Brian Gelner chose an interesting year to become chairman of the National Beer Wholesalers Association. Gelner, executive vice president and CFO of Heart of America Beverage Co., took helm of the organization in a time that saw the beer distribution industry, like so many others, roiled by the sudden advance of Covid-19.
How he reacted set the tone for the months that followed, with their sets of challenges unlike anything in the modern era. Initially, beer faced a potentially uphill battle, as a consumer product not so simply delivered to people’s homes. How the NBWA fought for the beer industry would help shape the category’s performance in one of the trickiest business years of all time. Operating amidst a pandemic is no small feat.
For a deeper dive into how the NBWA stood up and affected change for the industry during this crisis, and what Gelner sees over the horizon in this still-changing environment, we recently sat down with the chairman.
What was your biggest accomplishment as NBWA chairman?
Brian Gelner: Our whole world shifted very quickly this spring. I’m proud of the insight and guidance NBWA provided to members as the COVID-19 environment continues to change weekly — even daily. NBWA has provided best practices about many topics, from workforce safety to expired beer disposal. Learning from each other, we can better manage the uncertainty and remain successful. As I hear from distributors, it is clear that the value for NBWA insights is high and member engagement has increased across the country.
How did you help grow the beer category?
BG: Growing the beer category continues to be a priority for the organization proven by our focus on the Beer Growth Initiative. This summer, we took successful NBWA-sponsored, beer-specific sell sheets to new channels such as independent liquor stores. We also partnered with AC Nielsen to provide more regional customization to the data. The tools help distributor sales teams tell the beer-first story and encourage retailers to allocate more shelf space and attention to beer.
What successes did you have at the local and federal level, politically?
BG: The pandemic raised many new issues for beer distributors. Importantly, beer distributors were recognized as essential businesses to help get goods to consumers. We are grateful to be able to keep our workforce employed and safe while supporting our communities. Locally, our members really engaged with their communities: stepping up with refrigerated trucks donated to food drives, giving water and other non-alcoholic drinks to first responders, leveraging distribution acumen to government entities needing to move supplies.
On the federal level, with so much expired beer in bars and restaurants due to mandatory shutdowns, NBWA worked with the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to ensure flexibility with product returns and the destruction of beer in kegs. We also negotiated the ability to transfer tax-paid beer to distilled spirits plants to make much-needed hand sanitizer.
How did Covid-19 change your plans? How did you and the category react?
BG: Early on, our April Legislative Conference was canceled. Bringing our membership together to visit members of Congress and share the positive impact beer distributors have on local economies is a highlight every year. While we were disappointed to miss this opportunity in Washington, D.C., we have found ways to connect with members of Congress in our communities.
We have been working hard to help our brewers get through this crisis. Ensuring our trucks are on the road and delivering brands of all shapes and sizes to retail shelves is important to consumers and especially critical for many local and regional breweries.
Beyond that, we’ve all learned how to navigate video conferences. The beer business is about people, so we are always finding new ways to stay connected.
What challenges do you see in 2021 ahead for the beer category?
BG: There’s no doubt that the next year will bring new phases of pandemic response and an ever-changing political and economic landscape.
We will continue to fight for beer’s fair share of consumer purchases, and expect increased innovation to compete with wine and spirits. Reminding our retail customers and consumers of beer’s value is critical right now.
Many economic interests are seeking to change laws and are using the pandemic to promote their policy agendas. Policymakers and citizens need to ensure that these changes are consistent with the marketplace, public health and safety priorities of their states and communities.
Bars and restaurants are suffering. Many distributors have been donating funds to nonprofit organizations in support of bar and restaurant workers. Beer distributors will continue to work closely to support our customer partners in the face of tremendous pressure.
As post-pandemic consumer behavior is predicted to include some lasting changes, NBWA will work hard to monitor the implications to new ways of living, and identify opportunities for our distributor members.
Of course, we will keep the supply chain alive and healthy to be sure everyone has a fresh beer when it’s the right time to grab a cold one together.
What advice do you have for the next NBWA chairman?
BG: I would tell Pat Blach, our next chairman — and all future leaders of NBWA — to look back on 2020 as a year that showed the strength of our industry and the value of our association.
Ultimately, we are a network of family-owned businesses that came together this year regardless of our brand portfolios to the benefit our industry as a whole. We shared what was working (and what was not) in our businesses, we collected our voices to advocate for smart laws and reforms, and we took care of our employees and communities. We are surviving this crisis together.
Most of us would rather forget this year sooner than later, but I am confident that the many examples of unified strength over the past few months will guide the organization in the future.