In Women in Wholesale: Taking Charge of Your Future, a workshop session held on March 12 at the Women of the Vine & Spirits Global Symposium at the Meritage Resort & Spa in Napa, California, Barbara Marti, the director of supply chain customer service at Southern Glazer’s in Miami, shared a story from when she was starting out in the workforce. Her Cuban-born father gave her some advice: Do what you’re told and don’t make waves—just be happy that you have a job. “Every time he said something like that,” said Marti, “I thought, ‘That’s not me.’”
Marti began her career in wine 27 years ago as a secretary at Southern Glazer’s, which was then Southern Wine & Spirits, and she soon discovered that the men in the office had an outlook that was similar to her father’s. “Back then, there was a lot of ‘Hey baby, how you doing? Can you make some copies for me?’” said Marti. “That’s all they thought I was good for—making copies and answering phones.”
Marti knew better. She did what she was told, but she also worked harder than anyone else in the office and offered to help her boss with whatever needed doing, just to make sure she was noticed for more than her copy-making ability. Her success story, as well as those of other women in the wholesale wine business, was the basis of the interactive workshop, which was hosted by the Women’s Leadership Council of the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America and moderated by Philana Bouvier, the senior vice president of new business development for Young’s Market in Tustin, California. On the panel with Marti were Hillary Wirtz, the director of diversity and inclusion at Breakthru Beverage Group in Chicago, and Jessica Cyr, the assistant vice president of sales operations at Martignetti Companies in Taunton, Massachusetts. The session invited participants to share both their challenges and their strategies for workplace empowerment.
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Working hard to prove oneself in a male-dominated business was a recurring theme. Wirtz, who left a teaching job to join her family’s distribution company in 2011, had to find her own way when she started out in the business. “I had to develop my own reputation as Hillary,” she said, “and not just as a family member—and build my own network of guidance and support. I had to find great leaders to learn from.”
Now a leader in the company herself, Wirtz lives by three principles: perseverance, humility, and being comfortable with being uncomfortable. “I was never told that I couldn’t have a seat at the table or be part of the company,” she said, “but I think I was just conditioned that way. As I grew and evolved, there was an opportunity for me to break the mold and drive change.”
Embracing discomfort was an important element of Wirtz’s professional evolution. Rather than hunkering down in roles she excelled at, she challenged herself to take on other positions within the company, from sales representative to manager to community events and partnerships. “With each new role,” she said, “I was completely terrified, but I knew that stepping totally out of my comfort zone was good for me. It was the only way I was going to learn and grow.”
While the panelists acknowledged that roadblocks still exist for women in the wholesale business, they also emphasized that the climate is shifting—that women are not only getting a seat at the table but actively creating a more inclusive environment too.
“We’re under a lot of stress in this tier of the marketplace,” said Cyr, who emphasized that it is important for women to initiate “courageous conversations” at work to address issues like discrimination and move things forward. “We have a lot of opportunity to improve and change with the times.” To help empower women in the wholesale business, Cyr’s company now hosts the Women’s Beverage Alcohol Symposium in Massachusetts each year.
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During the interactive part of the session, in which audience members shared their own stories and strategies, Stephanie Block of Republic National Distributing Company, headquartered in Grand Prairie, Texas, spoke about RNDC’s women’s leadership forum. “We have a very rigorous, two-year training program where we identify top female talent throughout our organization,” she said. “We have a robust training period, and not only do we network across the country with each other, we also make sure that the women are [getting] in front of our top leadership.”
Bouvier wrapped up the discussion with a challenge to the attendees. “We have three commitments we’d like you to make today,” she said. “Educate yourself and embrace things that are outside of your comfort zone. Find someone in your organization and make it a point to empower and encourage them.” And finally, she said, take the initiative to elevate yourself within your career and the company you work for. “Continue to be kind to yourself—we should always speak kindly of ourselves, to ourselves.”
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Tina Caputo is a writer based in Northern California who covers wine, beer, food, and travel. She was formerly the editor in chief of Vineyard & Winery Management magazine, and her work has appeared in Wine Enthusiast, Visit California, Sonoma magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many other publications. She also produces the podcast Winemakers Drinking Beer.