By Ryan Caldbeck, Contributor
Earlier this year, we put together a list of the 25 most innovative consumer and retail companies —the CircleUp 25. Today we are releasing the CircleUp Kingmakers—25 of the most influential “kingmakers” in consumer and retail. They are men and women whose names repeatedly arise in conversations with industry experts and consumer companies large and small. In researching this article, I talked with consumer and retail entrepreneurs, public consumer and retail companies, private equity firms, angel investors, and service providers including distributors, marketing firms and consumer focused consulting firms. And they are those men and women who in our opinion at CircleUp deserve to be included among the inaugural CircleUp Kingmakers.
Tech has its own lists of influential power players. Until now, there has not been an equivalent list in consumer and retail. We are including more than investors alone in the CircleUp Kingmakers, however, because in our industry kingmakers are more than just investors. They are connectors, brilliant thinkers, visionaries and retailers and investors-extraordinaire. And each of these traits plays into the ability to lead a brand to success. Every person on this list excels in one or more of these categories. Undoubtedly, there are countless others who excel similarly in these areas and who deserve to be mentioned in a list of this sort. Unfortunately, we have chosen to limit those honored to 25.
Disclosure: Some of the members of the Kingmakers list may be connected to CircleUp, as investors in CircleUp, partners of CircleUp or investors on CircleUp.
These are the 25, listed in no particular order.
1. Janica Lane, Partner, Partnership Growth Capital
Janica is a partner at Partnership Growth Capital, a leading investment bank focused exclusively on consumer-oriented markets across health/wellness, active lifestyles, and sustainable products and services. If you read her job description, Janica is primarily responsible for leading transaction processes and sourcing opportunities with new partner companies. What she does, quite simply, is help entrepreneurs—and she is extraordinarily good at it. Janica has a passion for helping businesses in a number of different categories including healthy food; direct-to-consumer; vitamin, mineral & supplement; and personal care/beauty categories. This passion has made her one of the most prominent advisors for companies seeking to raise value-added capital. If you have been fortunate enough to have had a conversation with Janica, it’s likely that she followed that conversation with five helpful ideas and ten introductions. One of her colleagues, Brian Smith (also a Partner at PCG), said it well: “Janica is a cornerstone of PCG. Results-oriented, with deep industry knowledge and extensive relationships, she executes PCG’s value-in-values approach flawlessly. Her process is uniquely her own, resulting in tremendous value-creation for clients and [she is] is a major reason why PCG is viewed as the leading advisory firm to the growing Health and Active Living industry.” Janica has helped lead several M&A transactions including the acquisition of BluePrint Cleanse by the Hain Celestrial Group and investments in Paula’s Choice, Sahale Snacks, Drybar and others. In addition she represented Ecover in the acquisition of Method.
2. Mickey Drexler, Chairman and CEO, J. Crew Group
Former CEO of the GAP board member of Apple since 1999, Mickey has the golden touch when it comes to consumer and retail. Warby Parker agrees and recently added him to their board. Some analysts are already wondering if Mickey can be the secret sauce that helps Warby Parker’s brick and mortar stores reach Apple-like performance levels. Lofty goals. When we recently asked a well-respected consumer and retail investor who he believed was the most influential person in retail and apparel, his answer was Mickey Drexler. When we asked him for more names, he said Mickey Drexler. Most consumer entrepreneurs would agree.
3. Josh Goldin, Partner, Alliance Consumer Growth
Josh and his partners founded Alliance Consumer Growth—a New York-based private equity fund—as a result of their passion for helping entrepreneurial companies reach their full potential. ACG has developed a stellar reputation for identifying rising star brands early on, providing minority growth capital, and using its strong industry network and brand-building expertise to help partner companies grow and thrive. ACG’s investments include Shake Shack, Krave Jerky, Evol Foods, BabyGanics and Kriser’s Pets. Josh also serves as a board member of several of ACG’s partner companies.
4. David Jacquin, Founder & Managing Director, North Point Advisors
David Jacquin, a former lawyer at Cravath Swaine & Moore, founded North Point Advisors in 2004. Under David’s leadership and vision, his team at North Point has developed a leadership position in consumer investment banking having completed over 90 deals in 9 years’ worth over $12.5 billion in aggregate value. North Point has a reputation for advising leading restaurant, retail and consumer brands for premium multiples including closed transactions involving: Landry’s, Jimmy John’s, Teavana, Paper Source, Edible Arrangements, Massage Envy and Papa Murphy’s.
5. Tony Olson, Chairman & CEO, SPINS
Tech companies are respected for utilizing data thoughtfully. In consumer, the most under-utilized source of helpful data is retail-level sales. SPINS is the leader in providing that data for the Health and Wellness industry—data that is critical to understanding how you’re performing at the store level and consumer level. SPINS had the foresight and commitment to pioneer a new category of data and approach to the market, focusing on manufacturers and retailers who are committed to the better health and wellness of their customers. They continue to innovate and pioneer this space. Over the past decade, Tony has built the most relevant view of “underserved retailers” and their manufacturer partners in the Natural Products and Specialty Gourmet industry. If you are looking for insight into natural and organic products, there is no better source.
6. Bill Weiland, President & CEO, Presence Marketing
If you own a consumer product company, you want your product on the shelf. Sales brokerage companies are often the reason your product has made the shelf. And if you’re a client of Presence Marketing chances are you are twice lucky: First, they accept only about five percent of applicants, and secondly, your product will be on the shelf. Bill Weiland’s career in the Natural Products Industry began at 16 when he started working at a natural foods store. After more than a dozen years of working in various industry roles, he launched Presence Marketing in January, 1990. Today, Presence Marketing/Dynamic Presence remains the only independently-owned national natural products brokerage in the United States. Through partnerships with natural and conventional grocery chains, Presence Marketing/Dynamic Presence plays a critical role in helping companies get national shelf presence and, more importantly, in getting their products off the shelves and into the hands of consumers.
