It was never Shannon McQuade Ely’s plan to work in the family business. “I have a sister and it’s just the two of us,” said Shannon. “I think because the beer business is male dominated, had my dad had two sons, it would have been talked about a lot more often. I have a cousin named Sam, and I always thought he might go into the business.”
Shannon was living in Fargo after going to college there. She had twins, was an at-home mom and needed some sort of mental stimulation. She wanted to work. “At the same time my dad was looking at opportunities to expand his business, which in the end didn’t pan out, but that is what got me into thinking about working for him,” she said. “It happened very quickly because I didn’t really think about working in the business until I started working in the business.”
She explained how it happened: “The transition started when he took me to a national convention and asked me if this is what I wanted to do. The business as a whole was intriguing to me. Obviously, it’s a fun business, I just wanted to make sure I was well suited. We had a few conversations and he told me I had to start at the bottom and work my way up. I literally started delivering on the trucks. I went through the system at kind of a fast pace – started on the trucks delivering, I worked in the warehouse, in the office, I worked under salesmen and did every job for the first couple years I was here. I found my niches and started wearing those hats, took some work loads off of people. Anheiser Busch (AB) has a training program and approval process I had to go through. I was named president in 2004.”
Shannon’s grandpa, Sam McQuade Sr. started the business as a Grain Belt distributor in 1947. He bought out his partner and got AB in 1955. “We were at about 20% market share when my dad took over in 1976 and now we’re at about 60%,” she said. “My dad has a really good business mind, my grandpa did the old school ‘buying everybody beers.’ People have told me I am a combination of both.
Sam W. McQuade went through a difficult transition when he began working on his succession. “He didn’t want to work for my grandpa and they already had kind of a tough dynamic,” said Shannon. “My transition was much different. My dad did not want to be in my face about a lot of things and I was nervous to ask him. That was good and bad. What was good was the managers we have were all very good mentors for me. That brought us all closer because I felt more comfortable turning to them for advice.
(The bad was), I wish I would have had a little more guidance at times. Sometimes he let me just make my own decisions without any input, when I would have liked to have known, ‘hey what do you think about when you make those decisions.’ There were also some tough times where maybe he didn’t communicate what was going on to the rest of the company, and everyone was nervous about what I would bring to the table. That happens whenever you bring somebody new in, whether it’s a family member or not. I think once they realized I was going to work on the truck, most of that went away. I really had some good mentors on the truck, too. It also helps you have a better understanding of your company as a whole, when you’ve been out in the trenches and they probably respect that a little bit more. I think I proved I was going to be somewhat competent pretty quickly. I think the fact that I am a female, in this type of business, had a lot to do with it, too.”
Shannon has found her niche and brought in craft beers over the past few years. She felt if they were really going to grow, they couldn’t just sell Budweiser. “It’s great for the customer to have variety,” she said. “The customers and retailers want to talk about beer, the varieties, it has really sparked a lot of fun into it. Beer wholesalers as a whole don’t necessarily know how to talk about beer, how to drink beer or how the brewing process works. That is something we have really concentrated on, as a company, in the last several years, so our sales and delivery guys know how to talk about beer. We even built a brew room in our warehouse.”
There have not been any conversations about her children taking over someday, but she would never be opposed to it. She is now thinking of succession within her staff since the controller, general manager and sales manager are all ten years or less from retirement age.
Shannon does consider her dad retired, but he still keeps an office where he does some writing. And, at the end of the day, he keeps up the camaraderie with the guys in the back, having a Budweiser and sharing old stories. “Our business has always been very family oriented, whether it’s the McQuade family, or within our scope of employees,” she said. “We are very small, we only have 32 employees, so we are a pretty tight knit group. That family aspect is something that I have always enjoyed and want to maintain despite the growth that is happening.”
The beer business is growing and changing, but it is still fun and interesting. As Shannon said, “my dad’s motto is: ‘ If you can’t have fun selling beer, you’re definitely doing something wrong.’”
Her advice to others who may be going into the family business:
– Keep an open mind and know that you don’t know everything going in. Just because my dad told stories at the dinner table doesn’t mean I had a clue about what was going on at work.
– For someone who is bringing their kid into the business, make sure they can be confident, that you’re not setting them up to fail. And if they’re not confident, you have to have that tough conversation.
– Learn from everyone and be willing to learn from others. Don’t go in thinking, ‘I’m the kid, I deserve everything.