With so many public and private companies asserting their commitment to diverse and inclusive talent-management practices today, the beverage alcohol industry—which has traditionally been a male-dominated business—has placed particular focus on the hiring and advancement of women in recent years. While progress has certainly been made, supplier and wholesaler executives concede that there’s still more work to be done.
Kate Latts, vice president of marketing at Heaven Hill Brands, sees the dichotomy. “One of the biggest advancements in the last two decades across all tiers of the industry has been that women have emerged as leaders,” she says. “Through their education and mentoring, they continue to pave the way. It’s been exciting to be a part of that.” Yet Latts, who joined family-owned Heaven Hill nearly 20 years ago, laments that the scenario of a female executive being the only woman in a given meeting still happens. “It’s a long journey—it takes a long time to cultivate leadership and to change the face of the industry,” she says.
Indeed, despite the emergence of women leaders at the likes of Diageo North America and Heineken USA in recent years, data on the general advancement of women in the drinks industry is sobering. According to last year’s “Women in the Workplace” report from McKinsey & Co., only 16% of corporate vice presidents in food and beverage distribution are women, the lowest share of 20 industry sectors tracked. While women advance a bit more quickly in middle management in food and beverage manufacturing, according to the report, only 16% of that industry’s c-suite executives comprise women, as compared to 24% for consumer packaged goods in general. “This can be a great business for women,” says a woman drinks industry executive who asked to remain anonymous. “But it’s not always an easy business. The industry hasn’t kept pace with the times.”
At the supplier tier, there have been a few notable examples of women breaking through into top corporate leadership positions in recent years. Diageo North America, the market’s top spirits player with some 2,500 employees, has been at the forefront of female empowerment. For the past five years, the company has been been led by Deirdre Mahlan, who served as president and CEO from 2015 until her retirement in July. Her successor is Debra Crew, a former CEO of Reynolds American Inc. Crew had been serving as a Diageo board member, but stepped down from the role to take the reins at Diageo North America, which is by far the most important unit in Diageo’s global operations. Crew’s resume also includes senior executive roles at PepsiCo Americas Beverages and Western Nutrition. In addition to appointing Crew, Diageo also named Cristina Diezhandino as its new global CMO, replacing Syl Saller, who’s retiring. Elsewhere at Diageo, Claudia Schubert was appointed president of U.S. spirits and Canada two years ago, and Lavanya Chandrashekar was named CFO last year. The New York-based company is often recognized by organizations and publications for its efforts in gender equality. “We’re passionate about our brands and our people, and ensuring that our workforce reflects society and our consumer base, including our decision makers,” says Elaine Doyle, Diageo North America’s senior vice president of human resources. Parent company Diageo PLC has set a goal that 35% of global senior leadership positions be held by women by this year. According to Doyle, of the nearly 80 senior leadership members at Diageo North America, 34% are currently women.
Heineken USA (HUSA), meanwhile, appointed Maggie Timoney as CEO two years ago. She had previously served as CEO for Heineken Ireland and managing director of Heineken Canada. And late last year, Ann Mukherjee was named chairman and CEO of Pernod Ricard North America, after serving as global CMO for S.C. Johnson & Son, the manufacturer of household and professional products, for four years.
Industry executives in the wholesale tier admit that, in general, women have advanced to top positions at a slower rate than at the supply level. “It’s more difficult to move up in the wholesale side as the opportunities haven’t been made available to women,” says Philana Bouvier, senior vice president of new business development at Young’s Market Co. and chair of the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America’s (WSWA) Women’s Leadership Council (WLC). Bouvier and Dina Opici, president of New Jersey-based Opici Family Distributing, agree that with so many family-owned wholesale companies, the sector has been slow to see women advance. Executives say that the nature of many of the roles in wholesaling—particularly at the entry level—haven’t been appealing to women. Wayne Chaplin, president and CEO of Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits (SGWS), points to positions that involve warehousing, driving, and merchandising. “These can be strenuous, physically demanding roles,” he says, and not particularly attractive to women. Sue McCollum, CEO of Major Brands Inc., the St. Louis-based wine, spirits, and beer wholesaler, adds, “It can be a difficult business for women, when you consider tasks like working the on-premise and other late-night labor.” McCollum and other drinks executives point to the safety and child-care concerns that come with working evening hours.
Beverage alcohol suppliers and distributors acknowledge that under-indexing with female corporate decision makers can be harmful to a company. “We know that 70% of all beverage alcohol purchase decisions are made by women,” says Chaplin. “Studies have shown that companies that are more gender diverse do better than other companies. We need to look more like our customers.” Diageo’s Doyle asks, “As custodians of brands, how can we deliver the best for them if we’re not reflecting our consumer base?”