7. Jay Novak, Managing Director, Houlihan Lokey
Jay Novak is a Managing Director and Head of Houlihan Lokey’s Consumer, Food & Retail Group. Since joining the firm in 1996, he has closed over 100 corporate finance transactions for food, consumer products, and retail companies. There are few bankers, if any, who have worked with more large food brands than Jay Novak. Some of his recent transactions include the sales of YoCrunch to Danone, Plum Inc. to Campbell Soup Company; TrueNorth brand of DeMet’s Candy Company to B&G Foods, Inc.; Pretzel Crisps® to Snyder’s-Lance, Inc. and Balance Bar Co. to NBTY, Inc. Before joining Houlihan Lokey, Jay spent six years in international investment banking, serving highly leveraged middle-market and Fortune 500 multinational corporate clients, primarily in consumer-branded goods at RBC, ING Bank and Kidder Peabody.
8. Andy Whitman, Managing Partner, 2x Consumer Product Growth Partners
2x Consumer Product Growth Partners helps emerging, branded consumer product companies achieve their potential by bringing deep industry expertise and a capital infusion. Andy and team focus on food, beverage, personal care, home care and pet care companies generally with $2-25 million in revenue in the organic/natural, specialty/gourmet and ethnic sectors. 2x Partners has played a critical role in developing companies like Beanitos healthy chips, MegaFood whole food supplements, Orabrush tongue cleaners, Tasty Bite Indian foods and gDiapers eco-friendly diapers. Andy founded 2x Partners following his career with General Foods and Kraft Foods. At Kraft, he demonstrated his talent for growing the smaller brands that had not grown or been run profitably previously. Before raising the 2x Partners growth capital fund, he co-invested with Catterton Partners and helped grow Wellness pet food and Old Mother Hubbard pet treats into one of the largest CPG exits in the last decade.
9. Kara Cissell-Roell, Managing Director, VMG Partners
Kara Cissell-Roell is a Co-founder, Managing Director, and Partner at VMG Partners, a San Francisco-based Private Equity firm. VMG Partners works closely with entrepreneurs and management teams of branded consumer companies to provide resources and strategic guidance to accelerate growth and raise brand awareness. Kara currently focuses on all aspects of the Fund’s investment strategy, execution and portfolio company management. She has over 14 years of experience in consumer private equity. Before founding VMG, she was a Vice President at TSG Consumer Partners. Her consumer products knowledge spans multiple consumer segments, including food, beverage, health & beauty, pet care and household products. She serves on the boards of KIND Snacks, Waggin’ Train, Pretzel Crisps, Speck Products, Kernel Season’s, Snack Factory, and Pirate Brands.
10. Kevin Murphy, Director, Encore Capital Partners
In 2005, Kevin joined Encore Consumer Capital, an innovative private equity firm built specifically to help consumer products companies grow. At Encore, he is responsible for deal origination and execution as well as portfolio company oversight. He currently serves as a director of Atlantic Aqua Farms, MyChelle, Tarte and Thunderworks. He also served as a director of Juice Tyme, a leading manufacturer and marketer of shelf-stable, bag-in-box juice and beverage concentrates, which Encore recently sold to Highlander Partners, L.P. Juice Tyme CEO Philip Scott praised Kevin and the Encore team for “always encouraging our management team to make the right long term decision for Juice Tyme and our customers.” Kevin joined Encore from Genstar Capital, a San Francisco-based private equity firm, after beginning his career at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Said Bill Shen, a Vice President at Encore, “What I, and other colleagues, admire about Kevin, is his balance of discipline, creativity, and intellect. I can trust that he’s always looking at a deal from all perspectives. The result is a better investor and a better partner for entrepreneurs.”
11. John Hansen, Managing Partner, JH Partners
John Hansen is the managing partner of JH Partners. JH Partners invests growth capital in consumer companies. His experience combines a background as a private equity investor with 11 years in senior management roles in the consumer and retail sector. He has built businesses ranging in size from $10 million to $200 million. John currently serves as Chairman of the boards of directors of Frette, La Perla, NapaStyle, and Neutral Duty Free Shops. He is also a director of Contenix. Between 1998 and 2004, John was President of Jesse.Hansen & Co, Inc. Before 1998, he was President and CEO of ThermoLase (AMEX: TLZ). His operating experience also includes service as President of Bare Escentuals, and VP, Retail of Performance Bicycle Shop, which at the time was the nation’s largest independent retailer and direct marketer of cycling products.
12. Shari Wynne, Founder + Mentor, Incubation Station
Incubators have long been a staple of the tech scene, – helping to educate and support startup tech companies. Until relatively recently, incubators and accelerators have been less prominent in consumer and retail. In Austin, TX, Shari is helping to change that with Incubation Station. The accelerator helps to educate consumer product companies in how to manufacture, distribute and market their products. Shari, and her team of mentors at Incubation Station, which includes Clayton Christopher (Sweet Leaf Tea, Deep Eddy Vodka) and Scott Jensen (Rhythm Superfoods, Stubbs Bar-B-Q) , get rave reviews from entrepreneurs who travel to Austin to be a part of Incubation Station. Incubation Station’s companies include Raven & Lilly, Goodspeed Burger, World Peas, and Verb.
13. Marc Brush, Editor in Chief, Nutrition Business Journal
Marc is the editor in chief of Nutrition Business Journal (NBJ), the premier executive newsletter for decision-makers in the natural products, nutrition and integrative medicine industries. NBJ’s exclusive research and editorial’s focus on the strategic issues facing the nutrition industry has made it a leading business intelligence resource for subscribers since 1996. NBJ also hosts the NBJ Summit, the annual invitation-only retreat for C-level executives, investors and thought leaders in the nutrition industry. The Summit attracts over 300 of the nutrition industry’s brightest minds and most influential power brokers for unparalleled education, strategic thinking and discussion on the progress, opportunities and challenges facing the industry. Marc brings more than 10 years of professional experience in editing, business analytics and strategic insights to NBJ. He is also affiliated with such leading industry organizations as FoodCorps, a national nonprofit that builds school gardens and educates children about the power of real food, and the Personalized Lifestyle Medicine Institute, a think tank charged with restarting healthcare in better synch with personalized and lifestyle-based therapeutics.
