Sales Leaders Interview: Finding Your Craft Niche And Data-Driven Sales
Nov 28, 2018
Written By: Matthew Bruner
Category: Craft Beer Sales Interview Series

Lilypad Sales Leaders Interview Series

“Finding your niche, finding what it is you do well, and really playing to that strength is key.”

Left Hand Brewing has been a leader in craft beer for over 25 years. From award-winning beers to a leadership team that is heavily involved in the Brewer’s Association and various community engagement initiatives, they serve as an example for growing craft breweries. But that doesn’t mean they are immune to the challenges breweries face today. In this interview, Jason Ingram, National Sales Director for Left Hand, spoke to us about expansion, their nitro niche, and how their commitment to quality led them to boldly recall their most popular brand in 2016. We also spoke candidly about how technology has proven to be a powerful tool when combating sales turnover and making data-driven chain sales. This interview is packed with valuable insights for any craft brewer tackling the market today.

The Interview:

Lilypad: How long have you been with Left Hand?

Jason: It’ll be 10 years in May.

What were you doing before you got to Left Hand?

Since I graduated from college, I have worked in either the alcohol beverage world or the sports world, and kind of fluctuated back and forth between the two. My first job out of college was working in the front office of the Atlanta Braves, and also on that side of business, I’ve done some work for and sports talk radio. Back on the beer side of things, I’ve worked for a distributor here in Georgia, worked for a couple of other breweries, and then been with Left Hand now for just shy of 10 years.

Do you know what your annual barrelage was when you joined Left Hand? How much have you grown in those 10 years?

When I started we were at about 18,000 barrels. 82,000 is the highest we’ve gotten to. I’m not sure where we’ll finish this year.

Now you’re the national sales director. Did you start as a rep? How did you move up the ranks?

Yeah, I started as a southeast sales manager here in Atlanta covering six states as one of the first out-of-state sales reps that Left Hand had. Since that time, as we’ve added barrelage and added folks to our team, my role has changed a couple of different times. I moved into what was known as the east regional manager role – we were developing that as I started. I was one of the first regional managers and that encompassed covering the east coast. Then when we created the national sales manager role and national sales director role, I moved into that about four years ago.

When you were a rep what kind of challenges did you guys face managing a dispersed team? And now that you’re the sales director managing people all over the country, how do you keep track of the progress and make sure everyone’s on the same page?

Lilypad is a big part of that. When I first started I didn’t have services like Lilypad or VIP where you could see inventories or depletions. Basically, from a distributor standpoint you were hoping you’d get inventory whenever you either A) asked for it or B) had a daily/weekly email given to you. But with most distributors, those were few and far between. Effectively you’d get a monthly depletion report. So the inability to track progress, see where your accounts existed, or see where you were in relation to the rest of the brand made everything very, very difficult.

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In turn, that made it very, very challenging for internal communication among the rest of the brewery. You were very isolated. We’re a Colorado brewery and I’m covering my six states here in the southeast and, you know, I really only have one or two direct points of contact back at the brewery. Since I didn’t have the ability to travel out there much I was really isolated and on my own. So when I was planning a market visit to Florida, for example, I was working off of old spreadsheets from when my boss Chris had opened that market several years before. I just had some notes that he took and that was really all I had to go on. So you can imagine how – especially in the on-premise world with how quickly everything changes and managers change and distributor reps change – how difficult it was to keep things together in the beginning.

That being said, it was also a really fantastic time to be starting in the craft beer business. Craft was growing and there was an insatiable thirst for all kinds of unique beers – beers from Colorado specifically because Colorado is such a strong region. This enthusiasm for craft beer was kind of an added boost to your efforts.

Milk Stout Nitro can taken from Left Hand’s Instagram

As the national sales director now, how are you managing this hyper-competitive landscape? How are you staying relevant?

