“We’re not in it for growth, for growth’s sake, but we want to grow to keep things interesting. It means we’re trying new things and it means we can get more money back to our local community.”
Allagash Brewing Company is respected around the world for their incredible beer and unwavering leadership. They’ve been recognized for their achievements in both beer and business by the Great American Beer Festival, the NBWA, and the World Beer Awards, to name a few. We had the pleasure of sitting down with Naomi Neville, Allagash’s first sales hire and current Sales Director, to learn how this special brewery has grown. Within this interview, you’ll find insights for breweries at every stage as Naomi walks us through their journey.
Naomi: In 2009, we did 16,000 barrels. That was a crazy growth time for the craft beer industry as you probably know. We were experiencing serious growth at that point.
So when you first joined, were you brought on immediately as a sales director or did you work your way up from a different position?
Before 2009, our owner, Rob, used brokerage services to really represent the brand. He did a lot of traveling around, meeting with wholesalers, and getting accounts himself up until that point. So I was really the first person brought in to help with sales and at the time half of my job was sales on the street and the other half was sales analysis – finding out where our beer was getting shipped to and, from there, where it was being sold to accounts. This was a few years before we were even aware of any kind of data services that we could harness to tell us those kinds of things. It was a lot of manual data entry of depletion reports into excel documents.
Rob Tod, Founder of Allagash (middle left), and Naomi accepting the NBWA Brewery Partner of the Year award in 2016. Source: Cision.
We did. So I took over some of New England when I started. Then after about a year and a half, we brought someone in for the southeast and he did Virginia down to Georgia. At the same time we brought someone in for the northeast and he did all of New England. At the time we were still using a broker out in California and through the Empire and Mid Atlantic regions. We were also still distributing in Texas and Washington State where we were using brokerage companies.
Just in case there is somebody reading who doesn’t quite understand, is there a difference between a broker and just having a distributor sales rep out there in the field for you?
A distributor sales rep works for the distributor. The broker doesn’t work for a distributor, but they rep 10 or 20 other brands – just depending on who the brokerage company is. So they’re independent of any distributor and they work for multiple suppliers.
Would you personally recommend someone who’s around that 15,000 barrel mark start their team by going with brokers or would you have done it differently?
It really depends on people’s distribution model. So at that time, we were in 26 states with 44 wholesalers, so we couldn’t have sold that on our own. It worked really well for us. If you’re doing 16,000 barrels in one state, I’d say hire a couple of people on your sales team because I feel like that would work well for that distribution model. It really depends on which way you end up going, I think.
“At that time we were in 26 states with 44 wholesalers, so we couldn’t have sold that on our own.”
Obviously, you’ve grown very quickly in the last 10 years, from 16,000 to nearly 100,000 barrels. Can you tell me a little bit about what that transition looked like to have your own internal sales team? How many reps are you at now and how do you manage this team that’s spread across the whole country?
Yeah, so we’ve pulled out of a few states because we just couldn’t keep up. Between 2008 and 2011 we really consolidated our footprint. We’re now in 17 states and D.C., so that makes it a little bit more manageable. We are currently at 29 sales team members spread across our distribution footprint. This includes two internal positions – an assistant and a sales analyst – and myself.
It’s been super interesting and, you know, really rewarding to bring additional people on and then watch them grow and learn new skills and progress through the company. We’ve had people that have started in our warehouse and guest relations department join our team and grow into senior managers. So it’s nice seeing people grow with the company and also gets promoted within the sales team.
So now, with 17 states plus D.C. and the growing sales team, how do you assign certain routes and regions to reps? Do you do it by distributors? Do you do it by the state?
Depending on the geography of the state or the territory you’re in, the number of cases that you sell, and the number of wholesalers. It really does vary. So we have people that have two states with not a whole bunch of volume there. Then we have people that have half of Chicago with a whole bunch of volume in that territory. So it’s really depending on the amount of volume, the amount of wholesalers, and the ease of getting around some locations as well. There’s no real guideline of like, once you get to 50,000 cases you put a rep in this territory. So the good thing about Lilypad now is you’ve got the route option in it, which is great.
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With Allagash managing a good amount of states and distributors, do you have any best practices that you would recommend for finding the right distributor for your brewery and then managing your relationships? Do you have the reps directly reaching out to the individual wholesalers they’re responsible for? Or do you have someone at Allagash that is responsible for making sure that all of the wholesalers are in line?
So for finding the right wholesaler, we actually haven’t had to do that very much because we haven’t really expanded territory since we’ve retracted. We’ve had a few wholesalers changeover, so we’ve done our due diligence with those kinds of processes when they’ve been presented to us. You’ve just gotta make sure that your wholesaler can service the needs of your brewery. So if you’re looking for, you know, chain authorization and servicing of chains, you’ve got to make sure that wholesaler is ready to do that and has the ability and resources to accomplish it. Probably the most important thing is that you actually want to have a beer with that person. At the end of the day, it is the beer business after all, so you’ve got to get along with them.
Then for managing the relationships, we have a national sales manager, area sales managers, territory managers, and field sales reps and they all take a role in working with our wholesaler network. It comes from various people, depending on the level of conversation needed. We really have the people that are in the territory work with that wholesalers on a daily basis. We conduct annual planning meetings and then quarterly recap meetings with each of our wholesalers to just make sure that we’re tracking against the goals that we set at the beginning of the year.
Changing gears a little bit here: You mentioned when you first started you didn’t have Lilypad or any data tools and now you’re clearly using a good amount of beer sales technology. Can you tell me how technology has shifted what your role looks like and how the sales team operates?