14. Ken Sadowsky, Senior Beverages Advisor, Verlinvest
Ken serves as the Senior Beverages Advisor in the US for Verlinvest, the Brussels-based family-owned, consumer-focused investment holding company that is part of the Anheuser Busch-InBev control group. He plays a critical role in identifying promising trends and early concepts in the US beverages market, as well as supporting the growth of Verlinvest’s portfolio companies. Previously, Ken built and oversaw the non-alcoholic beverage division at Atlas Distributing Inc. He was also director of Energy Brands, Inc. (Glaceau), makers of Glaceau Vitaminwater, smartwater, and fruitwater from 2000 to 2006 when the company sold a minority interest to The Tata Group. The company eventually sold to Coca Cola for over $4.1 billion. He also does marketing consulting work in the beverage industry for Fusion5 Marketing Innovations and nowinc.net. He currently sits on the Boards of Hint Water, Vita Coco and Millennium Technologie and is the Executive Director of NIDA, a group of independent beverage distributors.
15. Brad Barnhorn, Industry Advisor, Silverwood Partners
Brad Barnhorn was an early pioneer in the healthy beverage space as Founder and CEO of the Fantasia Fresh Juice Company, one of the companies that built and defined the fresh juice and smoothie category. Said Mike Burgmaier, Managing Director at Silverwood Partners (a consumer focused investment bank): “Brad Barnhorn’s contacts and strategic insights make him a valuable and highly-respected member for Silverwood Partner’s banking team.” Brad sold Fantasia to North Castle Partners in late 2000 concurrent with a merger with Naked Juice, which was subsequently acquired by Pepsi in 2006. He now dedicates himself to developing the next generation of great consumer companies and CEO’s through his board of directors work with leading consumer growth companies including Krave Jerky, KeVita and Zola. In addition, he serves in an advisory capacity with premier consumer-focused private equity funds and investment banks including Encore Consumer Capital, Winona Capital and Silverwood Partners. With a unique background powerfully combining experience and success as entrepreneur, CEO, board member, strategy consultant and investor, Brad is in a unique position to identify and guide high potential consumer companies through the broad array of company building challenges on the journey from great idea to great company.
16. Liz Myslik, CEO, Fresca Brands and VP, Fresca Foods
Liz has cultivated a career of building healthy products and companies. She helped launch new businesses for large CPGs such as General Mills, Johnson & Johnson and Georgia Pacific. She has held leadership positions in high growth companies; Director of Marketing for Gaiam, which grew from $50MM to over $200MM during her tenure, and CEO of Embodi Beverages, funded by Sandbox Industries and acquired by Brands Within Reach. Currently, she is an owner and executive at Fresca Foods, which is an operating and financing partner to a portfolio of disruptive natural food brands. Over the years, she has become a “go to” person in the natural products industry, helping numerous companies to innovate and grow. She was recently named one of New Hope Media’s “9 Wonder Women of the Natural Foods Industry”.
17. John Foraker, CEO, Annie’s Homegrown
John Foraker serves as the Chief Executive Officer of Annie’s, Inc., a role he has held since 2004. In 1999, John led an investment of growth capital into the company and began serving as Chairman when it was a small $7 million natural mac & cheese business., Over these years John helped build the company, known for its unique mission and culture, into a leading provider of natural and organic foods with revenues in excess of $175 million. The company completed a successful IPO in 2012. Before Annie’s, he co-founded Napa Valley Kitchens and Stonehouse Olive Oil Company, both specialty food companies, and served as a corporate lender for Bank of America.
18. Shaun Westfall, Principal: Consumer Investment Banking, Piper Jaffray
Shaun Westfall heads up the investment banking efforts in consumer products at Piper Jaffray where he helps companies raise capital and provides mergers and acquisitions advice. Shaun primarily works with growing companies that benefit from either a strong brand equity or a unique consumer awareness in the personal care, outdoor and active lifestyle categories. At Piper Jaffray, Shaun has worked on more than two dozen capital raising and advisory-based transactions, including beauty companies such as Coty, Urban Decay, tarte, Bare Escentuals and Ulta. In addition, he has worked with outdoor lifestyle brands such as Burton, Black Diamond and Fox Factory.
19. Betsy Foster, Global VP, Business Development, Whole Foods
There are few retailers that are as innovative as Whole Foods Market (WFM). WFM just tends to be able to spot trends—and “the next brand”—before anyone else. While that responsibility largely depends on their legion of regional and national buyers, Betsy helps lead the charge in the development of their strategy, partnerships and longer-term trends. She is in fact one of the most innovative players at one of the most innovative retailers. She finds ways to help WFM take advantage of the next major trends, and she provides value to both the brands in WFM and the consumers who shop there.
20. David Sulteanu, CEO and President, Sephora
David has been the CEO of Sephora since he joined in 2000, having worked earlier as a Group President at Home Depot. Everyone in consumer has watched as Sephora has reinvented how women shop for personal care. Many could have argued that we should have included Sephora in the premiere CircleUp Top 25 (an annual list of the most disruptive companies in consumer/retail). By helping to support smaller brands, David helped to build national heavyweights like Smashbox, bareMinerals and Tarte. But David is on this list not only because he has built Sephora into what is arguably the most important retailer for prestige personal care, but because he, more than any other CEO of a retailer, takes a Steve Jobs-like interest in his product. There are no details that are too small when it comes to the brands that will sell in his store. We have spoken with dozens of brands that distribute through Sephora and whose Sephora-related revenues are most likely less than $1M, and yet each of them can call David personally. While some CEOs would shudder at the thought, it is remarkable how many brands feel indebted to David personally for advocating their acceptance and promotion at Sephora. That loyalty means a lot in any industry, especially the prestige personal care industry.
21. Nick Giannuzzi, Managing Partner, The Giannuzzi Group LLP
Attorneys are essential to the successful operation of a business. Competence is a given—Only the most competent should be considered. What sets an attorney apart, then, is an appreciation that he or she is a member of a team. Nick Giannuzzi is both a master and a teammate. He is well known not only for his thorough knowledge of the law but also for the zealousness with which he advocates for his clients. His client list includes vitaminater, VitaCoco, Siggi’s, Peeled Snacks, Happy Baby and more. For these clients, he has helped to arrange investments or acquisitions by larger companies. It is both a privilege and a pleasure to know Nick professionally and personally.