That’s the multi-multi-million dollar question. It’s something that we struggle to find answers to every single day. For us specifically, we’re very fortunate in that we have a flagship brand that is not something that everybody else does. Milk Stout Nitro is the brand that put us on the map, it’s the reason I have a job, it’s a complete separator, it’s the best selling craft stout in America. We sell more craft stout than any other brewery in America. All of that said, stout only represents about two to three percent of all buying share within craft. So we are that proverbial big fish in a small pond. We definitely are known for dark beers and we get pigeonholed as such. But that also protects us.

You definitely see a lot of other breweries starting to do experiments with Nitro as we have but we’re really the only ones that are truly dedicated to it and thus understand it better. So from a national standpoint, we have a national brand in Milk Stout Nitro. So that’s really, really good. That’s how we initially stayed relevant. That being said, how do we project that out to the rest of our portfolio across many markets? It’s just really tough these days. You flat out have IPA representing 35 percent or so of all buying share and so pretty much everybody makes IPA in some form or fashion. With 7,000 breweries all making IPAs with an importance placed on freshness, some of the national and regional brands really have a hard time staying relevant in IPA. Traditionally strong breweries in IPA are still going to do well like a Stone or Bell’s Two Hearted, but everybody else has a really huge challenge when local breweries focus on that. So I think if you’re trying to instruct a brewery, if I’m looking at smaller breweries that really want to grow, I think finding your niche, finding what it is you do well and really playing to that strength is key. We have struggled over the last several years trying to move beyond Milk Stout Nitro. But in a sense, we should actually turn back into it and focus even more on it – that’s what we’re trying to. So find what it is you do well and then implement like hell on it.

“If I’m looking at smaller breweries that really want to grow, I think finding your niche, finding what it is you do well, and really playing to that strength is key.”

I’d imagine that given only two percent of people are going for stouts and dark beers it might be even more competitive trying to win tap handles. Is that fair to say?

Yeah, less tap handles to work with and also you have to add the nitro component, too. There’s typically one, maybe two handles. So if we’re trying to get Milk Stout on nitrogen in a bar, we’re going after a smaller set of handles. Like I was alluding to, you might be pigeonholed, but you’re also protected. If you can get that tap handle, it’s much stickier than the rotation nation that’s going on.

Now there’s still a lot of rotating through nitro, but we have a large share of what you would call – though it is kind of a misnomer these days – what you would call a permanent handle. So we get much more regular business off that because the consistency is there and the quality is there, and it’s really difficult to beat us on that. So yes, there might be a little bit of a narrow opportunity, but getting that opportunity usually translates into longer-term sales than just simply, “hey, I got a tap handle on this bar and two weeks later it’s going to be something else.”

Nitro tap handles taken from Left Hand’s Instagram

I’ve had Milk Stout Nitro at some local bars here in Tampa, actually. I’m wondering if getting to 80,000 barrels involved you tackling some chains or maybe locking down some big restaurants in addition to craft bars?

Actually, that’s really just now starting. So at our height, we did 82,000. We’re actually in the mid-seventies right now. And part of that was we ended up having a nationwide recall of Milk Stout Nitro. Again, with the emphasis on quality, you know, we had the guts and did the right thing and pulled everything back a year and a half ago. We’re still feeling some of the repercussions of that. As far as from a national accounts perspective for on-premise, we’re really just now scratching the surface. We were in expansion mode for so many years that we could not make enough beer to even satisfy a chain like that. So it was intentional that we kind of stayed away from pitching chains because we did not want to over promise. But now with the capacity we have and capital improvements we made at the brewery, we’re really now focusing there. Plus, stout continues to grow. I mentioned it’s two to three percent, but it’s actually up in IRI data for the last several years. So it’s a category that still continues to grow. So like I said, we’re really just now focusing on national accounts for on-premise. Conversely, for off-premise, we’ve been really expanding our chain business the last several years. Milk Stout Nitro does get quite a bit of chain activity and chain placements. So that’s an area that not only regional breweries are growing in but where we are growing as well.

Can you tell me from a rep perspective and a sales perspective what some of the differences are in strategy and approach when you’re trying to close a chain as opposed to a local bar or restaurant?

