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« Technology is changing industries AND consumers | Main | The 3-tier system needs more beer distributors »

Advice from Niccolo Machiavelli?

In the spirit of the coming holiday season I offer this Machiavellian little ditty.  I’m hearing this one spreading more and more, like a quiet wildfire, and in my role of providing news, opinion and insights you can’t find anywhere else… here goes.  And please remember I take no stand on either side… as Joe Friday would say, “just the facts ma’am” ;-)  And if you don’t know who Joe Friday is, you should.

But first let’s take a mental field trip with our old friend Niccolo Machiavelli.  Perhaps you have heard the phrase of being Machiavellian?  Machiavelli is famous as the author of a small book, The Prince, published in 1532.  In it he applies the analytic tools of science to politics to determine the best way to rule effectively… remember this is the 1500’s… kings and princes ruled the land.  To be ineffective might mean your head ending up on a spike.

One of the general themes of The Prince is that accepting the aims of princes—such as glory and survival - can justify the use of immoral means to achieve those ends.  Basically Niccolo gives his advice from both thought and observation on how to best achieve one’s princely goals.  People to this day still argue about his thoughts on “right and wrong” versus success. 

He is the source of great quotes.  Some are…

“Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.”

“If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.”

“There is no other way to guard yourself against flattery than by making men understand that telling you the truth will not offend you.”   This one every owner and manager needs to understand.

“it is much safer to be feared than loved because ...love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”  This is probably pretty good advice for a prince in 1532 and it kind of captures the essence of what is meant by being Machiavellian.  Perhaps a Who’s Your Daddy culture IS better than a Who’s Your Buddy?  I think Niccolo might think so.

“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.”  Look at your management team… how do you stack up? 

“A man who is used to acting in one way never changes; he must come to ruin when the times, in changing, no longer are in harmony with his ways.”  Good advice for today’s beer industry.

“Entrepreneurs are simply those who understand that there is little difference between obstacle and opportunity and are able to turn both to their advantage.”  Talk to your management team and attempt to permanently instill this thought in their minds.

“The promise given was a necessity of the past: the word broken is a necessity of the present.”  We have all probably experienced this from suppliers and retailers of yesterday and today… and perhaps in the backseat of a car in our rambunctious youth ;-)

Anyhow I think you get the gist of Machiavellian.   So what does this have to do with beer wholesalers? 

First a couple more side trips…

Many ABI distributors find themselves in the unenviable position of fearing their primary supplier.  Not only is ABI using the US beer market as a Cash Cow, they are also using “their” distribution system as a significant source of milk.  And one would expect that ain’t going to be changing… I’d bet it will get worse long before it gets better.  Although part of me asks what is the basis for all of this (I know, shocking eh?).  I see ABI distributors making record profits… in lousy economic times… so what’s their beef?  But what do I know?  ;-)

But many ABI distributors are looking for protection nonetheless… from their favorite source of protection, state legislatures.

As I have written about in Who’s Your Daddy, which you can find here and a follow-up piece Who’s Your Buddy, which you can find here… ABI and MillerCoors seem to be taking different paths in this game.  ABI is most definitely an “I’m your daddy”- type corporate culture.  MillerCoors seems to be taking a much more “I’m your buddy”-type culture.

Now this could be simply the result of who is running the companies… and as I have noted, Brito and crowd come from a much different culture than the typical American.  But I think it becomes reality based on a simple fact… power… eh, Niccolo? 

Starting with the Third, A-B has been slowing turning “independent” distributors into franchisees.  Most A-B distributors welcomed this trip and even hastened it along… it was easier (and still is?) to let corporate do all of the thinking.  Ultimately, most hurried down this path because they were making boatloads of money (and most (all?) remain doing so today).  In addition, when a supplier makes up close to 100% of a distributor’s volume, they do have more than a little say in how things are done.

Which brings us to a second point, the concept of robustness.  A measure of how robust a system is is “its ability to effectively perform while its variables or assumptions are altered”.  A robust system can operate without failure under a variety of conditions.  The more robust a system, the better it is equipped to deal with change, both foreseen and unforeseen.

Looking at the ABI versus MillerCoor distribution systems, the typical MillerCoors distributor is far more robust than their ABI competitor.  This is not due to someone’s careful planning, it’s the result of market shares and what distributors have had to do in order to survive and prosper.

A distribution system with only one supplier is pretty much by definition not as robust as a distribution system with 10 different suppliers, none being a big majority of share.

Thus the typical ABI distributor is at far more risk from change than is their MillerCoors competitor… because their distribution system is less robust and thus is less able to “to effectively perform while its variables or assumptions are altered.”

Combine this system reality with an aggressive supplier who looks at you as a Cash Cow and the typical ABI distributor is under tremendous strain… or so they perceive themselves.

Which brings us back to Machiavelli.   What advice would Niccolo give to ABI and MillerCoors distributors?  For the ABI folks… work aggressively to make your distribution system more robust.  As long as they have close to total power over you, they have close to total control over you.  Great goal but that too ain’t going to happen overnight.

Perhaps try to enlist your distribution competitors to help provide some protection for you from the potential ravages of your supplier.

But this is where the Machiavellian part raises its head… from what I hear in the shadows around the country, old Niccolo is finding some willing converts to his way of thinking in the MillerCoors network. 

I think Niccolo would warn the MillerCoors folks from going too fast in the direction of fighting to help your competition.  If your primary competitor… a competitor who has kicked sand in your face for years… a competitor who due to market share has ruled you and the retail scene for years… if this competitor is now being bled and thus weakened by their new master, why would you want to stop it?

If this competitor is being weakened by the actions of their supplier, why wouldn’t you sit back and let them be?  Wouldn’t it make more competitive sense to allow any and all things which weaken your competitor to take place?

Niccolo might ask why should a MillerCoors distributor join the fight for uniform FOBs… this is a weapon which cuts their competitor much more than it does them. 

Niccolo might ask why should a MillerCoors distributor join the legislative fight on any of these fronts which at their core are primarily directed to stop moves by ABI.

Niccolo might ask why should a MillerCoors distributor fight any of these fights FOR their competitor, especially when their competitor has failed to answer their requests for help in the past… sorry, I’ve heard that complaint for many years from many states.  “Just the facts, ma’am”

Of course the answer to these questions is “it might happen to you someday too”.  But the MillerCoors distributor is more robust so the odds of it damaging them are much smaller.

And Niccolo might scoff at the idea of “someday”.  What matters is the here and now, not some hypothetical future which may or may not ever occur.

Niccolo might ask what does the MillerCoors distributor get (because EVERYHING has a price) for supporting legislation that primarily benefits their main competitor.  He might advise to support, but to ensure you are paid handsomely for this support.  Extracting a pound of flesh when the opportunity presents itself… or letting the bleeding continue.

I have preached the importance of unity for beer distributors for some time.  You can read any of my past posts to see this is true.  And I don’t take a position on any of what I’ve discussed… just asking the questions.  But these are interesting questions and I believe a strong case can be made for both sides…

The “we’re in this together” side AND the “let them be bled dry” side.  I know a surprising number of MillerCoor distributors who are beginning to lean to the “let them be bled dry” side.  After almost 500 years,  good ol’ Niccolo’s advice is still perhaps right on the money.

Which side are you on?  It is interesting times in the beer business, eh Niccolo?  And to all you state association execs that herd cats on a daily basis… sorry.  Have a great holiday season ;-)

 

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