Oh, it’s night and day. Haha. When I started, I used to have to ask all my wholesalers for a printout of accounts that they sold beer to because that was the only way to access that information. So, now everything’s at your fingertips. You can think of any question you want to ask about your sales, and you can answer it through VIP, which is great. And then having Lilypad with the data feed from VIP you get real-time sales data from out in the trade. You can see what people bought and when they last ordered. I mean, it’s just amazing. It’s night and day.
Do you have certain strategies or certain programs that you’re running with the sales reps on a national level that this technology is enabling?
Yeah. We have various different things that we use it for on top of what I mentioned. We’ve recently started tracking our incentives through Lilypad, which has been nice. Creating target lists has been really useful for really specific points of distribution that we want to incentivize people against. Then we have a robust quality control in the trade program where our sales reps sample the beer and rate it to make sure it’s true to type. Then they also take down the date code of the keg, which is also entered through Lilypad. We bring all that information back and we’re tracking how old our beer is when it’s been consumed in the trade. So it’s been super useful for that.
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Do you spread those responsibilities across the team or do you have a data analyst who’s responsible for keeping up with all of this?
Honestly, it’s everybody’s responsibility to try and hit their goals and also go and do the QC checks. When the data comes back, we do have a sales analyst in the brewery who is great at pulling all that data together, putting it into a format, and then presenting it back.
When did you hire a sales analyst?
Sean’s been with us for a few years. Before that, we had a couple of other people in the role – which was more of a data entry and special projects role at the time. I’d say probably when we got to around 50,000 barrels, as a guess, is when we hired someone in that role.
I’ve had a few other people mention they’re seeing more data analysts and people that are capable of interacting with all these different technologies be brought on earlier than ever before. When do you think a brewery should really start thinking about hiring sales analysts and using these different technologies?
Yeah, I think as soon as possible is when I’d recommend people start using things like Lilypad and VIP. It halves the time that you spend looking for data. You can really track your sales and you can look at trends really easily. We were pretty small when we got VIP and it basically replaced having a data analyst for a while because I could just pull whatever report I needed myself which avoided a lot of manual data crunching. So, absolutely, with any kind of software like that, I would say get it as soon as you can afford it.
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Shifting gears a little bit here: I’d like to talk about the 90,000 barrel growth you’ve experienced. Can you tell me about what enabled you guys to increase production to that extent and get so many new people drinking Allagash?
So, obviously, there are 7,000 breweries in the US right now. That definitely wasn’t the case a few years ago. There was a huge boom in craft beer around the same time that everyone started looking at where their food came from and how their coffee was roasted, etc. There was a real resurgence of knowing what went into your food and what you were putting in your body. I think that enabled craft breweries to really grow a crazy amount each year.
I think we also have a very drinkable beer in Allagash White. It’s definitely a beer that you can have a couple of. We’re very strong on-premise, which makes it quite a recognizable brand. We’ve got an excellent distributor network, honestly, and we couldn’t have done it without them. A lot of it comes down to us working with them, and together we go out there and get it done. It’s definitely a huge partnership, and we couldn’t have done it without our distributors.
“It’s definitely a huge partnership and we couldn’t have done it without our distributors.”
Now the landscape is very competitive, and you clearly have an established brand. Do you have plans to keep expanding or are you content staying at your current barrelage and your current distribution?
I think we’d all like to grow. I don’t know what responses you got from other breweries on this, but I feel like most people, especially in a sales role, have gotta be like, “yeah, we want to keep growing!” Haha. We know the growth isn’t going to be as easy to come by as it has been in the past, but we’re still very passionate about growing. We haven’t expanded territories since we pulled out of a bunch so we have some options. We are launching cans in our northeast footprint in the early part of next year. We’re also very on-premise heavy right now. 70% of our beer is sold in draft format in on-premise. So, we do have some opportunities in off-premise. But yes, we definitely want to keep growing.
Right. Honestly, I haven’t asked other people that. The reason I ask you is that you mentioned scaling back the states you distributed to, and in terms of the actual beer itself, from what I’ve seen from Allagash, you try to stay true to your roots in everything you do. Not everybody wants to take over the world with their beer. Haha.
Ha, yeah, we definitely try and stay true to our roots. We are a Belgian-style brewery, and luckily for us, a lot of things fall within the Belgian-style category. The Belgian brewers are quite experimental so we get a wide playing field to work with. But yeah, we want to stay true to our roots and grow. We’re not in it for growth, for growth’s sake, but we want to grow to keep things interesting. It means we’re trying new things and it means we can get more money back to our local community. Growth has a lot of advantages to it.
You’re sitting at about the 100,000 barrel mark right now. Do you have any advice you’d give yourself if you could go back to the 50,000 barrel mark? Something that would have made your life a bit easier?
I think it would probably be to learn to let things go quicker. Trust people to do the job so you can move along. I think that’s tricky for a whole host of reasons. We want to do the best job possible so we want to keep doing it the way we’ve been doing it, but I think delegating is the way forward to get more stuff done without anyone burning out.
“Learn to let things go quicker. Trust people to do the job so you can move along.”
Yeah, we’re releasing our first batch of Coolship beer. We were the first brewery in the United States to put in a Coolship. We started brewing this beer in 2007, and we are finally releasing some 375-milliliter bottles into national distribution in November, which is exciting. Then we’re launching White in cans in March.
Looking forward to that, for sure! I was lucky enough to get to try some Allagash at GABF this year. Thanks so much for your time, Naomi.