Chains are much more data-driven decisions. With bars and restaurants, there’s data behind it and you certainly don’t want to overlook it, but it’s much more of an emotional decision, purely quality decision, taste decision, or a relationship decision – there are all kinds of different things that come into play. For national accounts and chains, they’re really – and I say this as an affectionate term – they’re really more followers than they are leaders. They follow trends very nicely and they look to make decisions based purely on dollars per point of real estate within their store. Most of these buyers at one point in their life have not just handled alcohol. They’ve handled other aspects in grocery stores – they usually swap those folks around every few years. Someone who was once the cereal buyer is now the alcohol buyer. So they have experience going through several different aspects of the store and profitability is what they want – they want to sell what sells.

“You’re really assisting them in making the best data decision for their store.”

So calling on a chain account is much different. You’re really assisting them in making the best data decision for their store. Look at it from this perspective: “Hey, chain buyer, I would like to help you maximize your real estate and give you the best amount of dollars for that real estate. This is why I’m recommending these four beers or this one beer in particular because I can show you data that will prove if you put this in, you’re going to make more money.” And that’s really what they’re tasked with. Again, it’s a much more data-driven decision. In a bar or restaurant you’re meeting with a buyer, you’re sampling them on the beer, you’re sampling customers, you’ve got a great relationship with the bartender, and your distributor really does a great job of servicing the accounts, etc. Chains really are data-driven decisions. Then you have to ask, can the distributor execute with merchandising and make sure everything is rotated fresh? Those really are the differences.

Left Hand chain display taken from the Lilypad Social Wall

Can you tell me a little bit more about where you would go to get this consumer data, general market data, industry trends, and then do you also bring your own internal data about your rate of sale for certain brands?

For sure. Think of going to a chain buyer almost like you’re making a case to a jury. You want to put your best evidence forward to sway the jury. So what I mean by that is you can take the best data points and make them work for you. So you asked are we pulling internal data on our rate of sale and are we pulling any sort of metrics from our distributor? Yes to both. You really want to use a broad spectrum to put your best foot forward. Rely on whatever data you have access to.

“You really want to use a broad spectrum to put your best foot forward. Rely on whatever data you have access to.”

That is a distinct reason why a lot of Bud, Miller-Coors, and a lot of macro breweries have been able to control the chains for so long because they were the only ones that had access to very expensive IRI or Nielsen data. Also, on the distribution side, they often times controlled category captains or set captains that design the schematics for the chains so it’s been very hard for craft to penetrate. But as I mentioned earlier, chain buyers are mostly followers. They want to sell what’s selling. And so the craft trend has bucked the system so badly that now our chain buyers realize that in order for their real estate to be successful they need to have a nice selection of craft.

Often times they make higher margins on craft beer than they do on a lot of Bud/Miller-Coors frontline products. Even though there might be a higher volume or a higher rate of sale, they’re not making as much money dollar per point on real estate with those guys. So, how do breweries, especially smaller breweries, gain access to IRI or some of this other stuff? That data is not cheap. It’s expensive. You know, VIP data, it really only shows your numbers. It’s not going to show competitors. Whereas IRI and Nielsen can show what the rest of the market is doing and you can find your position within that. So it’s very cost prohibitive. A lot of times it’s à la carte style pricing. So if I’m a brewery in Alabama and I want to look at Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee IRI data, I can ask for that piece and I can pay for that piece and it’s very expensive.

Left Hand display taken from the Lilypad Social Wall

For us, we’re a customer of Armadillo Insight, a company out of Washington. Doug Mills, a former Sierra Nevada long-time sales guy, started his own company. Basically, Armadillo gives the option for craft breweries to come in as a co-op and we pay a portion. Then several other breweries our size pay a portion, and then through that, we have access to full IRI data for the entire country. That’s a much more price manageable way to gain access to all this data that you would never be able to afford on your own. That’s been really successful and really a game changer for us to be able to access that.

That’s awesome. Are there any other criteria that the breweries have to meet before they can join something like this co-op?

That would be a question for Doug, who is the founder and owner of Armadillo. But I know he limits it to just strictly craft breweries by the Brewers Association definition.

