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Top-shelf talent Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2008

Throughout the years, strategy and major decision-making at Major Brands Premium Beverage Distributors was something placed strictly under the province of ownership.

But CEO Todd Epsten says that attitude began to change in the late 1990s when an employee in the field tipped the company off to the Red Bull energy drink, which was just starting to grow in popularity.

“He said, ‘I was on the West Coast and this product is doing really well,’” Epsten says of the employee. “‘We need to try and get it for Missouri.’ If he had never spotted it, it never would have happened.

“We regrouped and refocused and actively pursued Red Bull, and now, it’s a successful niche part of our business that’s really provided a catalyst for growth.”

By promoting a culture of oneness in which Epsten encourages employees to offer their opinions and actively participate in the growth of the company, many other successful brands have been discovered by a network of personnel that keeps its ear to the ground in search of trends and opportunities.

The philosophy helped Epsten lead the largest wine and spirits wholesale distributor in Missouri to 2006 revenue of $410 million.

“Everybody in the company should be approachable,” Epsten says. “We have an open-door policy, which sounds kind of trivial, but everybody is free to walk in any door. Hierarchy is something that not only is not important but shunned at Major Brands. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have an organizational chart or an organized way of doing business; it just means that, at the end of the day, collaboration is much more important than hierarchy.

“With a company that has almost 650 people working there, we needed to expand the number of people that were helping chart the overall direction. For the company to maintain its success in the future, it’s much more incumbent on who works there than what ownership does.”

Be a team builder

One of the challenges Epsten has faced in leading Major Brands and developing the culture he wants to see is finding a word to describe the people that most companies refer to as employees or associates.

Neither term is reflective of the type of culture Epsten wants at Major Brands.

“I like using the term ‘the people who I work with’ because all of us work together and ultimately work for Major Brands,” Epsten says. “Employee sounds way too formal. Associate sounds passé, and ‘you guys’ sounds too informal.”

In addition to his disdain for the word employee, Epsten is not a big fan of courtesy titles either, for himself or for his father, Bobby Epsten, the company’s chairman.

“Nobody would ever think to call him Mr. Epsten,” Epsten says. “If anybody does, the first thing he does is correct them. It’s just a very small example of the way that business is conducted. It’s about relationships. Relationships have become somehow a negative in business, or that’s the old way of doing things. Relationships have to be built on wins and performance, but that relationship is still important.”

In hopes of developing relationships with employees to encourage them to offer innovative suggestions, David Vittor, the company’s president and COO, created the Major Brands Council.

Epsten says the new forum provides a chance for midlevel managers to be a more active part of the culture by meeting and discussing possible initiatives that can help the company continue to grow.

“It’s a great opportunity for them to interact with David, tackle issues that a company like us might not normally have the time to do and build our senior leaders of tomorrow,” Epsten says. “As an organization grows larger, I think the most important thing leadership can do is get the right people in the organization from top to bottom.”

The forum reinforces the idea that new ideas are not only welcomed by everyone in the company, but they are encouraged.

“It should flow down and permeate the organization,” Epsten says.

In addition to the Major Brands Council, the company also developed an advisory board made up of seasoned business leaders from outside the beverage industry.

“It gave ownership somebody that would challenge us in a way that had never been challenged before,” Epsten says. “It was a real eye-opener. ... The fact is that, at the end of the day, there are common goals and issues that all businesses have to deal with. I think they brought a perspective that was different than the myopic world that one exists at when they are just focused solely on their business. They have done a great job of pointing out our strengths that we never realized we had, but they also challenged us on remedying some weaknesses.”

Regardless of what method you use to get feedback, you need to be genuine about your desire to get everyone involved in plotting the future of the company.

“If you don’t come at it from an honest perspective, anybody can sniff it out,” Epsten says.

“It’s giving people the right tools, giving them a great work environment, and getting out of their way and letting them do their job. Just like our own families, there are positives and negatives in our familial relationships. But hopefully, if a family is healthy, there’s a lot more positives than there are negatives. At the end of the day, we all pull together in a common direction for a common goal.”

