“Spend more time listening to the needs of your customers and being observant about how your team’s skill set fits into that.”
Founders Brewing has been one of the fastest-growing brands in craft beer over the past decade. The man behind their sales training and development is Chad Atherton, a craft beer journeyman who travels from market to market to ensure Founders’ sales reps are ready to push powerhouse brands like All Day IPA. In this interview, Chad imparts wisdom to other growing breweries about the importance of establishing strategic focus, the mindset needed to tackle field sales, and leveraging technology to sell. With an emphasis on listening and being a consultative partner for your distributors and customers, Chad lays down some ground rules for craft beer sales in 2018. We certainly enjoyed listening to what he had to say.
Chad: Sure. So, I’ve only been with Founders for a little over five years. I like to say I started my career in beer as a consumer. When I graduated from college I got into the bar and restaurant business with a friend of mine and did that for about 10 years. Growing up in Colorado, going to school there, and having bars and restaurants in both Boulder and Denver, craft beer was just part of the landscape.
It wasn’t necessarily something that we did as a concept. It was just a part of what we had, from an offering standpoint for our customers. But certainly, in the early 2000s as craft beer really started to come on, especially in Colorado, you know, the Fat Tires of the world and the Avery, Odell Brewing, and Oskar Blues products; I believe we were one of the first early adopters on Dale’s Pale and Oskar Blues’ Old Chubb cans back in early to mid-2000s. As well as, of course, local breweries, brewpubs, and things of that nature. Around Colorado is really where I got my taste for craft beer and started kind of moving away from that typical premium light or below premium 30 pack for 10 bucks.
I made a move to the Midwest, to Iowa, in 2010 and started working in beer wholesale. I worked for the MillerCoors distributor Fleck Sales Company for a little over three years. And they brought me on as craft beer was really starting to make its big push. Iowa was kind of late to the game with craft beer just due to some archaic liquor laws where beer wholesalers weren’t allowed to sell beer that was stronger than 6% ABV. That all changed and really opened the door for craft beer in the state of Iowa. Working with that distributor, my job was to manage the existing brands. We represented things like New Belgium, Boston Beer, Boulevard, and of course, you know, the Blue Moon and Leinenkugel portfolio. We also represented some small locals and other more regional, central plains, and midwest breweries. But the law change raised the threshold to 15% ABV. You can imagine the flood of new brands that were able to sell beer in Iowa.
“But what the law change did was raise the threshold to 15% ABV. You can just imagine the flood of new brands that were able to sell beer in Iowa.”
I also was recruiting brands like Founders, Stone, Lagunitas, Oskar Blues, and all of those brands that have become big regional or national brands that weren’t selling beer in Iowa at the time just based on their restrictions from a legal standpoint. The IPA thing really started making a resurgence there. A lot of my job was to manage our existing brands, manage the route to market, manage the promotion/marketing of those brands, and build the plans and budgets on an annual basis. We had 18 craft brands in-house by the time I left for Founders.
So a part of that process was bringing Founders into the state of Iowa. The timing was right for me there as Founders was really starting to ramp up from a sub-hundred thousand barrel brewery to now we’re looking at close to 600,000 barrels in 2018, which is pretty remarkable. The timing was just kind of right for me. I got in the first year or so as Founders started to build a sales organization to manage their sales and distribution and work with their wholesalers on a broader spectrum.
You came on initially with Founders as a regional market manager. You were able to get into a lot of strategic committees when you were in that position, correct?
Yeah, the nature of the company was much smaller then, so the opportunities to get involved in certain things like that were readily available. Continuing to help grow not only the Founders business but the awareness and relevance of craft beer in my market was both challenging and rewarding at the same time.
Can you tell me a little bit about the Sales and Marketing Council at Founders? What kind of activities did they do back when you first joined? They’ve clearly been successful.
Yeah, we have a full marketing department now but when I started, our marketing team consisted of a handful of folks. The sales team was also very small, so it was really an opportunity for us to bring some information from the street and from our markets back to our team at home base that was responsible for sharing best practices. We also brought to the table marketing resources that we might need to assist in selling.
Do you think there is a certain point in a brewery’s life where they should start to think about making these task forces? What would be a best practice for someone who’s at the 50,000 barrel mark that wants to figure out how they can be smarter about approaching new market opportunities?
I guess it really starts with what you want to do, right? Having a good idea of what the goal is. I mean, 50,000 barrels of beer is a legitimate business. I think that in the market landscape, as it exists today, it’s becoming harder and harder for breweries to breakthrough into that broader large regional brewery or national brewery level. And the complexity that exists now, close to 7,000 breweries in this country, the markets are becoming more localized and there are more breweries per capita now than ever. Especially in more competitive markets. You’re talking close to a thousand, maybe even more than a thousand breweries in places like California. I believe we have over 400 here in Michigan. So I guess the first thing would be identifying what you want to do and where you want to go with your business.
Certainly, the brands we’ve established as a company and the consumer loyalties that we’ve established as a company have really pushed us to where we are at, with 600,000 barrels potentially this year. That’s not necessarily us really driving towards that, it’s really about creating more accessibility of our brands from a distribution standpoint as well as providing consumers with opportunities to find our brands. Consumers tend to pull our beer off the shelf when it’s available.
You’re now the sales trainer for the entire organization, and you’re dealing with this massively competitive market. Can you talk to me a little bit about those opportunities that you’re seeing as well as some of the strategies that you’re implementing internally to make sure that your beer is getting put on the right shelf, with the right materials to catch the customer’s eye?
