The Golden Age
By JENNIFER ZEGLER
Gold Coast Beverage Distributors dominates the Miami market
Miami is home to pristine beaches lined with palm trees, the South Beach party scene, salsa and meringue music such as Miami Sound Machine, and even television’s “Golden Girls.” While the setting has its advantages, the challenge lies in appealing to a complex market that includes tourists, Hispanics and retirees.
Gold Coast Beverage Distributors, Beverage Industry’s Wholesaler of the Year, has become the largest distributor in Florida on the strength of a portfolio that is as varied as the area’s consumers. In 2006, the company sold nearly 22 million cases from its portfolio that includes Miller, Coors, Corona and Heineken as well as craft beers, Latin beers and wine brands.
Its market occupies the state’s southern tip with a territory stretching across Broward, Monroe and Miami-Dade counties, which are all served by local warehouses. In addition to Miami, Gold Coast’s customers stretch from Fort Lauderdale to the Florida Keys. The unique aspects of the market work well with its mix of brands, explains Eric Levin, vice chairman in charge of acquisitions, strategy and political relations.
“We’re in a very favorable area of the country,” Levin says. “Sales are strong at all times of the year, South Florida’s population is growing and we’ve enjoyed a growing demand for higher end products. We’ve been successful at all levels within the industry. Our high-end imports are doing well; our economy imports are doing well; our premium domestic business is doing well; and even our sub-premium business is doing well. This is occurring within all of our sales divisions, which cover our diverse population segments.”
The success is shown by Gold Coast’s leading market share in the area. The dominant market share is a result of an emphasis on service to its more than 7,000 customers, the company says.
“Our organization is driven by great employees that have a lot of passion. We’re very competitive and we’re very proud,” says Art Friedman, president and chief executive officer.
From ruts to riches
Gold Coast has not always been in the top position in the Florida market. In August 1996, current Chairman Stephen Levin purchased Gold Coast, an acquisition he had been trying to make for eight years, explains Eric Levin, Stephen’s son. After the purchase, Levin and his family, which had a long history in the beverage business, realized the prospect was more daunting than originally thought.
“[Gold Coast] was in pretty bad financial shape when we bought it and it took us a long time to turn it around,” Levin says. “After [my father] purchased the business, we soon discovered how bad things were. Had he known, he might not have bought it at all.”
Despite the initial struggles, Levin says, “It took us two years to turn it around — two years before we made a profit.”
The road to profitability required a major overhaul. As one of the first steps under the Levin family, Gold Coast placed a renewed focus on its personnel. Friedman is the only member of management personnel remaining from pre-sale, Levin explains.
When Friedman took over as president and chief executive officer at the end of 1998, the company also received a new strategic plan. At the time, the company’s portfolio starred potential money-makers, Heineken, Corona and Coors products.
“During my tenure, we really started growing with the success of Corona, Heineken and even some of our smaller imports like Beck’s,” Friedman explains. “I think the biggest difference that I have found was not only taking that portfolio and understanding how to leverage it in different classes of trade, but getting people to buy into the whole vision.”
The enlivened spirit was led by an analogy: “How we coined it in the first phase was, ‘How do you eat an elephant? It’s one bite at a time,’” Friedman says. “We’re going to chip away and chip away as if you’re eating a whole elephant.” The mantra led to pay-off.
“We finally got the organization to understand what it felt like to win,” he adds.
Friedman, who has been in the beer business for more than 20 years, also took the lessons he learned from his early days and instilled the value of service into Gold Coast’s new team.
“I am the first chief executive officer the company has ever had that started out in the streets,” Friedman says. “I think it’s important if you’re going to run a business like this to really understand what drives it — from a retail standpoint, a supplier standpoint and an employee standpoint. We have a saying today that is very relevant to how we go to market and it boils down to what I learned from my first week on the job, ‘If your customers had a choice, would they buy from you?’”
He explains that ‘you’ is accentuated to mean the individual employee, not the company overall. The high value of service has helped Gold Coast go a long way, explains Alfonso Fernandez, chief operating officer.
“We changed quantity for quality,” Fernandez says. “[In 1996,] we had the right portfolio, but we didn’t have the right system or the right people. We don’t produce anything, but our biggest asset — other than obviously our inventory — is the people.”
To boost its portfolio, Gold Coast acquired two local Miller distributors in 2001 and 2002. In 1999, Gold Coast only held a 26 percent market share, and currently the company is enjoying 64.6 percent market share.
