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Considering a pivot? How to best prepare for a career in distribution
Not all of the skills that made you a success in hospitality translate to the middle tier
Wine and spirit professionals come from all manner of occupational backgrounds. One of the most knowledgeable German wine experts I’ve known had a long career in construction before going down the vinous path and finding a management position in distribution. As opposed to medicine or teaching, this isn’t a profession many teenagers or college students imagine their future selves in. By its very nature, this is a career path that is often “discovered” on the way to someplace else. Whereas pre-med students know they’ve got to pass organic chemistry if they want to later don those nice white coats, there’s little in the way of a roadmap for aspiring wine and spirit salespeople… until now.
What follows is a brief outline of considerations, tactics, methods, and more for preparing to leave the FOH for an opportunity to pound the pavement and drag the bag in search of a new life.
Know what the job is. In this industry, every wine and spirit job is a sales job. HR sells the company to its employees, both current and prospective. Logistics pushes product across borders.Portfolio managers pull triple duty and sell their suppliers on their company, their sales teams on their suppliers, and their customers on both. Even winemakers and distillers work the market. Sales isn’t the dirty, four-letter word you might have been brought up to believe or convinced yourself it is. Do yourself a favor early on and rid yourself of the notion that you are here to pursue a passion unless your passion is sales; just like those who succeed in hospitality do so because they are problem-solvers, not gourmands.
Know what the job isn’t. It is all too easy to over-romanticize alcohol after reading A Moveable Feast or visiting a wine region. Your job will be to sell wine and/or spirits and some days it will be amazing and others it will suck. Selling wine for a distributor is a bit different from selling wine to a restaurant or wine bar. In those settings, you have a captive audience that wants to buy something; that’s why they are in your establishment. Yes, you might be able to upsell them on a bottle of Burgundy, but that skill is not the same as convincing a retailer that already works with more than a dozen distributors to fill out a credit app and open an account with you. In wine and spirit distribution, the harsh reality is no one has to deal with you. It’s the free market at its finest and cruelest.
Do your homework. Your time spent in restaurants is a phenomenal opportunity to do your due diligence. Talk to your reps. I can’t emphasize the importance of talking to multiple reps because no one distributor is representative of the market as a whole. Trust me when I tell you that a sales rep will not reject a chance to speak longer with a customer. Surprise them, buy them a drink (if and when appropriate), and ask them what their day-to-day is like. Are they happy? What’s the employee turnover like at their company? What’s the most difficult part of the job? Is their company founded on principles and managed accordingly or is it a bit more fickle? Not all distribution companies are created equal. Make sure you try to work for the ones where you have the greatest prospect of succeeding.
Revamp your resume. If you are a sommelier or a bartender, I know what your job duties entail. So does the distributor that would hire you. Don’t tell them what they already know; show them what they don’t. How did you increase business? How did you manage yourself (and/or others)? How did you solve problems? Try to showcase how you have demonstrated these traits in past positions. Also, know that it’s going to take some time before you pay for yourself as a new hire with no experience in wholesale and no customer base. Year one: you cost the company money. Year two: the company breaks even on your sales. Year three: your growing sales pay for losses incurred by the company in year one. Your resume should reflect your grit and willingness to put time into working a job until you’ve mastered it. If it can be helped, you don’t want to be seen jumping from gig to gig with great frequency.
Cover yourself like Van Halen. You have to write a cover letter. It is a must. For me, a cover letter is the equivalent of Van Halen’s infamous rider provision banning brown M&Ms; it shows you read the job ad and did the actual work of responding to it in a meaningful way. Further, when a single job ad garners more than fifty responses, those eight that included well-written cover letters make it to the top of the pile. What’s that? There wasn’t a job ad, but you heard about the opening from a friend. Write a cover letter anyway. Know that a cover letter should not be a regurgitation of your resume, but an opportunity to go above and beyond. It’s an additional chance to sell yourself as the right candidate for the job. Don’t squander it by simply repeating your credentials and experience in narrative form.
Do these three things during your interview. Many hospitality professionals come unprepared for their interview with a distributor; their expectations are misaligned with the realities of the job. Avoid this by doing the following: 1) Let them know why you’re a good fit. There are several ways to do this, but one of the best is to show a familiarity with their portfolio. Know the quality producers, the volume drivers, and your favorites. Make explicit that you’d excel at pushing them all because you know the type of customers that would benefit from stocking each.2) Show them how your non-wine skills and knowledge have equipped you to be a better salesperson. Are you a spreadsheet whiz, a graphic design expert, or a social media influencer with over 1,500 followers on Instagram? These things might be extremely useful in selling and promoting wine and spirits and they likely won’t show up on your resume in a way that resonates unless you call attention to it. 3) Tell them where you see an opportunity for growth in the form of new customers. It doesn’t matter if your friend is the buyer at the coolest new restaurant in town, if he, she, or they are already a customer that is buying lots from another rep. This is the time to expound upon two or three places that aren’t currently customers yet.
Everyone who works in this business should be forced to take a class on managing expectations led by a logistics veteran.
If during this time you get the impression that a distributor truly believes that customers should indiscriminately carry a disproportionate number of their SKUs, run away. This is not a one-size-fits-all business.