22. Jeffrey Klineman, Editor of BevNET
Smart investors and operators will tell you that there is probably no category in consumer or retail that has a higher failure rate than beverage. But there are also few categories in which $100M brands are built more quickly. Jeff has been at the forefront of identifying beverage trends first, and identifying the winners in those categories before they become winners. As a longtime investor in consumer and retail, BevNET is the de facto standard for beverage industry news, and it is extremely helpful in identifying the next winners.
23. Alissa Sears, Senior Strategist, Christie Communications
For most consumer and retail companies, their core asset is their brand. Formulas and recipes are important, but can often be copied. A
brand is trademarked and is often what a strategic is most excited about when considering an acquisition. Public relations (PR) is one way companies often build brands (just ask Popchips). The problem with highlighting a PR firm is that few successful companies ever want to share which PR firm they use . . . for fear competitors will try and snag their secret sauce. Christie Communications is one that we have consistently heard rave reviews about—with Alissa helping to lead the charge alongside Gillian Christie, the company’s Founder & CEO, and their talented team. Christie Communications is full service, handling everything from consumer, trade and investor PR to brand strategy, design to events management, social and environmental betterment programs and much more. As a result, its consumer clients are able to get results-driven PR that is consistent with the brand messages of their clients.
24. Meredith Schwarz, Manager, General Mills Ventures
Meredith Schwarz is the gatekeeper for General Mills’ Corporate Venture Fund. She is responsible for setting the direction of the fund, managing the portfolio of investments and developing the pipeline of new investment opportunities. She plays a critical role in identifying and developing early-stage companies into successful brands and contributes greatly to General Mills Corporate Venture Fund’s well-deserved reputation for excellence in value-added investments. Her effectiveness lies not only in the fact that her name opens doors, but because she puts in the effort to find specific, tangible ways she can help the Fund’s companies. It has been our experience at CircleUp that there is simply no one more well-connected at any corporate venture fund than Meredith Schwarz. They say it’s not what you know, but whom you know. In Meredith’s case, she knows everyone because of what she knows.
25. Mike Jones, CEO Science Inc.
Science Inc. does a lot of things really well. They are part investment firm, part accelerator, part operating team. What we know at CircleUp is that they make great investments, and after they invest they provide substantial help to grow the companies they’ve invested in. They work predominantly with consumer companies, but not exclusively. What they know particularly well is ecommerce. It is this knowledge that accounts for their success and enables them to grow their brands the way they have. Mike helped to lead the firm’s investments in Urban Remedy, Dollar Shave Club, and DogVacay. .
There are many influential Kingmakers in consumer and retail. CircleUp’s goal in creating this inaugural CircleUp Kingmakers list is to highlight those that we have consistently seen exercise tremendous influence over the world of consumer and retail. The tech world celebrates the achievements of its most successful. It is time that consumer and retail did the same. We have chosen to recognize and honor only 25. We welcome your comments as to those others whom you believe deserve recognition for their achievements in consumer and retail. They may make the list next year. In the meantime, we will continue to collect input through our online investing marketplace, CircleUp.
By: Jeffrey Klineman and Max Rothman
Who are the most powerful people in the beverage business? What are the trends, concepts, companies that wield it most effectively? We’ve given it quite a bit of thought lately. While we have trouble with rankings – we’re a bunch of writers, after all – we’ve decided to put them in an order we can all understand.
A IS FOR ALMOND GROWERS, a group that has the potential to make or break the fastest-growing alternative dairy category in the country, Almond Milk. With all manner of water shortages and bees dying, almond prices have doubled – and demand for the all-important nut is on the rise because of their popularity as a snack and an ingredient.
boulderB IS FOR BOULDER. A mountain city without an industrial identity was reshaped in 1969 with the founding of Celestial Seasonings. The arrival initiated not just a new brand, but also an innovation launchpad that gave the city a strong stake in the future of the beverage industry.
“It created for Boulder a new home for the natural products industry,” said Brian Ross, the CEO of Cheribundi and a long-time local.
Ross said that the city produces more than it ever has, buoyed by a range of strategics (WhiteWave, Boulder Brands, Greenmont Capital Partners), and a flow of newer companies like Evol Foods and Justin’s Nut Butter. It has also been bolstered by a strong R&D community and a host of retailers: Alfalfa’s, Lucky’s Market, Sprouts, as well as a proving ground of specialty markets and LOHAS activity centers.
Izze co-founder Greg Stroh recently founded Skoop LLC, which markets powdered “superfoods.” The Detroit native said that everybody in his hometown has connections to the automotive industry.
In Boulder, it’s the same, providing a product litmus test.
“If it flies in Boulder, it has a good chance of moving outside the confines of the city,” said Drew Grumhaus, Skoop’s COO.
C IS FOR CERTIFYING ORGANIZATION – the bureaucratic backbone of the LOHAS movement. With transparency on the rise, groups like the Non-GMO Project and Trans-Fair are facing an increased workload as retailers and consumers place heavier demands for their services. Grumbling on slow non-GMO certification has already started, and demand for certified organic, certified Gluten Free, a host of sustainable ingredient certifications and more are becoming important label features. With dual non-GMO and Certified Organic or Fair Trade becoming even more common, the power of these groups as gatekeepers for products can only grow.
D IS FOR DPSG. Specifically, the DPS Allied Brands Group. As the company’s core CPGs continue to decline, this particular piece of the DPS infrastructure is becoming even more important: taken together, Vita Coco, Neuro, Bai, Body Armor and the rest are one of the company’s biggest brands – and that’s not including whatever equity investments the company may have made. While the market for DPSG products declines, its potency as a route to market provider is becoming even more important for entrepreneurial brands, who recognize that DPSG represents fast scale that retailers will recognize.
E IS FOR ERROL, as in Errol Schweizer, the Global Grocery Coordinator for Whole Foods – and the driving force behind the company’s new emphasis on High Pressure Processed juices, product transparency, GMO labeling, not to mention the launch pad for new power products like GTs Kombucha, Mamma Chia, Honest Tea and Harmless Harvest.
F IS FOR FDA. There aren’t a whole lot of agencies that can shut down a product line out of hand, but getting a letter from these guys can kill off a small company lickety-split, and call the future of a big one into question very quickly, as well. FDA chief Margaret Hamburg has her hands full with pharmaceutical claims for the most part, but the agency’s increased scrutiny of relaxation drinks – which has led to companies shutting down and category marginalization – is just one example of what running afoul of its standards can do.