For the internal sales data that you’re bringing forth, is it just Lilypad and VIP that you’re using?

Lilypad and VIP for sure are two major components of that, and then any sort of other data that we’re able to pull from our distributors that cover that particular chain area.

To keep on the theme of technology and data, can you tell me a little bit about what you’ve done as the sales director to incorporate tech into the hands of all your reps and how it has helped you guys grow to 80,000+ barrels?

Well, as I mentioned earlier, Lilypad has been a huge component of that. You know, since we’re clients of VIP, that was probably where we first started using tech. Being able to access in iDig basically in real time – well a couple of days behind – what depletions are, where we’re selling, and all of that, was the first foray. But then we knew we needed a strong CRM software, and there really wasn’t anything specifically focused on beverage. VIP was developing Karma, and we were initially part of that, but then once I had met with Eric and saw what Lilypad was doing for Oskar Blues and a couple of other breweries, as well as the direction it was going, we very slowly jumped on because we make very calculated moves.

“But then we knew we needed a strong CRM software and there really wasn’t anything specifically focused on beverage.”

But once we did find Lilypad, we kind of went full bore. And so we arm all of our reps out there with Lilypad – that’s a huge part of our technology stack. From a brewery perspective, we’re also clients of Orchestrated Beer, which has also been a huge organizational push, Armadillo Insights, we talked about, and VIP. Really those are the four platforms that we use that touch the sales side and the brewing side. But as far as our reps out in the market, you know, we have iPads, iPhones, and Lilypad. Basically, they go out there and crush it with it.

Learn more about Activity Management & Execution in Lilypad.

Do you have people that are dedicated to training reps on Lilypad? Also, do you have data analysts that are dedicated to digging into the datasets you get from distributors or other software products?

So, we have a brewery sales analyst, and then we have sales rep certification programs and SOPs. Basically a bank of SOPs in four categories: One of them is technology, then there’s brewery information, field work out in the market, and time management. The reps have to be trained up and pass to move on to the next level or, really, to remain with the company. So on the technology side with Lilypad, yes, we do have regional managers that train their sales reps through a list of SOPs and best practices.

The Left Hand team taken from Left Hand’s Instagram

If you were starting a brewery, when do you think would be the right time to be thinking about hiring a business analyst to dig into the data and when would you be making these kinds of software purchases?

I mean, it just depends on the skill sets you already have existing within your brewery. Say if I started a brewery, I would probably be handling a lot of the analyst portion myself. If you’re a brewery that’s limited to a couple of states and a handful of distributors, I’m not sure that the data analyst position is really a necessity at that point. You don’t have a ton of sales reps out there at that moment, you probably don’t have a ton of chain related relationships, so the amount of analysis going on probably doesn’t warrant a full-time position. I would recommend having that taken on in-house if somebody is capable.

As for the second part of the question – resources when starting a brewery are hard to come by. You know, there is competition internally for those dollars. Whether it’s allocating to a cap-x program, or we need another tank, or we need to expand the tasting room, or we need to hire another shift brewer – there are always alternative ways to spend that money. So if you’re going to invest in a sales rep and have them out there – especially given that there is a high turnover rate – you want to make sure all of that information, that you paid dearly for them to get, isn’t lost.

“If you’re going to invest in a sales rep and have them out there – especially given that there is a high turnover rate – you want to make sure all of that information, that you paid dearly for them to get, isn’t lost.”

Because Lilypad is very affordable, I think starting it from the very beginning with one or two reps is totally appropriate. You’re already making an investment in these sales reps, and for just a little bit more you can have high documentation and high accountability. You’ve already got the money tied up and you think it’s important to have representation on the market. I think for a little bit more money you can make sure that there’s follow through, make sure that there’s accountability, and make sure that there’s history. It just opens up a whole new world. So I think relative to cost, having Lilypad right out of the gate would be key.

Learn more about Activity Management & Execution in Lilypad.

Do you guys have any tips and tricks or processes that you use to keep track of your reps? How do you make sure the communication is getting down from the top to the people on the streets, and then back up?

