When salespeople focus on the needs of the people they’re selling products to rather than on the products themselves, everyone benefits. This is the ethos that helped spur Prestige Beverage and Ledroit Brands to merge, and it’s the foundation underpinning the newly created Prestige-Ledroit Distributing Company—which distributes wine, spirits, and beer in Maryland, Delaware, and Washington, D.C.
The union between the two mid-Atlantic-region companies was formalized in May 2018, despite the unexpected death of Prestige Beverage founder Joey Smith, a tragic event that might have scuttled a deal that had been in the works for two years. That the merger came to fruition represents more than just the joining of two like-minded companies; it also symbolizes the late founder’s corporate philosophy.
Smith, who passed away in April 2016 at age 33 from lung cancer complications, was essentially born into the distribution business. His father, Jimmy Smith, was the chairman of Breakthru Beverage of Maryland, and his grandfather was the founder of Reliable Liquors which merged with Churchill Distributors in 2002 and then with Breakthru Beverage Group in 2016. Smith formed Prestige Beverage Group (PBG) in 2009. He’d learned firsthand from his father and grandfather about hospitality and professional camaraderie in the distribution business, and he started his company knowing that identifying and meeting the individual needs of every business he collaborated with would help put PBG on the path to success.
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A Focus on Community Values
In 2014, Smith began exploring the possibility of a merger with Ledroit Brands. He and Michael Cherner, who was then a managing partner at Ledroit and is now Prestige-Ledroit’s president, realized they had a similar vision. At the time, PBG was focused on the Maryland, Delaware, and D.C. markets, and Ledroit covered the D.C. market exclusively. Smith and Cherner believed that combining the two companies would allow them to more effectively serve their customers and suppliers in all three markets.
After Smith’s death, his father stepped in to help with the merger and get the newly formed company off the ground. Determined to cement his son’s professional legacy, the elder Smith officially left Breakthru and joined Prestige-Ledroit as chairman in early 2017.
Says Alex Thompson, the former chief operating officer of PBG and current COO of Prestige-Ledroit, “The way we operate now—and since the formation of PBG—is a direct reflection of Joey’s legacy and what he learned from his family. We are driven by a strong sense of family, service, and community, and we have worked hard to shape our portfolio with products that reflect those values.”
A Personal Approach
Rather than focusing on a particular style of winemaking or championing niche producers, Prestige-Ledroit represents a broad range of styles and regions, from California to Thailand, and it zeroes in on wine, spirit, and beer producers—like Heitz Wine Cellars in Napa Valley, Four Roses Bourbon in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, and Singha in Bangkok—that have a story to tell.
“Buyers at restaurants need to fill their wine lists, and distributors need to move product out of their warehouse,” says Cherner, reflecting on a concern he and Smith shared. “Too often, moving product ends up being the ultimate goal.”
As Cherner points out, though, if a product does nothing more than move to another shelf, untouched, no one benefits. “If it doesn’t sell once the buyer has it,” he says, “it’s not a good deal. So our approach is different.” He explains that at Prestige-Ledroit, salespeople are thought of more as consultants. “We try to pair our suppliers with buyers in a thoughtful way, by focusing on smaller weekly needs instead of quantity-based sales.” By making smaller, more frequent shipments to on- and off-premise accounts, and pairing new products conscientiously with certain buyers who have a market for them, Prestige-Ledroit can move bottles more efficiently for everyone.
Chris Schmid, Prestige-Ledroit’s director of wine and spirits, emphasizes that “the last thing we want to see is dusty bottles on a shelf somewhere.” The hands-on personal approach to dealing with accounts has already helped the company achieve some success. In the two years prior to the official rebrand as Prestige-Ledroit, when PBG and Ledroit were operating as a single entity, the company was already seeing double-digit growth.
Suppliers have also taken note. “Calling on a small, mom-and-pop retailer that isn’t a convenient stop on their delivery route is a no-go for most distributors,” says Britt Kulsveen, the vice president of Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, but Prestige is always willing to make it happen.”
Fulfilling the Vision
Today, Prestige-Ledroit is headquartered in Elkridge, Maryland; the company also has offices and warehouses in Newark, Delaware, and D.C. Prestige-Ledroit represents more than 750 products from roughly 50 suppliers, in a portfolio that’s focused on the goals of its long-term partners. Since the launch of the united company, new products have been added just about every quarter to round out the portfolio. Wine represents about 60 percent of the portfolio, spirits make up about 37 percent, and beer accounts for the remaining 3 percent.
Before the merger, PBG had close to 30 people on its staff, while Ledroit had seven—and all the employees were kept on when the companies merged. Additional sales and operational staff have since been added. Currently, 25 employees are devoted to sales, while about 15 handle operations, and the company is still growing.
Prospective products are all first screened by Schmid, who Cherner has dubbed the company’s gatekeeper. When Schmid approves a product, it then goes to a five-person executive committee composed of Cherner, Schmid, Thompson, the elder Smith, and Dino Lolli, the company’s director of sales, for final approval.
In February they brought on Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery from Nashville. Charlie Nelson, Green Brier’s president and chief executive officer, says the distillery signed on largely because of Prestige-Ledroit’s personal touch. “I’ve known these guys for years,” he says, “and I’ve always been impressed by how supportive they are of people in the industry, even if they don’t have a direct business relationship with them. They were always helping us, even though they weren’t making any money off the relationship.”
Nelson says that meeting with the Prestige-Ledroit team and telling them the story of his distillery, which was started by his great-grandfather before Prohibition, as well as meeting potential buyers at a happy hour event, gave him confidence that Green Brier would “flourish in their hands.”
Cherner explains that, with hundreds of SKUs at the staff’s fingertips, building a foundational base of knowledge about every item is a key part of Prestige-Ledroit’s mission. A rep generally has between 50 and 100 accounts. To maximize the success of each new product that’s brought on, educational seminars about the new product are scheduled for the sales team, as well as meet-and-greet events for the entire staff and relevant buyers.
“Our sales team is defined by an insatiable desire to learn and teach,” says Lolli. “Their interest in passing along what they’ve learned about our products’ stories to their customers and to each other translates into better service and a better chemistry among our team.”
With 10 to 15 restaurants opening each month in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, and expanding markets in Baltimore, Frederick, Annapolis, and the Delaware beaches, Prestige-Ledroit continues to monitor new business opportunities.
Underlying all of Prestige-Ledroit’s growth goals, though, is the commitment to fulfilling Joey Smith’s legacy—and his firm belief in the power of matching customers with products that fit their needs. “Joey guides us every day,” Thompson says. “Not just in his approach to business [and] forging partnerships with suppliers and customers that transcend numbers on a page, but in how generous he was with his smile and his kindness.”
The leadership team is ready to move into the future—without letting go of the past. As Schmid says, “The personal touch has been the foundation of our success.”
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Kathleen Willcox is a journalist who writes about food, wine, beer, and popular culture; her work has appeared in VinePair, Edible Capital District, Bust magazine, and Gastronomica, and on United Stations Radio Networks, among other venues. She recently coauthored, with Tessa Edick, “Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir.” She lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.