Columbia Distributing has been a rapidly changing organization over the years since its inception in 1935. What began as traditional beer distribution has turned into total beverage distribution. Now, the company plays in four categories: beer, non-alcoholic beverages, wine and spirits.
“The opportunity for us with all of those categories has allowed us to dynamically change from the beginning,” says Columbia Distributing CEO and President Chris Steffanci. “Through our five-year strategic plan, it has allowed us to grow and double our business – ultimately helping us align, change and grow as consumer dynamics change.”
Steffanci has been with Columbia Distributing for 12 years. Having been in the beverage alcohol industry since college, he has about 25 years of experience in total on the supplier’s side, which gives him great leverage to help keep the company up and running – and most importantly, successful.
“In beverage distribution, we are reliant on our suppliers for support. We have two things as a distributor: great brands and great people. So the fact that I have a lot of experience on the supplier’s side has given me a wealth of understanding and knowledge, which also helps me understand how suppliers and distributors interact with each other. Ultimately, it has helped me build strong relationships with some of our key suppliers,” Steffanci says.
Having great relationships with its suppliers is part of what makes Columbia Distributing a strong beverage distributor. Brian Renney, VP of Wine & Spirits at Columbia Distributing, says in order to grow the company’s portfolio, the first priority is the relationship with the supplier and actually performing up to par with what Columbia Distributing says they will do.
“It’s a small world, and word gets around. If a supplier is not happy, everyone will know,” Renney advises. “When you reach out to a supplier and make a connection, the first thing they’re going to ask is how you’re doing with your current businesses.”
Filling in the White Space
Columbia Distributing’s Wine & Spirits business continues to grow year-over-year and is proudly anchored by the most distinguished names in the industry: Sazerac Company, Treasury Wine Estates (TWE)and Trinchero Family Estates (TFE). As three of the world’s largest wine companies, they each bring to the Pacific Northwest portfolios of award-winning, iconic brands.
When choosing to bring on a new partner, Renney says the number one criterion for him is the cultural fit. “We’ve done business with some suppliers and, looking back, they were not a good cultural fit. They were political in nature and lacked both transparency and communication. We are a transparent company. It should not be all push – we need to create pull with suppliers, so cultural fit is one thing we look for,” he says.
Another factor that comes into play when choosing a supplier to partner with is scale. With the company’s portfolio size in beer and natural beverages, they are covering 21,000 accounts from Washington and Oregon. So they definitely need scale, and bigger suppliers can provide that.
“As I look for white space opportunities, rather than going and getting another supplier, I would prefer to ask our current suppliers if they can get what we’re looking for. We have close-knit supplier partners where we can go out and get more business together. They become more important to us, and us to them in that kind of relationship,” Renney explains.
Revenue Growth Strategies
Aside from filling in the white space in its portfolio, Columbia Distributing also grows its revenue through strategic acquisitions. Over the years, it has acquired a variety of different companies, including Marine View Beverage and General Distributors, Inc., that help to increase its distribution geography.
“We’re inquisitive, but we’re also disciplined to where the acquisition has to make sense for us,” says Columbia Distributing CFO Paul Meade. “We’re not going to buy someone in Miami – that won’t benefit us. We’re always looking for new brands and geographies, as demonstrated with the recent moves we’ve made by acquiring multiple brands in the areas we’re already serving.”
The third big area that helps boost revenue is through continued expansion in the company’s Wine & Spirits business. In the last five years, Columbia Distributing has made a concentrated effort to get into wine and spirits. Bringing 38 years of experience in the industry to Columbia, Renney has been monumental in helping this business grow.
“When I met with Chris and Paul to outline our plan for this, we realized that we didn’t want to be a traditional wine and spirits distributor with hundreds of brands and thousands of SKUs. We needed brand productivity by SKU, so we went in asking what would work for us and started executing that plan,” Renny says.
Constellation Brands was Columbia Distributing’s first major entry into wine and spirits – and it went very well. Constellation eventually integrated with Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, but Renney, Meade and Steffanci truly believed they could make something in this space. So they started over.
In 2020, Columbia was awarded distribution rights in the state of Oregon for TWE. It did so well in Oregon that TWE eventually awarded it to Washington just six months later. In the first two years of this partnership, Columbia doubled its portfolio.
“Last year exploded for us with the acquisition of Sazerac in October, which put us on the map in a big way. The second largest spirits supplier in the country is now with us, giving us a chance to show what we can do. We know that we won’t be everything to everybody, but these suppliers have given us the ability to showcase what Columbia can really do,” states Renney.
Launched in July of this year, Meili Vodka is a new brand that Columbia started distributing and has been doing very well. The brainchild of Jason Momoa and Blaine Halvorson, as a great product with great packaging, Columbia knew this would be a hit.
Both Momoa and Halvorson came to Columbia Distributing’s area recently because of the actor strike and signed bottles for customers – which was a complete knockout. Over 4,000 people were in line at the Vancouver, Washington location, and Seattle came close to that.
“We were there to sell products to customers and went through an average of 350 cases an hour at these signings. It’s off to a great start, and we really think it’s got a future,” Renney says about Meili.
Supporting Local Communities
Columbia Distributing’s incredible growth has allowed it to be very charity focused. Currently, it is partnered with the American Cancer Society in Washington and Oregon, as well as the Ronald McDonald House and Wings for Life with Red Bull.
“Charity is part of the foundation of our culture. We have 3,000 amazing employees, and we always want to be great corporate citizens. Giving back to communities has always been important for us,” says Steffanci.
One major charity Columbia also sponsors is StolenYouth, an anti-child sex trafficking organization. Once the company got involved with StolenYouth, Steffanci realized the importance of human trafficking and how it impacts so many people around the world. Because of this realization, he wanted all of Columbia’s employees to get trained on human trafficking.
“As a distributor business, we have hundreds of employees out in the market every day, so we provide anti-human trafficking training for all current and new employees that helps them to just be more present and take notice of what’s going on in the community,” Steffanci explains.
This anti-human trafficking training came very handy for a Columbia Distributing driver one day. As they were in a convenience store dropping off some products, they noticed a young child, maybe five-years-old, wandering in and out of the store. With their training, the driver then notified the police, approached the young child to keep them engaged and in the area, and the police came and reunited the child with their mom.
Without the proper training, the driver may not have known what signs to look out for in this type of situation.
With all that they do, Steffanci says Columbia’s ultimate goal is to aggressively continue to grow and disrupt the traditional distribution industry.
“We are a total beverage company and look at things outside of distribution, so we stay super active in our M&A strategy and find creative ways to utilize our logistics model that supports the industry more fundamentally than you think. We are more than a beverage distributor – we are a beverage company. When you can leverage a logistics model like we have, it opens a lot of opportunities for us. Our goal is to double our revenue over the next five years,” says Steffanci.