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« The ABI – Grupo Modelo Antitrust Charade | Main | Another watered down rant?! »

Is Conlin Watering Down His Rants?

Where to begin?  I guess let’s start with the news of the day… some disgruntled ex-ABI employees have helped start a class-action lawsuit alleging that ABI waters down some of its beer.  You know about class-action lawsuits?  The Legal Dictionary subsection of the Free Dictionary notes (underlining and bold mine):

 Class action lawsuit - A lawsuit that allows a large number of people with a common interest in a matter to sue or be sued as a group.

 Class action lawsuits have become a controversial topic in the 1990s. Once seen as a way of empowering individuals with small claims to have their day in court, class actions are viewed by many lawyers, legislators, and government officials as a vehicle for plaintiffs' lawyers to make millions of dollars on issues of dubious merit.

Critics of class actions remain unconvinced about the social and legal value of group lawsuits. In small claims class actions, critics question the value of supporting litigation in which individual class members have very small stakes. For example, does it make sense to permit a lawyer to initiate a class action where a utility company overcharged two million customers two cents per month? Such filings demonstrate to the critics the lawyer-driven nature of most small claims class actions. The individual claimants, because they have so little at stake, do not exercise any control over the litigation or elect to opt out of the class and pursue individual claims. With the plaintiffs' lawyer in total control, the dynamics of the lawsuit change. The lawyer has the largest economic stake in the outcome, leading to settlements that guarantee high attorney fees and minimal payouts to the class members.

Critics also dispute the value of the private attorney general role. Most class action attorneys, they contend, are seeking lucrative financial awards rather than social justice. Moreover, class actions may interfere with the regulatory and oversight functions of the appropriate government agency. The agency may conclude that the injuries attributed to the defendant are insignificant and do not warrant prosecution. A class action substitutes the judgment of the private attorney for that of the public's elected officials.

Bottom-line, in many class-action lawsuits the end result is the lead attorneys pocket tens of millions and the “injured” parties get a coupon for $1.50 off the next time they purchase the product.  As with far too much of our legal system, corporations weigh the costs of fighting the lawsuit (and that includes damage to image, negative PR, etc.) versus the cost of just writing a check to the instigating attorneys to make them go away. 

I have no idea of the merits of this lawsuit… although I think it highly unlikely ABI would bother with such a stupid move.  And this is from a major ABI-basher.  There are still folks around who remember a market-leader call Schlitz… and what happens when accountants start making product decisions.

But let us use other people’s pain for our own learning.  What is the source of this lawsuit?  Disgruntled employees.  Do you have any idea how many companies have been hung out to dry by disgruntled employees? 

This industry has changed a lot in the past few decades… what might have been ignored years back might be a major problem today.  If you are playing fast and loose with things… I’ll leave it to you to fill out the list… you are giving tremendous power to your employees. 

And like a lot of things in life, in the good times everybody gets along… but a laid off or terminated employee might get the crazy idea of revenge in their minds… and they might very well act on this goal of revenge.  And in today’s world of lawsuits and a media looking for “gotcha” stories, it is not all that difficult for a disgruntled employee to cause you some serious pain.  Especially if they truly know where the dirt is.

If you have ever been so foolish to fool around on a spouse, you know the power you give to your “cheat-mate.”  With YOUR actions, you hand tremendous power over to them.  Which in the good times might not matter… but when you decide to end the affair the other side might not be so magnanimous. One phone call and your life will change forever.  Trust me, many a person (generally guys) have cried in their beers over this one.  If someone thinks they have been screwed – so to speak ;-)  they will very likely seek revenge.

I know of an ex-beer distributor who terminated an employee.  This employee was none too happy about this course of events.  This same employee knew where many bodies were buried… in this case knowingly selling out-of-code product.  This employee took this information to a major supplier of this distributor.  This major supplier was just looking for a reason to get rid of this distributor and lo-and-behold, their wish called them up on the phone.  This person is no longer a beer distributor.

How many of your employees have knowledge that would cause you great pain if it became public.  Here’s a solution… stop the crap.  Those days are long gone.  If you aren’t absolutely pure as the driven snow, change.  EVERY employee who knows of this stuff is a time-bomb waiting to explode.  Perhaps they might get the idea that they could use a little extra assistance in their retirement fund.  Stranger things have happened.

Changing subjects… much has been recently written on the explosion of SKUs and what retailers, distributors, etc. should do about it.  First I think they are phrasing the question wrong.

At its core, this goes back to that age-old question on whether businesses follow demand or create demand.  If one believes business can create demand, then they have the power to control SKU expansion.  If one believes business follows demand, then retailers and distributors can do little to impact this… it exists and they are simply trying deal with this reality in the most efficient and profitable manner possible.  Until you answer this question, any discussion on SKU growth is somewhat meaningless.

In addition, are we talking about an explosion of SKUs (4 packs, 6 packs, 12 packs, 15 packs, 18 packs, 20 packs, 24 packs, 30 packs, 36 packs, and don’t forget the single serves – often in different bottle/can sizes and of the same brand)… or are we talking about an explosion of BRANDS and the associated increase in SKUs driven by this brand growth?

I’d guess reality is a little from A… and a little from B.  Sure suppliers try to push for SKU growth IF they can use this to gain incremental space at retail.  Walk down the toothpaste or laundry detergent aisles to discover this isn’t a new concept. 

As a side note, here is a great idea every distributor in the country should take.  Far too often beer-folks walk into retail and blindly go to the beer aisle.  There are millions of dollars of marketing being done in every chain grocery out there.  Literally take a field trip to your local chains and together with management and employees, walk down every aisle.  Observe and LEARN.  Make this a regular part of your market calls.  You’ll see opportunities for secondary displays but more importantly watch what others are doing.  Can you steal their good ideas and make them your own?  Remember, this isn’t 3rd grade math class, copying good ideas is very much allowed.

But right now, the market for craft/new beers and products is incredible.  Trying to control and throttle this at the distribution level is probably not a great idea.  I don’t think it is in your power to control… so why try?

Instead look to manage (not change) the reality you confront.  Yes this might mean changes to your sales and merchandising forces, delivery fleet, most definitely your warehouse, and every other aspect of your business.  That’s where Steve Cook and I come into play.  We can provide a new set of eyes with years of experience to help you and your organization adapt to this new world.



In a lot of our recent organizational design AND operations work, we have found our client’s desires are spread across the entire spectrum of their operations.  So Steve and I have created an updated yet flexible consulting project approach for these demands… it’s pretty simple, we’ve added a “Chinese ala-carte menu” option.  We come in for anywhere from a couple days to a week or two and focus on whatever is causing you the most problems or the opportunities that have significant upside.  It’s all your call and it can evolve as we go.

As part of the process, we will provide objective, fact-based recommendations and high value-added solutions by applying two uniquely different approaches. We can either directly provide the needed leadership and expertise or function in a complimentary project support role and leverage our expertise to assist you in exploring your unique business situation, identifying problems, quantifying the risks and developing practical solutions and plans that work.

You get an industry expert to work on whatever you desire.  Not just pointing out the problems, but working with your management team to SOLVE the problems and GAIN competitive advantages.  Give Steve or me a call if you want to investigate this high-value service.



Lastly, NPR’s Planet Money had a recent story on SABMiller and ABI and how many brands around the world they own (210)… along with a map showing their respective brand-strongholds.

You can find the story and map here.. http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2013/02/19/172323211/beer-map-two-giant-brewers-210-brands

It’s kind of interesting.  See… no watered down rants here ;-)



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