For Margaret Gill, the 28-year-old co-founder of Golden Road Brewing, a craft brewery in Southern California with annual sales of more than $10 million, the road to business began with sports. “I was a swimmer, but because Yale doesn’t give athletic scholarships, I needed to have a job on the side. So I was a senior manager for Associated Student Agencies, which provides support for student-run businesses (selling apparel and class rings, doing events),” she says.
After graduating, she became a professional triathlete and continued to think of business as a way to support her athletics. But even then, the small-town girl from Virginia — the first in her town to get into Yale — never thought of herself as a bona fide business person. “I thought business equaled Wall Street, because at Yale, that’s the kind of old-money world that you’re in … I didn't come from money. Everything I've done has been about survival.”
It’s served her well. After moving to Boulder, Colo., she began working as a regional sales manager for Oskar Blues brewery. A few years later, she met L.A. bar owner Tony Yanow, and together, they launched Golden Road Brewing in 2011. Golden Road now has 150 employees and 4,000 retailer accounts throughout Southern California, including LAX airport, Dodger Stadium, Costco, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. It uses the same distributors as some of the biggest players in the industry, like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, and is expected to double its sales from 15,000 barrels last year to 30,000 in 2014. We talked to Gill about how they did it.
How did you end up in the beer industry?
I moved to Boulder, Colorado to be a professional triathlete right after college and in 2007, I founded Skirt Chaser 5k, a national series of nighttime races, so I regularly organized events that needed beer. Through my work with Skirt Chaser, I met and began working with Dale Katechis, the owner of Oskar Blues brewery. They were fresh and had no sales or marketing people, no infrastructure or growth. But they asked me to help launch their brand in new cities. I had a relationship with Red Bull through my own athletic career, and used Red Bull’s distributors and retailers to introduce Oskar Blues to new markets.
I also met with all these big Anheuser-Busch distributors — to this day I have no idea how I got the meetings, because this was all cold calls — and sold them on the growth and passion of the craft brew industry. It's a $99 billion industry, and I was a 22 year old in a Dale’s Pale Ale T-shirt saying, ‘Hey this is the new face of the industry. It's not old white boys with Bud Light ads on freeways.’ It's hand selling, getting in front of as many distributors, retailers, and end-consumers and telling the story. So I had a great story to tell and I developed relationship with distributors and that was my first look at the industry.
You call yourself a distribution geek…
My personal competitive advantage was my access to distribution. I had letters of support from 12 Anheuser-Busch distributors. Those letters are what landed funding for the project. And that was the key to Golden Road's early success and future success.
That is the least sexy part of the industry and without a doubt the most fascinating to me — what I “nerd out” to. There's this phonebook that the National Beer Wholesalers Association produces, and — start to finish, in every city, town and county — I can name the principal of that AB or MillerCoors distributor, their first and last name and email address. I am obsessed with the distribution side of the industry. It is the hardest part to learn and get to know and uncover, and it's definitely been a great challenge to us.
Those distributors have helped me understand their businesses, their margins, their bottom line. I understand what they are willing to invest in the market and what their retailers are, so that opened the door to helping me understand the retail side of business.
Do you get a lot of attention as a woman in this world?
The big beers target and market to men — all the ads and everything. Craft beer is non-gender specific, and the craft brewing industry welcomed me with open arms. It was the big beer distributors and the big beer retailers that [said]: “Who is this girl, and what is she trying to sell me?”
I armed myself with so much knowledge in beer [so I could] have this ability to win them over. [Now] it helps being a young female because they are like, “Wow, she wasn't given this 12-million-case Budweiser distributor from Daddy. She's earned it.”
What advice would you give to other women in male-dominated industries?
Arm yourself with ammo, aim and fire!
What’s ahead for Golden Road?
When we first started, I was calling on every chain and every account — literally in the field selling beer every day — and then staying up at night working on the finance operation side. The first two years, we spent no money on sales and marketing, but now we have a pretty sizable marketing budget for 2014.
It's pretty remarkable. It's going to put me into a position to do much bigger partnerships instead of bar calls and being at a Pint Night every night of the week. I'm going to get to focus … on those really corporate, high-dollar, high-visibility accounts, [which is] where I should be spending my sales efforts.