Ask The CEO

By Hannah Wallace July 31, 2009

The biggest beer distributor in the Sarasota-Manatee market is run by a Jesuit-educated retired Marine who operates from a multimillion-dollar, 167,000-square-foot complex set on 23 acres in Lakewood Ranch. John W. Saputo, owner of Gold Coast Eagle Distributing, is also one of the country’s largest Anheuser-Busch distributors. “It’s amazing when you think about it,” he says, “but Sarasota-Manatee is the 47th largest beer market in the U.S. out of the 725 Anheuser-Busch markets.” Saputo bought his company in 1996, when it had 53 percent of the local market and was distributing 3.5 million cases a year. The company now has 69 percent of the market and distributes 5.5 million cases a year.

How are sales today? Our levels of sales and everything else are back to 2005 levels, but our market share has remained at 69 percent.

Has the economy has hit bottom? I have been saying for six months that we are on our way back. We have had very small increases over last year, which tells me we have bottomed out. We are not going negative anymore.

How did you get involved in the beer business? My grandfather had a very small beer distribution business in Detroit and I went to work for him when I was 8 or 9 years old, washing truck tires, cleaning windows, emptying wastebaskets. I worked all through high school as a warehouseman, forklift operator and truck driver. My father and two uncles were also beer distributors.

What is the toughest part of your job? Making sure that the culture of customer satisfaction is imparted to every one of my 150 employees and all 1,400 of my licensees—supermarkets, convenience stores, bars, restaurants and taverns. Do the math and you have 150 times 1,400—or 210,000 impressions that I have to make.  

You have a reputation for supporting a wide range of charities. Why? This company lives in this community and we want to be part of the solution. We will probably support over 400 different charities this year, and I want consumers to know I care about the charities they care about.

What forces shaped you? My time at Boston College with the Jesuits and in Marine boot camp for officers. The Marine program was discipline and physical endurance, but the hardest part was they made you think and solve problems when you were absolutely mentally and physically exhausted. After that, I knew I could do anything.

What do people like about working for you? I think they would say I am extremely consistent. They know where they stand. There is no hidden agenda. You got a mission, you accomplish it and your accomplishments are celebrated, appreciated and rewarded.

Do you have any tips for managing people? Make sure you have done their job before you tell them how to do their job.

Where would you like to be in five years? I hope I have paid off a lot of debt. And my goal is to gain another 2 percent to 3 percent market share.

What do people not know about you? I am known as a Type A who’s on the move all the time, but my favorite pastime is sitting on the deck of my house overlooking New Pass and swimming in the pool with my grandkids. I also like to read classical literature. My favorite book is James Joyce’s Ulysses, because of his stream of consciousness writing. He has one sentence that goes for 240 pages and you can’t stop reading it.

What do you drink? Michelob Light and Budweiser. 

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