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« The Insanity of the 21 drinking age | Main | Holy Guacamole! The giants are dancing again. »

Learning from Monster

In continuing my tradition of upsetting as many people as is humanly possible, let me weigh in on the recent Monster kerfuffle.  And in the process hopefully set out a path for peace with craft brewers.

As a brief background, here’s what Reuters reported on August 15th  -

Coca-Cola Co's $2.15 billion wager on a stake in Monster Beverage Corp highlights the growth-starved soft drink company's embrace of deals that fall short of a full-blown merger and acquisition but allow it to test-drive potentially risky targets.

The world's largest soda maker said Thursday that it was buying a 16.7 percent stake in Monster. Coke will get two directors on Monster's board as well as Monster's non-energy brands, such as Hansen's Natural Sodas and Peace Tea. Monster will get Coke's energy brands, which include NOS and Full Throttle, as well as access to Coke's extensive distribution system.

Taking a minority stake instead of acquiring Monster outright gives Coke the opportunity to get the perks of being in a $27 billion global energy drinks market without taking on the financial and public relations risks that come with the controversial category, analysts said. If the deal closes as expected, Coke will distribute energy drinks but will not actually own them anymore.

For most of the world this isn’t a big deal one way or the other.  But for beer distributors, specifically ABI distributors who carry the brand, it is a painful lesson in business realities.

You see for them, the key phrase is “as well as access to Coke's extensive distribution system”.  One can be assured that this feature was a prominent factor in setting the purchase price.  Coke wants the brands to make money for THEIR people, not some ABI folks who they have never met.  Thus the ABI distributors will be terminated per their contractual rights.

And thus the ABI folks will be paid one times trailing 12 months gross profit.  The ABI folks believe this is not an equitable purchase price… but here’s the kicker… THEY signed the contract.  Although Harry reports they say they were “compelled” to sign this contract, from a legal perspective they were not.

They freely and openly signed this contract.  They were in no way compelled to do so, they could have easily said “nope!  I’m not signing this contract.”  But of course a “nope” vote would have in all likelihood meant the brands would go somewhere else.  Thus they signed the contract, granted one which contained some terms they didn’t like… but they still signed the contract to keep the brands rather than losing the brands.

It was a clear-cut business decision they made.  Guess what?  Business relationships (in fact relationships of all kinds) are often based on power.  Pure and simple.  “You want the brands?  Then sign the contract.”  If the contract was so onerous that no one would sign it, Monster would have been forced to alter it.  But it wasn’t that onerous and the brands were hot and contributed a great deal of gross profit to those distributors lucky enough to have the brands.  Thus they signed.  And I believe they ALL signed.  How onerous could the terms be if every freaking distributor decided it was better to keep the brands and sign the contract than to risk losing the brands?

And let us never forget (and yes, beer distributors seem to need to be reminded of this on a regular basis) they are Monster’s brands and they can do what they want with them, limited only by contractual bonds.  That’s the way the world works.

Are these terminations going to hurt some of these distribs?  Oh yeah.  In most Monster/ABI distribs the Monster brands are one of at least the top 5 gross profit contributors.  Sometimes 2 or 3.  So the loss of these gross profit dollars will most assuredly impact their bottom-lines.    

To which Monster and Coke respond… so?  You’ve made a ton of money on the brands over the years.  It was a good relationship for both parties but now the situation has changed and Monster and Coke are going to do what they perceive to be in their best interests… bound only by their contractual obligations.  Although I understand the distributor’s unhappiness, I see no evil here.

Which brings us back to craft brewers and distributors.  I’ve made a ton of friends by my stance on beer franchise laws and the three tier system ;-)  Yeah, right.

As I have written about before, I believe tying franchise laws and the 3 tier system together is a tremendous strategic mistake for this industry.  Beer distributors are the last line of defense for the 3 tier system.  Much like Frodo in the Lord of the Rings, if you don’t accomplish the task, no one else will.  And if the 3 tier system goes, so do most of you.

Franchise laws on the other hand are another example of putting power to use, only this time beer distributor power (funny how we like power when it benefits us, but hate it when it goes the other way).  Those prettiest girls at the dance, the craft brewers, are chaffing from these franchise laws and are fighting (effectively) to exempt themselves from them.  And in the process they are setting up the destruction of the entire 3 tier system.

Using the state’s power to enforce these laws is at the root of this problem.  Rather these relationships should be set just like most other business relationships, through negotiations and a contract(s) which legally binds the parties to the agreed upon terms.  No need for the state to become involved.  And yes, power does influence the terms.  If the brand is on fire and is thus the most desirable girl at the dance, the terms will favor them.  If the brands are a dog and the brewer will take almost anything for access to distribution, the terms will likely go the other way.

So rather than crying about the unfairness of life, beer distributors should embrace these realities.  Beer distributors have an incredible warehousing/sales/distribution/merchandising system.  No one comes close to your relationship at retail and your frequency of contact to the licensed retailer.

So rather than fighting for the state to grant you perpetual franchise rights (something I believe you are going to lose… power comes and goes), why not offer tiered services for the suppliers you represent?

For Class A suppliers, you offer full brand support.  Everything up to and including brand authorizations.  For these folks you bring everything you’ve got to the table to help them build the brands.  In exchange, they agree to contractual terms which in effect give you strong franchise rights.  Perhaps more favorable GP terms too.

For Class B suppliers, you offer a little less and they agree to contractual terms which don’t give you as strong as a position in ownership/control of the brands.

For Class C suppliers… etc. 

Do you see where I’m going with this?  You change the paradigm and rather than giving every supplier everything you’ve got (which in reality few do any how)… you allocate your tremendous power based on the degree the supplier is willing to be contractually bound to you. 

You can then allocate your resources accordingly.  Hot brands will still happen and a smart distributor will ride that wave as long as is possible, even if those brands happen to be from a Class D supplier. 

Political power comes and goes… as you and the craft brewers are learning… although both are going in opposite directions… but your lasting power doesn’t reside in the state legislature but in the incredible sales and distribution machines each of you controls.  Use that to your advantage.  Just because you agree to distribute a product does not necessarily mean you have to “give it all away” to each and every one.  That’s not what the prettiest girl at the dance would do.  ;-)

And smart craft brewers will draft their contracts to also take advantage of this shift to meet their individual desires and market realities.

If you want more on this, give me a call or email.  No more freebies from Conlin ;-)

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