Corona, Heineken and Miller contribute around 75 percent of Gold Coast’s profitability, Friedman says. Imports make up nearly 58 percent of the volume. The popularity of imports in Gold Coast’s market has encouraged growth. The company distributes nine of the Top 10 imports sold in its local market, including Presidente, Beck’s and Hollandia.
Although the Miami and Fort Lauderdale marketplace is dominated by imports, both Miller and Coors have made headway recently, Friedman explains.
“The imports have really been the driving factor of our business for the past nine to 10 years,” he explains. “We’re going into our third consecutive year of growth with Coors Brewing Co. and our Miller business looks like it’s going to be the same situation with three years of straight increase for our Miami operation and two years for Pompano [Beach].”
While Miller Lite has a following in the area, one of the company’s strongest Miller brands is High Life. The brand is popular with Hispanics, Friedman says, which is a demographic that also helped Coors grow recently. Coors’ sponsorship of the National Football League, as well as its cold-focused marketing campaign offered a masculine appeal that increased its popularity within the demographic. Friedman says. Coors’ Blue Moon also is performing well.
Another domestic company that has reinvigorated in South Florida has been The Boston Beer Co. The Samuel Adams lineup is part of Gold Coast’s small craft division, which is only 1 to 1.5 share in South Florida, Friedman says. Yet, the lineup brought excitement to the bubbling craft market
“Crafts never developed, even during the boom,” he says. “We had them in the market, but they just didn’t do well. We’ve expanded our portfolio to a lot of [Samuel Adams’] flagship products, and the Boston Beer Co. is growing close to 40 percent this year. That’s pretty dramatic because it’s not like all of a sudden we just put the brand into the market, and this is the second year of double-digit growth. This growth is due to consumer awareness, supported by consistent retail execution.”
Gold Coast’s craft division also has found success with the addition of Flying Dog beers. Flying Dog has grown through word of mouth and a unique partnership with a local dog racing track, where the brand is featured as part of a “Flying Dog at the Dog Track” promotion.
Even with the growth of those brands, one success story stands out in particular.
“Heineken Premium Light has been a nice addition for us because it hasn’t cannibalized Heineken,” Friedman says. “Heineken Light has really helped to grow the beer market a little bit but it’s also been a trade-up.”
Another recent introduction, Miller Chill, has been slow to take off. Gold Coast is now working with Miller to create a more localized marketing campaign.
“Miller Chill has been a nice addition to our portfolio,” Friedman says. “We haven’t had the rate of sale as other wholesalers, but it’s been well-received. The reason that we’ve had a challenge is that Miami Hispanics don’t really grasp the chelada; South Florida is about mojitos. So we have a little challenge because anything that’s viewed as being somewhat slanted toward Mexican Hispanics doesn’t work all that well for us in our area.”
Mastering their market
Gold Coast’s marketing challenge lies in appealing to its unique market demographics, says Christina Cioeta Borger, vice president of marketing. Miami’s population is quite varied: 88.2 percent is non-white, and of those, 19.9 percent are African American and 65.8 percent are Hispanic, according to the Living Cities report on Miami, based on the 2000 census. Within the Hispanic population, 51 percent are Cuban. The remainder hail from Caribbean and Central American nations.
Balancing their brands’ national marketing campaigns and creating local ones is a challenge, Borger explains. When applicable, the company executes its brands’ national programs, especially when accompanied by media support. Yet, the make-up of the area’s Hispanic population can present a roadblock. Most national campaigns are catered to Mexican Hispanics, which are not a majority in Gold Coast’s area, she says.
“Here, Mexicans are less than 1 percent of our total Hispanic population, so we do a lot of local marketing, working with some local agencies,” Borger says.
The diversity of South Florida’s population also varies by location in the market. Imports have a 70 percent share of market in Miami, explains Felix Williams, executive vice president. In the north, around Fort Lauderdale, preferences are split between 60 percent import and 40 percent domestic. The company is seeing markets change as ethnic consumers move away from metropolitan Miami as well.
Knowing which brands will succeed in particular areas is left to individual salespeople. Each salesperson focuses on a lineup of seven brands in his or her territory, Friedman explains. Across all divisions, the Top 3 suppliers are standard: Corona, Miller and Heineken. Those brands take priority during holiday promotions and special marketing opportunities. The salespeople then have the remaining four slots to fill with brands that perform well in their respective territories.
