Fechtel Beverage thrives as beer brands proliferate

Jacob2It’s mid-April and Fechtel Beverage is just beginning to stock up for the summer.

Morgan Fechtel, the company’s controller, points to the cases of Corona, already stacked more than 20 feet high. Much of this beer is destined for the Lake of the Ozarks, where Corona is a staple during the summer boating season.

There are roughly 100,000 beer cases in this Jefferson City warehouse, but the most striking thing isn’t the massive quantity of beer. Rather, it’s the kaleidoscope of brands stacked beside each other.

The red cases of Old Milwaukee sit beside the green boxes of Kräftig. Then comes the purplish tower of Miller64 and the gold turrets of Corona and Miller High Life. The entire scene is framed by a deep-blue, three-story mountain of Milwaukee’s Best Light pallets.

Stacks of beer cases wait to be distributed in Fechtel's Jefferson City warehouse.

Stacks of beer cases wait to be distributed in Fechtel’s Jefferson City warehouse.

And that’s just one row.

Bernie Fechtel, the owner and president of this family-run business, said it wasn’t always like this. When he took control in 1985, the only brands he distributed were Stag and Schlitz.

But as beer tastes have grown more complex, so has his business.

“You can’t pigeonhole the beer drinker anymore,” said Bernie Fechtel. “Where people used to buy a 24-pack of Miller Lite, now they’re buying a 12-pack of Miller Lite and two six-packs of something else.”

The shift in drinking habits has required a significant transition in the way Fechtel Beverage operates. To keep up, Bernie Fechtel relies on help from his three children: Morgan, Andy and Maggie. They represent the fourth generation of Fechtels to rise to leadership roles within the company.

Importantly, they also understand the diverse beer-drinking habits of their millennial-aged peers, one of the forces that has turned what was once a predictable business into something much more complicated.

“Rather than complicated, let’s say it’s more exciting,” laughed Andy Fechtel, who manages the warehouse and serves as brand specialist. “Let’s put a positive spin on that.”

fechtel3Here’s just how exciting it is: Today, Fechtel Beverage handles 250 varieties of beer from 30 suppliers in 17 different countries. Each case of beer will eventually be loaded onto one of 18 delivery trucks and distributed to a retailer or bar in one of 17 mid-Missouri counties.

Andy Fechtel said he spends much of his time mapping out these shipments and researching what new brands are coming to market. It’s a critical job that didn’t even exist five years ago.

Such challenges have become a given in the beer distribution industry. Kathleen Joyce, communications director with the National Beer Wholesalers Association, said today’s distributors are selling roughly five times as many brands as they did 20 years ago.

“With the continued growth and expansion of local and craft brands, the explosion of seasonal offerings, and brand extensions, in 2015, the number of stock keeping units in the average distributor’s warehouse skyrocketed to 981 from an average of 35 beer suppliers,” she said.

At Fechtel Beverage, there’s a constant effort to stay on top of the new brands being released. While many are being developed by Fechtel’s big national brands – such as Miller, Coors, Blue Moon, Leinenkugel and Pabst – the company also actively searches for small brewers that are poised to make a splash in the market.

“We have a passion for beer, and we forgo some profits today to reinvest in brands that we believe may sell tomorrow,” Bernie Fechtel said. “There isn’t a lot of money in some of these little brands – I can tell you that – but bringing them to the market and generating awareness is cool for us.”

In recent years, the Fechtels have liked what they’ve seen from Mother’s Brewing Co. in Springfield. The distribution deal Mother’s signed with Fechtel Beverage has helped grow a following in central Missouri for brands such as Mother’s Lil’ Helper IPA.

Fechtel Beverage was also the first to distribute Boulevard beers outside of Kansas City. Bernie Fechtel remembers the initial order – just six kegs. But Boulevard eventually became a major hit and will sell 30,000 cases in central Missouri this year.

“We started distributing Boulevard before it was a well-known thing,” Morgan Fechtel said. “You just never know what’s going to be the next big thing, so you need to be there searching for it.”

Despite the additional work involved in distributing such a wide variety of brands, the Fechtels are thrilled about the surge of smaller brewers and the growing consumer excitement around beer. It’s what Joyce calls “a new golden age for beer.”

The proliferation of brands has also led to big changes in the company. The Fechtels recently transformed their company’s sales model. Not long ago, Bernie Fechtel said, selling went something like this: “You put the right amount of beer on the truck and went out and sold it.”

But today, Fechtel Beverage uses a dedicated, trained sales staff. These salespeople spend time educating bar and store owners about new brands and taking complex orders for the company’s delivery drivers to fulfill.

“In the past, a store might say, ‘I’ll take 10 six-packs and four 20-packs.’ Now they may take one case of 100 different items,” Bernie Fechtel said.

Despite these new challenges, the Fechtels like the direction the industry is heading. Even four generations in, there’s probably never been a better time to be in the beer business.

“Everything is changing almost every five minutes,” said Maggie Fechtel, who helps with pricing and works with the office staff. “It’s just exciting to think about the future.”

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