Keep working hard

The culture is part of a leadership philosophy where a company constantly strives to get better and its leader does not get caught up in reading about how good he or she is doing at running the business.

“Nothing breeds failure like success,” Epsten says. “You have to stay hungry. You have to constantly challenge the organization and constantly run it as though you are an underdog. The business landscape is littered with yesterday’s success stories.

“By nature, I tend to look for what goes wrong. It’s one of the fears that I have in success. There are always threats lurking around the corner for any business. Our job is to try and figure out what those are and work around them and try to mitigate them.”

Epsten says he walks around the office on a regular basis to interact with his employees and keep the lines of communication open, looking and listening for opportunities and threats.

Whenever he can, Epsten says he will arrange a face-to-face meeting. If that isn’t possible, he says a phone call and even a voice mail is a more effective and more personal way of getting his message across than e-mail.

“In a culture where hopefully everybody is moving in the same direction, the need for the written word, e-mail or memos is not needed as much,” Epsten says. “What’s more important is speed and informality. Our managers can pick up the phone and leave a voice mail — say, for instance, in St. Louis — and talk to 100 sales-people all at the same time. They can not only listen to his words, but they can hear his tone or inflection, as well. For our field sales-people, they don’t even have e-mail.”

He says this regular interaction along with the opportunity to be involved in the larger decisions of the company is not only beneficial to today’s businesses, but it is something that younger employees are looking for in today’s world.

“They want to be a part of something in everything that they do, including their job and where they work,” Epsten says. “To be part of not only a company but also a community, as well.

“We encourage, and, in fact, we have initiatives in all our offices to become involved in the community.”

Whether it’s getting involved with a Meals-on-Wheels program to deliver food on Thanksgiving and the holidays or helping out a local school with supplies at the start of a new school year, phil-anthropic deeds tend to pay off in multiple ways.

“It’s amazing how ultimately somebody that I can run across one day in the community, the next day, I’m involved with in a business relationship,” Epsten says.

Encourage participation

The stronger the bond between employer and employee, the better the chance that the relationship will lead to success, both for the person and for the company. This bond can prove particularly helpful when there are differing opinions about a direction the company is thinking about going.

“Hopefully, we are good listeners,” Epsten says. “We give people the opportunity to express their opinions. What’s important for me is that people be allowed to express themselves. It’s OK to disagree. If somebody wants to voice their opinion, they can voice it not only to their boss but to anybody in the company they want. As long as it is appropriate and done with respect, we feel it’s something that’s really a part of who we are. It may mean that somebody may go to their boss’s boss and express an opinion. That’s something that we’re comfortable doing around here.

“There is a difference between expressing one’s opinion and complaining. Expressing an opinion involves agreement on the overall goal but seeing different ways of getting there. Complaining is being an impediment and not offering any solutions or alternatives.”

One of the most important qualities an employee can have in a culture where ideas are welcome is the ability to think outside of the box.

“Besides intelligence, which is a prerequisite, there has to be a right fit,” Epsten says. “For Major Brands, the right fit is the ability to work in an informal environment (and have) a sense of humor, which probably includes having a thick skin so you can not only give but receive it, as well. Be able to work in an environment where the lines of authority and a way of conducting business is not all clearly spelled out. You will not find large numbers of manuals or directions on the way to do business at Major Brands. Ultimately, we want people that can look at what the big picture is and the common goal and work toward that. There are many different paths to get to the same destination. As long as they understand the destination, we want to make as limited constraints as we can in reaching that.”

Looking to the future, Epsten says Major Brands’ place as one of the largest undergraduate recruiters at the College of Business at the University of Missouri is evidence that the culture is working.

“The ability to work in an organization where there is interaction from top to bottom is something that many young people find as a real asset,” Epsten says. “I don’t think typically in business today there is the contract between an employer and a company that there was in the past. We’ve been lucky enough that if the company is successful and the individual is successful, we can prosper together.”

HOW TO REACH: Major Brands Premium Beverage Distributors, (314) 645-1843 or www.major-brands.com