The input of women in the supply and distribution chains draws on unique perspectives. “Women offer diversity of thought and experiences, which ultimately improves business results,” notes Jessica Robinson, vice president of emerging brands at HUSA. “Our consumers are diverse, and we need to balance our industry and workforce to reflect that landscape.”
While industry executives see big opportunity in further empowering women, they point to the achievements that have been made at their individual companies. In addition to numerous accolades for Diageo PLC, the North America unit continues to be acknowledged for its progressive programs by the likes of Working Mother and Diversity MBA magazines, as well as the National Association for Female Executives. Diageo North America has also partnered with the Paradigm for Parity movement in announcing its commitment to achieving gender parity.
At Heaven Hill, Latts lauds the company for its efforts. “I’m proud that as a family-owned business, we’ve been able to create a culture that promotes a strong work/life balance for our employees,” she says, pointing to the flexibility for employees to work from home when a child is ill and other support, such as Heaven Hill’s monthly “lean-in circles,” or group discussions, open to all employees.
At HUSA—where there’s a 50-50 gender split in both overall employees and senior leaders, according to Robinson—the Women’s Leadership Forum (WLF) provides professional development and training, mentoring, and networking opportunities. The WLF was established at the White Plains, New York-based company 12 years ago “to help develop a more diverse and empowered workforce,” Robinson explains. Today, the organization is comprised of more than 30% of HUSA’s employees (both men and women). The company’s inclusion and diversity council, meanwhile, was formed two years ago as part of parent Heineken NV’s global inclusion and diversity platform.
Among other suppliers, Constellation Brands announced in 2018 that its corporate venture capital group Constellation Ventures will invest $100 million in female-founded or female-led businesses in the beverage alcohol space and adjacent categories by 2028 through its Focus on Female Founders program. By August 2020, Constellation Brands had added six such businesses to its Ventures portfolio—Austin Cocktails, Vivify, Montanya Distillers, Durham Distillery, Kerr Cellars, and Press hard seltzer.
Efforts At The Middle Tier
Leading wine and spirits wholesalers are also working to further empower women. Following Southern Wine & Spirits’ merger with Glazer’s Inc. four years ago, the company has focused on ethnic and gender diversity, according to Chaplin. “We’ve made it a focus to promote, retain, and train women,” he says. In addition, the wholesaler added a Women in Wine & Spirits division to its internal Connecting, Hardworking, Empowering, Educating, Respecting, and Serving (CHEERS) business resource group a few years ago. “In 2020, we’re increasing our funding behind the CHEERS programs,” Chaplin notes. SGWS’ exceptional leaders’ program, meanwhile, which selects 25-30 emerging leaders at the company each year, includes at least 50% women. Approximately 70% of the executives who complete the program are promoted within one year, Chaplin adds.
While Dina Opici sees room for advancement by women in the wholesale tier, she notes that her own experience has been somewhat unique. “This company was co-founded by my grandmother, who paved the way for generations of female employees,” she says. “So I haven’t experienced the same challenges as other women.”
Still, Opici was one of the early supporters of WSWA’s WLC, which launched in 2017, and today she serves on the council’s advisory board. “We’re seeking to advance women in the industry and to provide a platform for the exchange of knowledge and ideas,” says Bouvier, noting that the group’s annual conference allows members to connect and be support systems for each other. She adds that the networking events attract leading industry executives of all genders.
Another organization leading the charge for female empowerment is Women of the Vine & Spirits. Founded in 2015, “it started as a grassroots movement that has grown into a global organization,” explains founder and CEO Deborah Brenner. Comprising members from all beverage alcohol categories, all three tiers, and related businesses, Women of the Vine & Spirits boasts 170 corporate members and 4,000 individual members. “I’ve been most proud to see the number of companies that have established women’s initiatives,” Brenner says.
Awareness And Action
Supplier and wholesaler executives say that further advancement of women in the beverage alcohol industry will require awareness and action. “The more we bring the issues to light and talk to each other, the more progress we’ll make,” Chaplin says. “It won’t happen overnight, but education, training, and outreach will make a difference.”
McCollum of Major Brands says actions speak louder than words. “Industry members must ask themselves, ‘Are we making women more welcome?’ If not, we may have to do things differently.” And Latts says that corporate leadership must be aware of any “unintended biases that work as headwinds” in advancing women in the workplace. HUSA’s Robinson believes that “mentoring and supporting women advancement at all levels of the organization” is crucial, and that members of all three tiers of the industry “should embrace and consciously recruit women, as the diversity of thought, skills, and experiences will drive results.”