching 400,000 barrels annually. I’m sure there are going to be some people reading this that maybe are in the 50,000 to 100,000 range and they’re wondering “what do I have to do to get to that 400,000 mark? Is it chain mandates, is it maybe going international, is it opening up more breweries in more locations?” I just wanted to pick your brain on what you think have been some of the most important things that have helped Stone grow to be one of the top breweries in the country and in the world.

Hmmm, that’s an interesting question. Well, I think for us it’s about our fans. Our fans have helped us grow, ya know? Yeah, going international and doing the things we’ve done has been really exciting, but I also think that just our fan base has helped us get to where we are. The way that Stone is talked about and discussed in the craft beer world has definitely paid huge dividends for us. I think it’s about who we are and what we do. We kind of stay true to who we are all the time.

So what do you think it is that resonates with people so much? What is that unique Stone secret sauce?

I think it’s just that we make big ass beers that are hoppy and we don’t apologize for it. Just being honest. We believe in making kick-ass beer. We talk about doing other styles and things like that but our fans just want us to make big ass hoppy beers and that’s what we do. I think that resonates with people. There’s no reason to jump off into a bunch of different pools when you do something well.

Stone’s thoughts on making IPAs, taken from Stone’s Instagram

Hah, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

Right, and with saying that we have changed some things. We have updated beers like Stone IPA. We changed up the hops a little bit on the Stone IPA to bring it up to the modern times, to bring it to the new palette of the what the consumer is drinking now. So while we stick with what we do really well, we’re not afraid of changing things to keep up with what’s going on.

Alright, I’ve got one more question for you. We’ve talked a lot about how Stone got to where they are today, what’s next? What’s on the horizon for 2019?

Ya know, we always have big plans. I’d just love for everyone to wait and see what we’re going to do next. That’s kind of how we live. We like to do things that are really cool. One of the things we did late in 2018 is we made some cool beers with some really cool partners around the country. You guys will definitely see that out there.

Well, I’m sure everybody reading this is going to be looking forward to it, I know I am.

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

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