So part of that SOP and training certification process is having realistic goals in place and having metrics that they hit on a monthly/quarterly basis. One of the worst things you can do is not have a defined list of expectations out there, that includes not having a good hierarchy as far as who reports to who, as well as folks not knowing exactly how to measure themselves for success. And so I think you start with a blueprint, things are always going to go haywire, but have a clear blueprint of what they need to be doing. I think without that you create some confusion, you create some frustration, and I think someone’s more likely to start looking for another opportunity.

We’ve been very successful with having little to no turnover on the sales side until recently. We’re not immune to it. There’s definitely a lot of breweries out there. It’s harder and harder to sell beer so not as many people enjoy it. But I think part of mitigating that is to have structure like Lilypad – technology makes your life easier. If you’re using Lilypad, VIP, Armadillo and all these other things to enhance what you’re doing, then you’re on the right path. But if you’re using CRM software strictly as a grading tool or for checking up on somebody, you know, that’s probably not going to be the best approach. One of the things we love about Lilypad is that there’s a social aspect to it – there’s a fun, uniting aspect to it.

“If you’re using CRM software strictly as a grading tool or for checking up on somebody, you know, that’s probably not going to be the best approach. One of the things we love about Lilypad is that there’s a social aspect to it – there’s a fun, uniting aspect to it.”

That builds cohesiveness, it builds a team environment, and in turn folks really want to use the platform. CRM is only as good as the user so if you’re paying for this and you’re making it more of a punitive thing, or if the software itself is kind of like big brother checking up, the likelihood of it being successful is not very high because people look at it with a negative connotation. Whereas where we have structured it, it actually helps them with their job. It makes them more efficient. They can rely on it. Then there’s the fun aspect. And then, oh yeah, it also shows a level of accountability. So I think the important thing is to start out keeping it fun, but at the same time having structure in there so people don’t get lost and caught up in the mix.

Learn more about Collaboration in Lilypad.

That’s something that we hear all the time – reps push back because they don’t want to feel like they’re being stalked. That’s why we make a lot of decisions on the product side of things to retain privacy and not track reps. We want to make sure it’s up to the managers to communicate with the reps as opposed to them being tracked every single movement.

Right, exactly.

I’ve just got one more question for you. You’ve been with Left Hand through a tremendous growth stage. Do you look back and think about a big defining moment or lesson learned that changed the course of your career and helped you be successful as the national sales director?

That’s a good question – very self-reflective hah. I can say that 10 years moved by very fast. I think that’s pertinent. Looking back and seeing if there’s a pivotal moment or a paradigm shift change – I’m not sure I could say that there’s one thing. But I can say that the industry is only getting tougher. A lot of people that I started with are no longer doing it because it came really easy four or five years ago compared to today. I think the realization that the amount of breweries opening is not slowing down is an important one. So, actually, if I were to be reflective and look back a few years, I’d say now, in a weird way, is one of the more fun times to be in it. If you’re competitive at all and you like challenges, making a brewery work in this environment is tough. Five or six years ago anybody could go out and sell craft beer. Now to actually be able to do it and remain effective as a regional sized brewery is really where the rubber is gonna hit the road. And those of us that stay in and are doing it, it’s because we love it that much that we really want to continue to meet this challenge of 7,000 breweries in the market and another couple thousand on the way. So, you know, there’s no one thing that I would point to, but the tightening of the industry actually just makes a lot of this stuff we’re doing even more of a challenge and something that I feel I’m up to.

“Those of us that stay in and are doing it, it’s because we love it that much that we really want to continue to meet this challenge of 7,000 breweries in the market.”

Right. Hopefully technology and improvements in your internal processes help you navigate the competitive waters.

That’s correct.

Is there anything that you want people reading to know about Left Hand’s plans for the rest of the year or going into 2019?

Sure, we’re going to continue to take the lead on being the best selling stout brewery in America and also continue to take a lead on nitro innovation. That’s really what we’re focused on in 2019.

Awesome. Well, I really appreciate your time, Jason.

You got it. Cheers!

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

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