Breakthru Beverage Group Embraces Innovation

Last year’s merger of Wirtz Beverage and Charmer Sunbelt to create Breakthru Beverage was about more than just scale and increased efficiency. Both family businesses had equity in their names, which is why it was so striking that the combined company took a completely new name.

“Wirtz means a lot in the city of Chicago, and parts of Charmer Sunbelt go back to the end of Prohibition,” says Breakthru’s EVP of Commercial Strategy, Brian Albenze. “But we wanted to send a message that we were creating something different, which is why Breakthru Beverage was chosen as the name. Pardon the pun, but we’re trying to find breakthrough opportunities to differentiate ourselves from the competition.”

Brian_Albenze_E1A9131Those opportunities include innovations like integrated digital marketing and equipping sales staff with real-time analytics via iPads, in addition to the recent announcement that Breakthru will publish its portfolio on the SevenFifty online trade platform.

“Having that product repository allows our sales team to give customers instant information about our portfolio, including product reviews, and the portal is fully accessible to customers anytime as well,” Albenze says.

Soon every salesperson will carry analytics, inventory and pricing enabled iPads (the last four states are coming online soon), which will put sales material and marketing collateral at their fingertips.

“When we decided to make that investment, it wasn’t just as an order entry platform,” Albenze says. “We want the reps to have a meaningful relationship with their buyers, which is why we’ve also written algorithms that identify opportunities for our customers, based on their previous order history and sales data.”

Of course, anytime changes occur at a large company, buy-in from staff used to the old way of doing things can be a challenge.

“Change is tough, but we have a fabulous communications team that helps us take these new platforms to associates through various channels,” Albenze says. “Our senior leaders and the entire management team are also aligned on measuring adoption of new tools. We recognize that in order to drive value, we need to drive adoption.”

Adoption will be critical as the middle tier continues to consolidate and change.

“We were founded on the principle that we need to be new and different, so I think we’re well prepared to evolve as the industry does,” Albenze says. “It’s no secret that online retailers are coming fast and furious, but there have always been threats to the industry. We don’t see them as threats; we look at every change as an opportunity to engage customers and think differently about our approach.”

Impact of Consumer Trends

Breakthru’s creation was the result of consolidation trends in the three tier system, but much the company’s future growth will be driven by consumer trends. Albenze says emerging brands and craft are dominating that discussion.

“There will be some news soon about a division we’ve invested heavily in to address those trends in the marketplace,” he says. “These emerging and craft brands need our attention, so we’re deploying resources against them to address hot segments of the market. We’re placing a big bet on that based on our forecast growth in those categories.”

Ultimately, though, the company has focused its new tools on speaking to its customers (operators and retailers), not directly to consumers.

“Year one of integration we talked about the tools we were planning to deploy; this year it’s about measuring effectiveness now that we have the tools,” Albenze says. “We have a massive number of customer emails in our integrated marketing platform, and we’ll be talking to them more. It’s a suppliers’ responsibility to talk to consumers, and it’s our responsibility to talk to our customers about new products, new categories and rising opportunities so they can get out in front of them. In the old days a shelf talker was known as a ‘silent salesperson,’ but now that’s the role digital is playing. We’re delivering messages to customers before a sales rep shows up, feeding them information and making it easier for us to engage them later.”


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