Source: Chicago Tribune
August 10, 2016
Little known fact: Before the Bulls and Blackhawks achieved United Center glory, Danny Wirtz and the Loyola Academy Ramblers won the state hockey championship there in 1995, just a year after the facility co-owned by the Wirtz family opened.
More than 20 years later, Danny - son of Rocky Wirtz and grandson of the late Bill Wirtz - is leading his family's lower-profile, higher-revenue alcohol wholesale business into a new era in a changing industry.
Earlier this year, the Wirtz Beverage Group merged with New York-based Charmer Sunbelt to form Breakthru Beverage Group, the third largest alcohol distributor in the country. Almost immediately, there were challenges: Bacardi - supplier of Bacardi rum, Bombay Sapphire gin and Dewar's Scotch whisky - announced it was leaving the newly combined Breakthru and taking its business to competitor Southern Glazer's, the largest alcohol wholesaler in the U.S.
"It was a significant hit. But at the same time, as wholesalers, we're able to bounce back. ... We're in a great spot and we don't look back," said Wirtz, 39, vice chairman of Breakthru Beverage.
The Wirtz family name is inextricably linked to the Blackhawks, in good times and in bad. When Bill Wirtz died in 2007, ownership of the team passed to his son, Rocky. But the alcohol distribution business, which dates back to 1945, has been more lucrative than the family's hockey team, real estate holdings or insurance business. And Breakthru, with $6 billion in revenue and operating in 16 markets, including Canada, has plans to keep growing, Danny Wirtz said.
Running the family booze business wasn't always the plan. After growing up in Winnetka and attending Boston College, Wirtz pursued a passion for music and, eventually, brands, working for marketing firms in New York and London before returning to Chicago in 2007. Now he lives in Ukrainian Village with his wife, Anne, and two daughters, ages 4 and 7.
In a recent interview with the Tribune, Wirtz explained what brought him back and why he's excited for the future of Breakthru Beverage. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What was it like growing up a Wirtz kid?
A: We were very, very lucky and privileged to be able to go to great schools. I'm not going to say it was a hardship. But it was unfortunately a challenge during some tough times for the Blackhawks. ... We were always proud to represent the family and stood behind our grandfather and my dad, and all the things that they did, but there were some tough years there.
Q: Did you all along feel the pull of the family business or did you have different things you wanted to do?
A: To be honest with you, I think in all family businesses, you either jump in or run the opposite direction. My path was definitely the opposite direction. I was interested in music, entertainment, marketing.
Q: Was there a single moment or defining experience where you knew you were coming back to work for Wirtz Beverage?
A: When you're in your early 20s, it's about getting away and doing your own thing, which I was happy I did. Then you're approaching almost 10 years of experience and skills and you've earned some things on your own, and you start to feel pride - is there anything I'm doing now that I could bring back to the family? ... My grandfather passes away, I already have this idea of giving back to the family, and lo and behold, there's actually a position opened up in our Diageo division for luxury marketing brand manager, which as a job description sounded perfect to me. So it's amazing how things sort of just open up and fall into place.
Q: Do you and Rocky talk on a daily basis? Is he that involved in the business?
A: To be honest, he's very deferential. This is his approach with the executives who work for him. He's not calling up (Blackhawks President) John McDonough every day, he's not hounding our managers. He does not believe in micromanagement. He hires good people and let's them run. And he's taken that approach with me.
Q: What led to the merger with Charmer Sunbelt?
A: We see the world similarly. What a great opportunity to combine two great companies and be very aspirational about forming something new for the industry. That was really the impetus. It came very natural. It wasn't forced. It came from a desire to do something better.
Q: In practical terms, though, what does that mean?
A: Obviously, we're able to operate in a broader footprint. It diversifies our markets. We're able to operate in different types of markets. We're now able to do, as a new company, significantly more business with our core supplier partners. We represent a larger piece of their total business across the markets. And as this new company, we're able to reinvest in our business in a more significant level.
Q: Are there consumer trends that are affecting how Breakthru conducts its business?
A: In general, we have to stay very nimble. The rate of change is faster than it's ever been. ... It used to be that you sort of identified with a brand when you were in your 20s and you stayed with it. Now, the millennial consumer is driving so much change and jumping from, not just brands, but categories.
Q: Are there any emerging threats to the system, such as on-demand delivery, that you're keeping an eye on?
A: The concept of on-demand (delivery) or having an e-commerce experience is different for our products. I think the challenge for the industry is how do we provide consumers with that kind of experience but do it in a way that follows the laws.
Q: What about eBay Wine or Amazon (selling wine)?
A: Definitely a threat depending on the market and the laws. You have to start with: What are the laws in place? It also goes to the strength of good retailers. Hopefully, retailers are doing everything they can to bring people into their stores and brands are being built in stores so our products don't become commoditized or ordered in an online environment as staple products, like toilet paper or shoes.
Q: Is it forcing Breakthru to change its model?
A: 100 percent. I don't want to be the person saying 10 years ago, 'No one will ever buy shoes on the internet.' Look at where that world is going. The internet will impact our business one way or another. I think all stakeholders in this business are just trying to figure out how.
Q: What do you think your dad's legacy will be and how do you want yours to be different?
A: I think his legacy will be he dramatically improved all of our businesses, took them into new places, reinvented them and he hopefully is going to hand that on to our next generation in a better place. ... As it relates to my legacy, I'm early stages before laying down that groundwork. But hopefully if I follow his lead, it would be to do the things to take the company to the next level.
Q: What's your go-to drink?
A: I love a good Manhattan. ... But a Manhattan on a day like today is probably not my choice. It's probably more a margarita or a light sessionable craft beer. But in the middle of a nice, harsh Chicago winter, a nice Manhattan's great. But I'm an equal opportunity consumer of cocktails.