G IS FOR GIANNUZZI GROUP. From a small law office in the Meatpacking District, Nick Giannuzzi is doing big things for emerging brands in the beverage business, from Vita Coco to Veev. With a much-sought-after distributor contract paving the way and connections to celebrities and moneymen creating multiple opportunities for clients, the former Harvard water polo player is scoring a huge portfolio of companies, indeed.
H IS FOR HERSHKOWITZ or for Haralambos – depending on which side of the country you’re on. These are the two DSDs that play a huge role in incubating brands and helping them prove they can make it in New York or L.A. When a new brand wants to make it big, they pitch to Haralambos Beverage Corp. or to Big Geyser, founded by the Hershkowitz family. And while neither house can guarantee success, they are the best able to convert positioning on their trucks into a big win. It’s worth noting that Monster and Sparkling Ice both came to Big Geyser in New York, a shift in tone from entrepreneurial brand to established player that indicates just how strong the company’s reach is; meanwhile, Haralambos is the undisputed king of Southern California beverage distributors, with interests in everything from Body Armor to Bai.
I IS FOR INDEPENDENTS, who have proven that when they succeed, they make a far bigger impact than the companies that take the risk-reduction strategy offered by incubators and strategic alliances. See: Red Bull, Vita Coco, Sparkling Ice, Monster, GT.
J IS FOR JIM: Jim Foltz, the head of the Business Ventures Group at Safeway, which has become even more powerful now that the chain has been combined with Albertson’s to create the biggest grocery chain on the West Coast. By keeping a cone of silence around his deals, Foltz has kept a low profile – but access to Safeway for companies in which the chain has invested is a pretty good way for entrepreneurs to spend a little of their equity. Foltz’ combination of wallet and placement puts him at the head of the retailer VC pack.
K IS FOR KOCH, like “H,” an East-and-West Coast balance of power, this time for Craft Beer. Jim Koch from Boston Beer Co. is the elder statesman of the business, with the ear of the U.S. Senate and a billion-dollar company; Greg Koch (no relation) is the conscience and cheerleader, whose Stone Brewing takes principled stands against the status quo.
L IS FOR L.A. LIBATIONS. For a team that has always thought about ways to provide bespoke, measured solutions for brands through a strong network of retailers and distributors, L.A. Libations just knitted itself a whole lot more cloth.
The five year-old sales and marketing incubator, broker, and brand manager has a new series of partnerships and investors that will allow it even more flexibility to develop and nurture beverage brands, orchestrating a series of moves that have strengthened ties to its core client, Coca-Cola Co., while also allowing it to branch out in new directions – and earning the cover of our first “Alphabet of Power” cover profile.
While L.A. Libations’ original – and still dominant – strength is its ability to deliver growth-oriented route to market results better than any beverage services company in the business, its new corporate arrangements allow it to develop its own portfolio alongside its clients, and, most importantly, to have a way to market them through a series of movies, television shows, athletes and viral campaigns as part of a new venture, Madvine, a portfolio company of entertainment industry megalith Relativity Media. Beyond that, money is coming in from a variety of investors, and L.A. Libations has the ability to make its own brands and put money into a portfolio of others. Rather than pull the cart for others – a job it has always done exceedingly well, especially for its core client, Coke’s Venturing and Emerging Brands group (VEB) – L.A. Libations is also loading the cart up, picking the horses, and deciding the route.
The new arrangement finds one of the company’s co-founders, Danny Stepper, as co-CEO of Madvine, a marketing company owned by Relativity, founded as a movie production and financing studio by investor Ryan Kavanaugh. Dino Sarti, the laconic intellectual to Stepper’s broad-strokes business development wizardry, is running the company’s operations, while engaging and charismatic Pat Bolden is overseeing the sales force, taking to the road to keep accounts aware of the company’s priorities. Relativity also co-owns brand ideation shop Bev/Early with with L.A. Libations.
“We were pretty dangerous in beverage with no money and no marketing,” Stepper says. “We were still always a lot more interesting that the typical collection of middle management executives. Now, it’s ten times what we could do. [With Relativity] We’ve got Snoop Dogg, we’ve got movies, it’s all coming together.”
To come together, sometimes things must split apart: that means that Stepper now spends much of his time in a Beverly Hills office dealing with an Entourage-type of cast including Kavanaugh himself and Relativity clients like Dwight Howard, Snoop Dogg, and Justin Verlander, alongside the casts and crew of the Relativity’s entertainment projects, always looking for a way to integrate brands and properties to build for marketing buzz. It’s an environment is which Stepper is exceedingly comfortable, he says, in between discussions of a Variety magazine event and plans for his trip to the Cannes Film Festival. After all, shortly after departing Coke – he was the head of its Costco business – he started producing a number of films, including three Disney “Goal” movies (cleverly financed by Coke and Adidas in exchange for prominent brand integration) and, lately, comedies.
It’s given the trio in a new, high-profile position, but it’s also got the team wearing more hats and put Stepper more squarely in the spotlight. But it’s a change that Sarti and Bolden, themselves former Coke executives, were braced for as the enterprise started to change.
“I think Danny has a really hard job,” Sarti said, “But he’s a really good front man for the band. I consider myself the drummer, and Pat is the lead guitar, impressing and showing off for the customer.”
So how is it all working out? Take Arriba, the company’s latest rollout. An “Energy Horchata,” – created as part of the partnership with Relativity – Arriba is debuting on a three-month exclusive basis with 7-Eleven, a business deal worked out because the partners at L.A. Libations have a deep relationship with that chain’s senior director of merchandising, Tom Burkemper, that dates back to the days when Burkemper ran the 9th Street non-alcoholic beverage incubator for Anheuser Busch. The L.A. Libations crew, all having left the Coke system, was the brand management team for Icelandic Glacial, a water that A-B distributed.
But the initial distribution and placement are just the tip of the iceberg. Developed through Bev/Early, Arriba has a promotional arrangement and investment from rapper Snoop Dogg (7-Eleven execs are said to love him) as well as the potential to work Arriba into a variety of Relativity divisions through the Madvine subsidiary, including reality shows, movies, video games and potentially callouts in songs written by relativity music clients. Promotional tie-ins can go across the Relativity platform as well (Buy an Arriba, get a download/movie discount/Snoop Dogg rolling paper, perhaps).