“We have a lot of small suppliers, brands that might be niche, but we try to make sure that we target distribution and programs based on where we’re going to be successful,” Friedman says.
Following the strategic plan Friedman implemented, the company set its own goals before the suppliers’ incentive programs. If a salesperson makes Gold Coast’s goals, they are qualified for incentive programs, Friedman explains.
Putting the company’s goals first also presents an advantage to its smaller brands because it allows them entry into a market year-round, instead of only at the time of an incentive. For brands that are new to Gold Coast, that can be an advantage, Friedman says, but not many introductions make the ranks.
“We’ll pretty much look at any existing supplier’s new brands,” he explains. “If Miller brings in a new product, we’re going to bring it in. We’re extremely selective about new outside suppliers because you really have to place a high value on your route to market.”
Less than 1 percent of hopeful brands are accepted, Friedman speculates. Within that small percentile, the company is focusing its expansion on its craft division, which has Gold Coast looking outside of Florida, as the state has few microbrewers. The company also is adding wine brands to that developing sector of the business.
While the company remains at the top of its game, Gold Coast is not content to rest on its dominant market positioning and good reputation. As the alcohol industry grows, Gold Coast’s competition is widening, Chief Operating Officer Fernandez says.
“We’re not only competing in the beer business, but in the alcohol beverage industry,” Fernandez says. “A lot of spirits companies are creating products that are more appealing to a traditional beer drinker. The flavored beverages, vodka and rum have all of a sudden become a more drinkable product.”
With added competition, the company keeps its goals in mind. It is aiming for increased market share, but also while providing the highest service levels.
“It’s about the execution at store level because if we didn’t execute at store level, nothing else we did would work,” Williams says. “We put a high premium on our sales organization to be the best in service and in relationships, and that translates into execution at the highest level that you could probably see around the country. That’s just part of working for Gold Coast Beverage Distributors.”
Additionally, the company’s competitive nature in service is not limited to its direct competition, Levin says.
“Our goal is to be the best distributor, regardless of industry,” he says. “When we ask retailers, ‘Who’s your best distributor?,’ we don’t want them to compare us to the beer competition. We want them to compare us to the other wine distributors, the cookie distributor, the soda distributor, the milk distributor, whomever — we want to be the best there is.”
Achieving the dominant position is not a stopping place for Gold Coast either. The company is looking to better its own company as well as research possible future acquisitions.
“We’ve achieved a high share in our market, so every percentage of market share growth is getting harder and harder and more expensive, but we’re doing it,” Levin says. “But we don’t think that we’ve hit our capacity yet with our growth. We think there is more upside with all of our brands … Even though we’re a position of dominance, we need to stay hungry and we also need to stay humble.”
At a glance
Gold Coast Beverage Distributors
2006 sales: $440 million. More than $470 million is estimated for 2007.
2006 case sales: 21,850,000. Nearly 22,100,000 is estimated for 2007.
Years in business: 61 years, 11 under current ownership
Distribution area: Approximately 3,800 square miles across Miami-Dade, Monroe and most of Broward counties in South Florida, an area that includes Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Homestead and Key West.
Facilities: 8 covering 735,000 square feet of warehouse space.
Being a good citizen
As one of Florida’s top 50 companies, Gold Coast is a prominent member of its community. The company works hard to support charities in the South Florida area. In addition to working through its suppliers, the company also couples its community outreach with its customers’ efforts, explains Eric Levin, vice chairman in charge of acquisitions, strategy and political relations. Through its relationship with supermarket chain Publix, Gold Coast supports both The United Way and the Make A Wish foundations.
In addition, the company has worked with the University of Miami on a number of special projects designed to promote responsible drinking and reduce drunk driving. Recently, the company sponsored the school’s Safe Spring Break program, which is a week-long program preceeding the school’s spring break. The program brings in speakers, panelists and activities for the students to encourage them to think before they drink or not drink at all. The company also purchased a new van for the university’s off-campus student shuttle, the Ibis Ride.
Another local partner is Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning. The NBA star hosts an annual event called Zo’s End of Summer Groove, which is a series of events that raise money to support Mourning’s charities for underprivileged youth in the South Florida community. Taking place at the end of this month, the Groove features a golf tournament, celebrity basketball game and youth events. Gold Coast brand Heineken is a sponsor of the comedy show, which stars comedians who donate their time to perform.