Major Brands is Missouri’s largest local statewide distributor of premium wine, spirits, beer and nonalcoholic beverages, and the nation’s largest wine and spirits distributor owned and operated by a woman. The company, founded in 1934, distributes consumer beverage alcohol to more than 9,000 licensed retail accounts across the state, including grocery stores, restaurants, nightclubs and convenience stores. Major Brands has more than 11,000 items in its product portfolio, ranging from craft beers, to the best of Kentucky bourbons, to the finest French Champagnes.
Sue McCollum stepped into the chairman and CEO role after her late husband Todd Epsten, Major Brands’ former CEO, was diagnosed with brain cancer and passed away in 2012. During Epsten’s illness, some of Major Brands’ leading suppliers and wholesale competitors began challenging Missouri’s wine and spirits laws. Within nine months of her husband’s passing, McCollum found herself in lawsuits with two of the world’s largest spirits suppliers, as well as embroiled in a state legislative battle, dubbed the ‘liquor wars’. When she recounts her story, she recalls the day when she was confronted with two choices: fight to keep the company by going to court against the world’s largest liquor giants, or dissolve the company her husband asked her to preserve. Though underestimated, McCollum prevailed, and today the business posts more than $410 million in yearly revenue.
When asked about the decision to step in to run the company and fight back, McCollum responded, “Giving up just didn’t work for me. There were 600 employees at Major Brands and a community counting on us. If Todd wanted to sell the company or give up he would have done so before he died. His legacy was this business, so if they wanted to take it from me they would have to fight me and all 600 of my employees for it.”
What’s been the key to the company’s success?
Peter Drucker is right. We prevailed because culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner — every day. Major Brands is a family business. The family in our business are the employees — our most precious asset. I’m a firm believer in the Major Brands way — or what I call values-based leadership. When we were in the middle of our fight, we had to make many tough decisions, including eliminating 100 jobs. We honored our culture every step of the way. We factored our values of respect, teamwork, community, integrity and performance into our decision-making process. We didn’t just think about what we had to do to survive, we thought about how we had to do it.
How do your products affect what Missourians drink?
As an independent Missouri-based distributor, our goal is to provide Missourians with outstanding variety in the spirit, wine and beer categories. We want to make sure consumers have the latest in beverage choices and cocktail trends and that our state is viewed as a place where brands are built. Our greatest impact is on the development of locally-made products. We love to build Missouri brands and work with local suppliers to support their business in every way. We have represented St. James Winery for years, and it is now among our top suppliers. We’ve also helped launch leading craft beers such as Four Hands, Log Boat and Urban Chestnut. We represent 25 Missouri-based suppliers and more than 670 Missouri products. When we support local wine, spirits and beer entrepreneurs, we build our economy.
Tell us about your responsibility to the community.
At Major Brands, we grow our business by building the communities we serve. If our communities grow and thrive, then surely our business will, too. Major Brands has a history of community involvement. From our 29 years gathering on Thanksgiving morning to deliver Meals on Wheels to the Five Star Senior Center in South City, to product donations to civic engagement, we want to support the community in every way.
Major Brands has a license to distribute wholesale alcohol in the state of Missouri. It is a privilege, and we operate with that in mind. We take responsible consumption seriously. We recently created a social responsibility program, Safe Home After Every Occasion™, aimed at getting Missourians to make planning their ride home before socializing a habit. Through Safe Home, last year we gave away more than 1,500 rides on Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve through ride service partners.
What were your initial plans with earning a law degree?
I was the director of transition recruitment for Jay Nixon’s gubernatorial transition team. In that role, I saw the versatility of a law degree. As my kids were getting older, I was thinking about my next career step. I liked the idea of learning more about advocacy through the law. Five weeks after starting law school, Todd was diagnosed with brain cancer. Life is an evolution and you must be prepared for whatever may happen next. The last seven years have been improbable and an unpredictable journey. Attending law school proved to be of immeasurable benefit.
What have you learned over these last few years?
Whether as a new CEO, raising two sons, or managing a lawsuit, ultimately what you do comes down to you. You have to be authentic and willing to ask for help. As CEO you are part of the team, not just the builder of the team. And, sometimes you must let your team build you. For example, during the toughest moments, the people at Major Brands supported me by sending encouraging notes. I also learned about change, whether you choose it or it chooses you. You have to be willing to embrace uncertainty.
What are your goals for 2018?
At Major Brands, we are making a major investment in our personnel to ensure continued career progression for our team and to further increase our service proposition to retailers and brand building for suppliers.
What’s your drink of choice?
I do love a Maker’s Mark on the rocks with a twist of orange or a glass of Champagne. But, there’s nothing like sipping a St. Louis-brewed beer while watching the Buffalo Bills.
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