“It’s a great piece to fill the void of a dedicated marketing component for us,” Bolden said. “And it puts us in a great position with retailers.”
And that’s just for the first product that L.A. Libations has produced in-house with Relativity. As an agency, Madvine also serves as a conduit for outside brands to work across the Relativity platform, one where Kavanaugh is banking on Stepper’s ability to see connections between brands and media will undoubtedly pay dividends. Already on board are Evian – L.A. Libations has a long working relationship with the high-end water brand – snack food giant Mondelez (think Oreos) and Pathway Genomics, a genetic testing firm. Certainly, that’s a departure from the standard block-and-tackle approach to merchandising that has always been L.A. Libations forte, but the company has always been about big steps.
For example, the company has never been afraid of incubating in conventional grocery, and two years ago it created a report on emerging beverage categories that won it a key piece of credibility, as an advisor to – and in some cases, supplier for – Kroger on its “Taste of Tomorrow” program. The team prides itself as having created an “emerging beverage table captain” position, be it formal or informal, for many of the conventional grocers who are themselves moving toward the health-and-wellness type products that are so in vogue. It now fills that role across a variety of conventional channels, including Wal-Mart, Target, and other grocery and convenience accounts.
“You just find a way to win,” Stepper said. There are rules and models to be broken, he added, echoing Kavanaugh’s philosophy.
Still, the one aspect of L.A. Libations’ business that has enabled all the rule-breaking is its effective approach to brand building. From the start, its stock-in-trade has been its ability to get something more out of brands that have been lagging – particularly when it comes to parts of the Venturing and Emerging Brands portfolio at Coca-Cola. With the team’s relationships, it was able to get relatively unknown products like Zico and Illy into Target and Walgreen’s, places where the increased exposure and attention to detail left them better-positioned to catch the eye of cross-channel shoppers.
It’s not that the L.A. Libations way has been a guarantee of success – just look at other VEB products that have fallen by the wayside, even when the team lends a hand. But the company prides itself as having gotten the best possible outcomes for as long as it could with drinks like the ill-fated fermented CSD, Cascal, and Sokenbicha, a barley tea. In both cases, L.A. Libations was able to get the product into a few of its top clients, places like Costco, where they at least had a fighting chance. An even bigger job the company took on was a 12-month contract to try to combat the bleeding at ill-fated FRS, a brand with millions of dollars invested in it but little ability to connect with consumers – at a time when FRS was primarily going to market through a partnership with PepsiCo.
“It was weird for us, because we were considered a better option that Pepsi,” Sarti said. Despite the contract being lucrative for the company, “There wasn’t a place for the brand to get to the next level. What I realized was that it was out of what we wanted to do, as well. We’re pediatricians, obstetricians. They needed an oncologist.”
Key to the L.A. Libations operational mix are a series of employees stationed in Cincinnati (Kroger), Minneapolis (Target and more), Florida (Albertson’s), Dallas (Bolden’s stomping ground) and the West Coast, where Stepper and Sarti have deep relationships. While the company’s weakest link is with Whole Foods, it is expert at incubating brands within Costco and other natural channels: Fresh Market, Fresh & Easy, Sprouts. The philosophy is, why go for Whole Foods distribution, when instead you can go for Costco, Target, Wal-Mart and more?
And now L.A. Libations has also spent three years building itself into a brand producer, as well. Rather than simply wait while VEB or other clients supplied brands, Stepper, Sarti and Bolden started incubating one of their own, Aloe Gloe, a light, pulp-free “aloe water” that offers a more mainstream take on many of the more exotic aspects of aloe while still highlighting the core ingredient. That brand is more in keeping with the slow-growth approach that many entrepreneurs have to follow, but it has started to take off, doubling from $1.6 to $2.9 million in sales in Southern California, with a $5 million projection for this year. Similarly, L.A. Libations has begun assembling a portfolio of other brands in categories it believes have a chance to emerge as important parts of the overall beverage landscape, investing in Chia/Vie, a chia drink that deploys ground chia instead of whole seeds, and Obi, a probiotic soda, as well as relaxation brand Just Chill. In all three cases, the company believes it has a sound, slightly more conventional product positioned to take advantage of market opportunities created when a category starts to take off.
“We don’t know which category emerges next, but when one does, we’ll be ready to be the number-one product in the segment,” Stepper said. Doing it outside of Whole Foods, he said, isn’t a drawback. “The world is changing fast; we’ve heard (Kroger’s) Mary Ellen Adcock say they’re going to outsell Whole Foods in organics. Costco is selling more organic products than ever. The consumer is going there, and they’re able to show so much value.”
It is, admittedly, a careful dance. L.A. Libations is promoting some parts of its internal portfolio, some of the brands it carries, and others that it doesn’t – it’s category captainship, but for emerging categories. In some cases, that means recommending against products it carries because the category isn’t ripe yet, and in others, it recommends brands it doesn’t carry to retail gatekeepers in the hopes of building broader categories. One example? The company has been championing non-portfolio brand Bai across a number of retailers, hoping to build out a natural, functional water set.
“There’s a lot of brands that we make recommendations to retailers on that we don’t work with,” Stepper said. We try to be completely as objective as we can – and when we’re pushing our own brands forward, we are very transparent about it. If we have a product that isn’t ready for the store, we won’t push it, either. We’ll tell the retailer and the supplier.”
The agenda? Reliability, audacious creativity, and transparency of motive help the clients, the company, and the retailers.
“Transparency is a mechanism we’ve used to survive the changing tide of the business,” Sarti says. “Look, we’ve have such diverse stakeholders and relationships, everybody has to know the score.”
And if they don’t, they can just have Snoop Dogg tweet it.
