Northwood Grads Thrive in Bubbling Industry

Not so long ago, America’s beer business was dominated by a handful of brands, all of them fighting to be the choice of customers who were reliably loyal to a regular favorite.

Times have changed, and the brand choices now seem endless, which is good news for beer drinkers, and also for many Northwood grads who apply their special skills to careers built around brewing.

Stauffer Has What It Takes

Justine Stauffer knows things about beer that you wouldn’t understand.

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And she knows things about beer that you would understand if she could tell you, but she can’t tell you.

That’s life as a cicerone (more about that later) and as marketing manager in the Innovation Department at MillerCoors, one of the biggest brewing companies in the world. Stauffer (‘06) is part of a small team of creative people who develop new products and guide them into the market.

“Just think about how much the beer industry has changed, from right after Prohibition when there were only a few major brewers, to now when we have more than 5,000 breweries around the country,” Stauffer said. “There are so many options out there. While that’s a great thing, it can be difficult for people to navigate.”

Stauffer helps people find their way to new products from MillerCoors, such as Arnold Palmer Spiked, a recently released beer that features the beloved flavor of iced tea and lemonade, but with 5 percent alcohol. It’s selling well in its first few weeks on the market, in no small part due to Stauffer’s effective use of storytelling to help potential customers see it as “a great drink of social moderation.”

As a member of the Innovation Department, Stauffer knew about the company’s development of Arnold Palmer Spiked long before the general public did. But she couldn’t tell anyone. And that’s par for the course.

“Before things are made public, we have to keep them very confidential,” she acknowledged. “We even sign nondisclosure agreements.”


Aiding in her success is the fact that Stauffer is certified by the Cicerone® Certification Program as an Advanced Cicerone, the beer equivalent to being a wine sommelier. The organization runs training and testing to certify individuals’ in-depth knowledge of the finer points of beer. Within MillerCoors, Stauffer is the only woman and the only marketer to reach the advanced level, and in fact was one of only about 40 people in the world when she achieved it. The only higher level is Master Cicerone, which has been achieved by about 15 people in the world.

It’s pretty heady stuff for someone who earned her Northwood degree in entertainment, sport, promotion management, assuming she would follow her grandfather, Northwood co-founder R. Gary Stauffer, into that business.

“As graduation approached, I was close to accepting a job offer with a sports team, but then I got a call from Ed McBrien to consider applying to MillerCoors,” Stauffer recalled. “It felt more like a way to start a career, rather than feeling like I would be just one of many people having to fight my way to the top.”

McBrien Knows Quality When He Sees It

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At the time he first contacted Stauffer, McBrien (’81) was president of Sales and Distribution for MillerCoors, and sought prospects for a management development program.

“The idea was that it would be a great springboard for us to identify the next generation of leadership at the company, and also to bring diversity into the business,” McBrien explained. “I had a lot of success in hiring Northwood grads. Whenever we came across Northwood grads, I’d see several characteristics that I saw as valuable. They were smart. They were passionate. They were persistent. And maybe as important, they were grounded in timeless values: Integrity. Self-sufficiency. Accountability. Businesses need people who act like owners, even if they don’t have an ownership stake. They act like owners. They treat people like owners would.”

Once she got to MillerCoors, Stauffer lived up to expectations, McBrien said.

“She was driven. She was enthusiastic. She was capable. She had a great reputation for getting results,” McBrien said. “Justine started in sales, and now she’s in marketing. Making that transition from one function to another is a tricky thing. I’m really proud of Justine for her ability to be successful.”

McBrien has since retired from MillerCoors and is now chief operating officer of New York’s Manhattan Beer Distributors, which employees about 1,800 people who generate more than $1 billion in annual revenue. Each year, the company distributes 46 million cases of beer to about 25,000 customers in an area that stretches from New York City up into the Hudson River Valley.

“That’s a lot of beer, in the most complicated retail market in America, maybe in the world,” McBrien said.

The retailers that McBrien supplies have an ever-expanding choice of brands to offer the millions of beer drinkers in the region, which makes everyone’s jobs more complicated.

“It’s like TV. It used to be there were three TV channels. You were a Walter Cronkite guy or whatever,” McBrien said. “Now they have so much more choice. They select the product based on the situation they’re in. Beer drinkers have less loyalty than they used to. It used to be they were monogamous. They drank one brand all the time. Now they are very promiscuous. They drink 10 brands.”

That reality presents greater challenges to brand marketers like Stauffer than it does to him, McBrien said.

“It’s a brutally competitive space,” he said. “They have to compete with everything from the local craft brewer who has some interesting personal story and roots in the community, all the way up to the folks at places like Founders who are becoming a well-known brand.”

McBrien, who is a member of Northwood’s Board of Trustees, finds great satisfaction in the success that NU grads continue to find in the industry.

“The part that does my heart good is that in these big companies, the Northwood grads are competing against people who have Stanford MBAs or went to the Wharton School, and these big companies can pick the best of the best,” he said. “I’ve been proud of the fact that, in my experience, Northwood grads can compete with anybody and excel.”

Fabiano Sees a Real Buzz in the Beer Business

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A member of the Northwood Board of Trustees who knows a thing or two about beer is James Fabiano II, president of Fabiano Brothers Inc., the beer distributor for 17 counties in Michigan, including Midland. Fabiano Brothers buys beer from several breweries, then sells and distributes it to stores, stadiums, casinos and other retailers. With customers ranging from Wisconsin all the way to downtown Detroit and beyond, Fabiano Brothers distributes over 14 million cases of beer a year.

Among the company's more than 500 employees are about 10 Northwood grads.

“We strongly encourage our sales applicants to hold a bachelor’s degree, therefore most of our personnel with Northwood degrees start in our sales department,” Fabiano said. “Since we promote from within, the sales representative position is really the foundation of our sales structure. From there, our sales department personnel advance to become team leaders, market managers and directors, as well as various marketing and import/high-end sales positions.”

In a state where the economy is traditionally dominated by automakers, many people don’t think of beer distribution as a significant industry. The reality, however, is that distributors employ more than 4,700 people who earn more than $390 million per year, Fabiano said. Overall, the industry generates roughly $2.4 billion in economic impact each year in Michigan.

“And, hey, if you can’t have fun selling beer, you can’t have fun doing anything,” Fabiano said.

For all its allure, the beer business is like any other business, and it rewards many of the same strengths and behaviors in its employees that any business does.

“Strong work ethic, sound judgment, level headedness, good organizational skills, being adaptable to change, competitiveness and ambition,” Fabiano mentioned as what makes people successful at the company. “It’s hard work. You have regular goals. You have routes that you cover. You’ve got to get out there and sell. You’ve got to get out there and talk to people.”

Anyone up to the challenge can expect to get more out of it than a paycheck and the occasional free sample.

“It’s amazing to observe the development of our people within their first year here at Fabiano Brothers. As they learn the business and their confidence grows, a lot of personal progress takes place,” he said.

For anyone considering a career in beer, Fabiano has some advice.

“Be genuine, be humble, build relationships, ask questions, and always treat the janitor with the same respect that you would treat the CEO.”

Good advice, in fact, for someone in any business.