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Distilling a vintage corporate culture

Elite-Brands-of-ColoradoTerry Cekola’s recipe for growth: An inclusive culture where employees are passionate about making customers and suppliers successful.

Cekola launched Elite Brands of Colorado in 2003 and has grown the Denver-based beverage distribution company to nearly 70 employees and more than $16 million in annual revenue. Growth has been particularly strong in the past five years, with the company achieving annual revenue gains of more than 25 percent. Last year Elite Brands added 15 employees, and Cekola expects to create at least as many new positions this year.

Entrepreneurship is part of Cekola’s DNA — literally. Her father founded a beverage distribution business in Michigan, and her sister and four brothers all own companies, with two brothers also in the beverage industry. Cekola spent some time in the family business, helping her father launch a nonalcoholic division, but then left the Midwest to manage a nonprofit organization in Colorado. Thirteen years later, she launched Elite Brands. The company initially distributed wines, with an emphasis on specialty imports, and then added craft beer and spirits. Today Elite Brands’ portfolio includes more than 500 different types of wine and spirits and more than 1,600 different types of beer, and the company counts more than 2,500 restaurants, bars and retail stores in Colorado as customers.

Beverage distribution is a highly competitive industry where the right products help set you apart, Cekola says. With that in mind, she cites employee input as one of her company’s greatest strengths. “What we sell is a communal decision,” she explains. “We have a portfolio of products that’s ultimately chosen by our people. It’s a powerful thing that’s helped us attract many talented employees.”

This requires a lot of tastings — and a lot of time on the road. Last year Elite Brands staffers traveled to Europe, South Africa, Chile, and Belgium to scout out new suppliers. The company looks for products not yet being sold in Colorado, although it’s also approached by suppliers who aren’t happy with their current distributors — something that has happened more frequently in recent years as Elite Brands has built its reputation.

On the wine side, Elite Brands may investigate 30 or 40 wineries before picking one for distribution — a process that can take 18 months. Cekola likens bringing on a new supplier to a marriage: “You meet, you date, you talk about the tough stuff. It’s important to make sure there’s a culture fit from the very beginning.”

Initial scouting trips are typically led by three or four employees. Meeting the winemaker on their turf is important — and a completely different experience than reading a spec sheet about a wine. “We’ve been to vineyards where there are fifth-generation families that are still working the ground with a horse-drawn plow,” Cekola says. “It’s unbelievable how much love and work goes into a bottle of wine. We believe it’s our responsibility to make sure that product gets enjoyed by someone in Colorado. ”

As Elite Brands has gotten larger, it’s difficult to have every single employee vote on a new wine or beer; however, Cekola strives to make the selection process as all-encompassing as possible. Focus groups take a lead on checking out new products and tastings are open to everyone in the company to sample. After garnering everyone’s feedback, the sales management team is responsible for a final thumbs up or down.

Elite Brands is not only passionate about what it sells, but how it sells products. In fact, the company’s formal purpose statement is: “To help our people be successful.”

For suppliers, that means trying to find out what’s really important to them. “For example, a brewer may want to sell more kegs than cans — or a winery may want to be in certain venues, like steak houses,” Cekola says.

In addition, Elite Brands has created an online library that tracks detailed information about suppliers and their various products. For example, customers might want to know about a winery’s elevation, the type of soil that grapes are grown in, and the Brix level (measurement of sugar content) at which the grapes are picked. “Wealth is knowledge, and there are a lot of geeky details in this business,” Cekola says, explaining that the library helps staff educate customers, who can pass on the information to consumers.

Accelerating success applies foremost to employees, says Cekola, who plans to launch a profit-sharing program this year. Besides helping employees share in Elite Brands’ growth, Cekola hopes the program will help them better understand the financial side of the company — and ward off any departmental silos as the company scales. “The greater good can be achieved when everyone participates,” she says. “It leads to profitability for the company, success for our customers and a sense of accomplishment for our employees.”

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