M IS FOR MIKE REPOLE. Power is nothing if your aren’t using it, and Repole, the former president of Glaceau who cashed in when the brand sold to Coke for $4.2 billion, isn’t shying away. Like co-founder Darius Bikoff, Repole has the wallet and the reputation to settle back and have nothing to do with the beverage business ever again – but instead, he’s doubled down with fellow entrepreneurial poster boy Lance Collins on Body Armor, a three-year-old sports drink that is just now emerging from the embryonic stage. Of course, Repole’s nursery covers a lot more ground than is typical. Distribution in 16 states and $25 million in revenue (per IRI data from last year) would be enough for most companies to either declare themselves a success or to close up shop – depending on how much has been spent behind the brand already. For Repole, however, it’s just the start. Although he acknowledges the skepticism that the brand’s early problems with taste and formulation – as well as direction – have engendered, while maintaining his win-at-all-costs attitude.
Mike-Repole-Head-Shot“A lot of people are putting our chances at about 10 percent,” Repole says. “I put them at 110 percent.”
Repole, known as one of the most driven competitors in the CPG world (his family fund is called Driven Capital) recently hooked up with another highly driven competitor, Kobe Bryant. For a small brand to sign up a sure Hall-of-Famer is an indicator of just how well Repole plies his trade, and when the sparks finally hit for the brand he does have an army of athletes already on board behind him.
Still, there’s a lot of road to cover; seemingly well-financed and well thought-out slam dunks like FRS and Adina have been similarly set up only to fail. But the sheer scope once again shows why Repole is is part of the alphabet.
Beyond his own pursuits, however, Repole has the street credibility and the network to have the industry wired; Vitaminwater sales – and shares – built fortunes for a lot of distributors, investors, and employees. Having the ability to get someone’s ear – and the cash to make sure they hear you loud and clear – that’s just plain clout.
N IS FOR NEW BELGIUM. The epitome of measured growth, New Belgium was one of three breweries to establish East Coast manufacturing, but it’s got the most at stake. Sierra Nevada is already national, and Dale’s Pale Ale isn’t yet the same scale. In its Ranger IPA and Fat Tire Ale New Belgium, run by Kim Jordan, is on the cusp of having two SKUs that could be tap standards nationally, but it’s also threatened from below by a rising tide of smaller craft operations and fast-growing Lagunitas. Still, Jordan has shown she’s the epitome of the thoughtful co-founder and having a business that lives its ideals makes it the craft company that people love to root for.
O IS FOR “OLD GUARD” and there’s a lot of them. Despite the influx of youth, they remain key links in the investment, advising, and legitimacy of new beverage companies: look at Jack Belsito conferring instant credibility on a young coconut water brand when word got out that he’d invested in ZICO and then turning Voss around; Greg Steltenpohl’s second coming at Califia; even C.J. Rapp and Jeff Moats making a strong run behind Karma, the leading cap-infused beverage company.
P IS FOR PLAINTIFFS’ ATTORNEYS, the bane of the existence of many a beverage company. As with certifying organizations, the increase in product claims means an increase in the likelihood that a lot of these claims will be explored – in court. With lawsuits being filed in the name of plaintiffs against multiple companies, the Knights of the Class Action know they can make a good living by extracting cash for legal technicalities from companies like Naked, POM, and Anheuser-Busch. But early action cripples entrepreneurs, who have found they have to be much more careful about where and when they launch, lest they end up hamstrung before they can even run the race.
Q IS FOR Q DRINKS. What else can we say? It’s “Q.” But founder Jordan Silbert has raised the high-end soda brand’s game in the past three years, taking the line from a focus on mixers into a variety of great-tasting, traditional flavors with lower calorie profiles and great ingredients.
R IS FOR RODNEY SACKS, the CEO of Monster Energy, which has done everything bigger, brassier, and ballsier than any other beverage company on record. While Red Bull might have gotten there first, it’s Monster that is able to dictate more of the future of the beverage business via its deals with Coke, Budweiser, and high-impact distributors like Big Geyser in New York. And beyond that, the company is once again stretching its legs with Hansen’s brands like Hubert’s. Monster sits on billions of dollars in capitalization – will it be a hunter or a target down the road?
S IS FOR HOWARD SCHULTZ, CEO of Starbucks, who has taken the company storming back from stumbling adolescent to mature giant, exercising its power in grocery, on-premise, and now, apparently, as a source of tap lines as well. From purchasing new technology like HPP facilities and partnerships with payment system Square, to having its own distribution and brick-and-mortar assets, Schultz has the power to disrupt the beverage business across all kinds of categories. CSD companies took note when Starbucks began selling sodas in-store; they really started paying attention when Starbucks registered “Fizzio” – perhaps indicating that they’ll be selling home carbonation soon enough.
T IS FOR THE BEVERAGE WORKS. Haven’t heard of them? They’re the biggest Red Bull distributor in the New York area, making them not just powerful in the sense of the beverage business, but actually an entity with global reach: think about it – without The Beverage Works making its deliveries every day, Manhattan would cease to function.
U IS FOR UZZELL • V IS FOR VEB. After seven years, there’s a new head of Coke’s Venturing and Emerging Brands Group (VEB) – Scott Uzzell. VEB is on this list in its own right as one of the most enduring VC platforms for entrepreneurial beverage companies. While Coke’s reputation has long been one of squelching new initiatives, VEB has helped nurture them both inside and outside the network, meeting with and offering all possible guidance to as many companies as possible.
ScottUzzellThe big number for the VEB approach – it’s charged with growing the next “billion dollar brand” after all – still hasn’t been hit, but there are strong indications that the company is building something that can last, both for the company and for the entrepreneurs it courts: after all, it’s become a company where an outsider like Seth Goldman and a group of Coke insiders have been able to coexist long after the company’s initial investment in Honest Tea.
“Over the last 7 years, we have seen great results,” Uzzell said. “Our strong portfolio, including Honest Tea, ZICO, illy issimo and Core Power, is evidence of the team’s hard work. Plus, NOS and Fuze are now successful members of The Coca-Cola Company’s portfolio. And we have experimented with internally developed brands taken from our international portfolio and learned a great deal from these efforts, as well.”
A long-time Coke executive, Uzzell replaced Deryck Van Rensburg in January, becoming just the second president of the group. Perhaps the biggest indicator of the kind of power that comes with the job at VEB is that Van Rensburg himself has gone on to another big-budget, big-potential entrepreneurial situation, heading Coke’s partnership with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters on a fizz-at-home project.