I think it indeed starts first and foremost with the liquid, right? We have a remarkably talented brewing team, and it starts there. Also, it really pays tribute to the efforts and investments that we’ve made from a quality standpoint. Preserving quality, you know, making sure that the beer that is leaving the brewery is to brand and to spec. We don’t sacrifice quality for the sake of advancement in production. I think that one thing that Founders has done very, very well is kept their eyes on the fact we are a product-driven company and we know that it all starts with the quality of the liquid in the keg, can, or bottle.
From there it’s turning people on to the brand. Especially early on, it’s a lot of grassroots. It’s a lot of standing in the aisles of grocery stores and sampling. A lot of beer festivals, trade shows, and a lot of face time with your distributor partners. Hitting the street generating that awareness and getting the quality product in front of people is kind of the first thing. We haven’t stopped with that. We still have a long way to go as a company from a distribution standpoint. There are a lot more customers to be had out there, you start by getting into those independent accounts and building your base. You become relevant from a local, then regional, then a national level.
After that, you have to begin being more sophisticated with your selling efforts as you start to get into the nationwide chains, big regional grocery chains, convenience stores, and all those types of things. When opening up those new points of distribution, the type of selling becomes more sophisticated. You have to begin letting data and profit stories assist you in your selling. Things like Lilypad, partnering with you folks, is a tremendous step for us to be more buttoned up in our process and the way we go to market. The way we’re able to track and manage our customer base is very vital.
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That’s always good to hear. We hear from many clients about breaking into big chains and how it is a very different kind of sell. Can you tell us more about those strategies, be it the way you build relationships or meet these chains that differ from going to your local shop? How does the game change when you’re going after a big supermarket?
Well, I don’t think that the mentality necessarily needs to change outside of the sophistication of your selling. First and foremost, no matter what size, whether you’re a large conglomerate like AB-InBev or down to a small 10,000-barrel brewery, I think that the focus needs to be on being a consultative selling partner and not necessarily pushing an agenda or a brand. We like to think that if we can be there to assist our customers and their success and provide them with profitable goods and services, that we’ll make them successful, then we get to be a part of that. We get to be a part of that painting or a thread in their tapestry, so to speak. And if we can be there as a support mechanism for them with the right goods and services to make their business better, we will certainly reap the benefits of their success and our own success.
“The focus needs to be on being a consultative selling partner…”
So it sounds like viewing it as more of a partnership than anything.
Absolutely. It stems from the way that we approach our wholesale partners. They are our first customer in the three-tier system, you know. It’s about making sure that we have those relationships and support structures in place to support our wholesale partners and, consequently, support our retail partners.
Let’s shift gears to a conversation around training and inspiring your team. Founders is obviously a huge operation, and they’re fortunate enough to be in a position to have people like you training teams and creating the future leaders of Founders. Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of someone at 10,000 barrels who might not have the resources to hire a Chad. Can you distill some wisdom you’ve learned in your position about how a brewery might be able to balance managing its team with some of its other responsibilities?
I mean, there are certainly always third-party options out there from a training perspective. There are a lot of great consultant groups and things of that nature. But I think first and foremost is, again, identifying what it is you want to be. My personal philosophy is that the good Lord gave you two eyes and two ears, and one mouth for a reason. So if you spend more time listening to the needs of your customers and being observant about how your team’s skill set fits into that, you can really start to connect the dots by just simply being aware and vigilant. Not necessarily making your own priorities but making your priorities the priorities of your customers and your employees.
“Spend more time listening to the needs of your customers…”
What makes for an exceptional rep at Founders?
Well, I think that adaptability is first and foremost. We’ve grown so fast over the last however many years – just looking at our ability to up our game and have our tactics in the marketplace reflect the quality of the product that we’re selling. I like to say we rate 95 or higher on almost every beer we put in the marketplace. So we have to have that same score as it relates to the professionalism we exhibit in the marketplace.
I travel around and work with the team – I’ve worked in almost every market. It’s interesting, especially thinking back to that whole close to 7,000 breweries thing, that now every market has its own landscape. Every market has its inherent opportunities and challenges that we navigate. So I really think that importance lies in the ability to be nimble and evolve the way that we do things and not be scared to try new techniques. Even if they do seem a little more systematic – a lot of times, early on you improv finding opportunities because the opportunities are so broad. But as we become more sophisticated as a brewery those techniques change. You know, using things like Lilypad helps us target our opportunities in the market, go to places where the data tells us that we have an opportunity to find a solution and to sell. Not just having the spray-and-pray mentality but being more tactical. We’re much better served to hit 100 accounts and walk out with 80 success stories than to go hit 200 accounts and walk out with 70 – so it’s being very methodical in our planning and our targeting as well as understanding what our priorities are then selling against those priorities and the discovered opportunities.
“Using things like Lilypad helps us target our opportunities in the market, go to places where the data tells us we have an opportunity to find a solution, and to sell.”
Absolutely. You guys have been a tremendous partner.
That’s great to hear, man. We’re happy to be a part of it and, hopefully the next 600,000 barrels that you guys put out.
We’ve made a good short history so far. I think we both push each other to get better. So that’s fun.
Absolutely. That’s how we’ve been from day one. We learn from you guys. So, last question, is there anything that you want to share with the readers about Founders? What’s on the horizon? Any big news that you’d like to get out there?
You know, I’m not the guy for that and I think that we find ourselves in the rags often enough that any and all news you’ll be able to read from somebody that’s not me.
That’s a good problem to have. Well, thanks for your time Chad.
Right on. No problem, man.