While that’s all well and good for Van Rensburg, Uzzell is now in the driver’s seat at VEB. He’s even bringing in experience that Van Rensburg didn’t have, as he recently doubled back from heading one of VEB’s core portfolio companies, ZICO. Uzzell’s stint at the coconut water purveyor was part of the endgame, as he helped the company grow enough to hit its final investment triggers and then stayed on to run it following the consummation of the long-simmering investment.
One thing working in Uzzell’s favor as he takes over the leadership role: stability.
“Many folks have been on the team since inception and have grown with our experiences,” he said. “When I came on board, VEB didn’t really miss a beat given the continuity of the leadership team.”
Uzzell agreed to be interviewed by BevNET for the feature – his first public discussion of his new position and the future of VEB.
BevNET: You were out in the field with ZICO before coming back to VEB – so how does that kind of entrepreneurial role inform what you’re bringing to the brands that are now in the portfolio, and how do you think it will affect the way you look at brands for potential partnership?
Uzzell: In particular, my time at ZICO helped me better understand what it takes to be an entrepreneurial operator and run a business like an operator. The choices we have to make with less history of experience are tougher but exciting. This will be an important lens as I work with our existing venture brand leaders and when we consider future investments
BevNET: What do you think will be the biggest difference in the leadership handoff from Deryck to you?
Uzzell: I am honored by the confidence Coca-Cola leadership has in me to select me for this opportunity. But, I think it also speaks to the VEB team as a whole. We are incubating talent much like we are incubating brands. My appointment demonstrates Coca-Cola’s commitment to VEB and intent to continue in the direction we have been heading. In VEB, we always have had a model of “Retaining the entrepreneurial model” through investment as well as “Replicating the entrepreneurial model” through internal innovation. I have been fortunate to have been on both sides – in my roles in VEB and then while at Zico. The learnings I have gained at ZICO as well as my other positions at VEB and within Coke will help ensure success as we continue our focus of identifying and helping to build high-potential growth brands in North America.
BevNET: What are the key tenets of the VEB mission that are easiest to drive forward? What has been the group’s biggest accomplishment? Biggest mistake?
Uzzell: If anything, I think people will be surprised in the lack of big changes for VEB. I believe in our mission and the direction we are heading. I plan to continue steering the team toward the same goal: to find and develop the next generation of brands with billion-dollar potential. That said, we do need to stay current and evolve with the market. When we started VEB we were rather unique in that we were both investing and building brands. But, we need to remember that to stay competitively advantaged, we need to continue to push ourselves to provide innovative thinking on deals, operations and even technology. I am confident that we can do this but also know we need good partners on the journey.
BevNET: VEB has had better luck with acquired/partnered brands than internally created ones – will we see more attempts at internal creation or is the sweet spot for the group in investment and acceleration?
Uzzell: Moving forward, we will remain focused on our current portfolio – Honest Tea, ZICO, illy issimo and Core Power. But, we will not stop looking for more brands with billion-dollar potential.
We need to continue to do both sides of this equation as the mix of our portfolio and the learnings and returns we get are contingent upon the balance. That said, admittedly we have been better at the investment side since we tend to invest once risk and time have been overcome.
W IS FOR WEILAND, not the crazed singer but Broker Bill, whose touch extends past getting things onto the shelf and now includes deciding their fate with regard to financing via Boulder Brands’ Venture Capital arm. If Bill Weiland has stamped it as having potential to grow, chances are it’ll realize that potential.
X IS FOR XING…AND XYIENCE, a pair of products run by savvy sales teams that have only grown year-over-year. In Tom and Scott Lebon and John Lennon, these two brandss are more than ready to hold their own in any shelf set.
Y IS FOR YOUTH. With youth comes inexperience and, at times, an inflated sense of understanding. However, some of the beverage industry’s most compelling entrepreneurs haven’t yet hit 35 years and they’re not complaining – in fact, their youth is a source of empowerment because of its untethered nature.
“Being young, what really do you have to lose?” said B.J. McCaslin, the co-founder of Coco Cafe. “I got a girlfriend, she’s real supportive, but I don’t have a family. Say tomorrow, I woke up and I lost it all. I could just start over again on something new.”
Youth knows its limits, too: McCaslin regularly seeks advice from Michael Goldstein, 39, Vita Coco’s VP of market development and a former field development manager at Glaceau. Even so, he respects Vita Coco for granting autonomy to a number of young people, such as himself and brand manager Brian Olney, 29.
Jennie Ripps, the founder of Manhattan, N.Y.-based Owl’s Brew, has generated plenty of buzz in the city’s drinking haunts with her brand’s tea cocktails. Ripps, 33, and co-founder Maria Littlefield, 26, have noticed a camaraderie between young entrepreneurs who endure their struggles together.
“There’s a feeling of community,” she said. “It’s really cool to be a part of that.”
Head over the bridge of your choice to 33 Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn and you’ll find another few members of the youth movement: Tyler Gage and Dan MacCombie, the 28-year-old co-founders of Runa.
Gage said that youth grants him liberties, such as the the freedom to throw Runa events on the weekend without having to think about pesky things like, you know, children. In youth, he finds the positives.
“There’s basic things,” Gage said, “like not having a family or any responsibilities aside from working and feeding and clothing myself.”
BaxLogo_PamolaColor3-01Luke Livingston, the owner and founder of Baxter Brewing Company, based in Lewiston, Maine, said that he doesn’t think much about his age.
Livingston, 29, said that he works alongside plenty of young, creative people. He added that industry pioneers like Ken Grossman, the founder of Sierra Nevada, and Sam Calagione, the founder of Dogfish Head, started their breweries when they were twentysomethings.
Most of the craft beer industry understands the history and, thus, doesn’t balk at younger brewers like himself.
“Craft beer is young at heart,” Livingston said.
Z IS FOR ZEVIA, at $60 million and tracking at much higher growth for next year, Paddy Spence has this product on point and performing. Progressive product improvement and focus count for a lot, as does an emphasis on natural calorie reduction and an understand that the same purchasing dynamics that led to the growth of Coke and Pepsi can also power a challenger brand. But improving the flavor a lot has also been the key factor for Zevia’s growth. For beverage companies A to Z, that remains the key lesson – make it taste good, and you’ve got the power of taste on your side.