Photos by // jenny lane studios
The beer industry is evolving into a much different world than it was decades ago when the industry was predominately male driven. Even as recently as the 1990s, most beer advertising was geared toward men, but as you have probably noticed, the marketplace is now looking vastly different with new female-focused products and marketing. Today women are entering the beer market as head brewers, brewery owners and retailers, small and large. Women are climbing the ranks in family-owned, independent beer distributors, such as Flint local Joanie O’Sullivan-Butler, owner, President and Chief Executive Officer of John P. O’Sullivan Distributing.
Brewing a Business
Joanie’s father, John P. O’Sullivan, the patriarch of John P. O’Sullivan Distributing, was the oldest child of two Irish immigrants and was born and raised in Detroit. The love for the beer industry began in college, when John worked as a tour guide at Stroh’s Brewery. Eventually he worked his way up through the ranks into the marketing department, where he had the opportunity to call on beer distributors all over the state of Michigan.
In 1976, John O’Sullivan and Michael Sullivan purchased their first distribution company from Moyer Beverage in Flint. In the early years, Sullivan and O’Sullivan, Inc., served Genesee and Lapeer Counties for the Stroh’s and Miller brands. The company operated out of a warehouse on Coldwater Road in Flint. When Miller Brewing Company came out with the very first light beer on the market, Miller Lite, Sullivan and O’Sullivan was assigned the franchise rights and sales numbers exploded.
“People had never heard of light beer before, so because it was new and less calories, the consumers absolutely loved it!” Joanie explains. Miller Lite changed the whole beer market from one dominated by brands such as Stroh’s, Pabst, Miller High Life and Schlitz, to one where lighter, lower calorie beer was king.
The company constructed and moved into a new warehouse facility in Flint Township in the early 1980s to accommodate the extra inventory the company needed to carry to service the demand for Miller Lite. Today, the company operates out of that same 70,000-square-foot building that is temperature controlled and made out of precast concrete.
Grooming Today’s Leadership
“During the 1990s, while I was in high school and college, I worked in merchandising. I was responsible for stocking shelves, rotating out old product and replacing it with fresh beer,” Joanie explains. “It wasn’t the most glamorous first job, but it taught me a lot about the importance of product placement and freshness, and gave me that first look at the family business.”
Michael Sullivan retired in 1995 and the company was renamed John P. O’Sullivan Distributing, Inc., with John operating as president of the company. O’Sullivan Distributing continued to expand by acquiring the distribution rights to the Miller brands for Shiawassee County and the distribution rights to brands such as Corona and Modelo for Genesee, Lapeer and Shiawassee Counties.
While Joanie was in college, her parents encouraged her to go to law school with the long-term plan of coming back to join the family business. It was during law school that she met her husband, Sean Butler, and they went to work for law firms in Washington, DC. However, soon after the birth of their oldest child, Joanie entered the business full-time to assist in overseeing the day-to-day operations of the company in 2005.
“Upon returning home from Washington, DC, I helped the company out with legal matters and slowly worked my way through the ranks. My father mentored me along the way, before his health started deteriorating,” Joanie explains.
Sean, now chief operating officer, came into the business in 2007, when O’Sullivan Distributing acquired Oak Distributing, which gave them the distribution rights to Coors, Blue Moon, Samuel Adams, Pabst, Mike’s Hard Lemonade and several other import and craft beer brands. Then in 2010, they acquired Muehlenbeck Distributing Company out of Saginaw, which brought their total distribution footprint to their current seven counties, including Genesee, Lapeer, Shiawassee, Bay, Saginaw, Midland and Gratiot counties. Joanie became the president and chief executive officer of the company in 2016 after her father’s passing.
Delivering on Values
“Sean and I work hard to keep the same values my dad set forth in the company. He spent time every day walking through the offices and warehouse getting to know his employees,” Joanie explains. “We have a real sense of family and an open-door policy with all of our employees, many of them have been with us for over 25 years.”
“John P. O’Sullivan Distributing is a great place to work,” explains Julie Rachut, controller, John P. O’Sullivan Distributing. “Joanie understands the importance of a successful work life balance, that allows the team to deliver to their fullest potential.”
Several years ago, Joanie was one of a small handful of women who held positions within Michigan’s beer distributors. Since then, that number has grown, and there are more female beer reps and more women going into management. Not only are they becoming executives, but they are also growing in numbers in the warehouse, delivery trucks and sales routes.
“Joanie easily stands out in the crowd of men that dominates the beer business,” Megan Daniels of MillerCoors says. “However, it’s not her gender that separates her from the rest. Joanie’s passion to win is unparalleled. She is intelligent and kind, yet bold and decisive. I feel honored to work with John P. O’Sullivan, as they have been recognized in our organization year over year as the best of the best. What I respect most about Joanie is her drive to reinvest in her company and her team.”
“We have to be willing to innovate to stay with the times,” Sean explains. “Everything is infiltrated with technology now and even the way we are selling beer is changing.” The company added on a beautiful tasting and beer education room earlier this year to bring in the sales team and account representatives to help educate them on new products and sales techniques.
“Coming from a large corporation, being able to work with someone like Joanie has been nothing short of remarkable. She is collaborative, adaptable and always looking forward,” explains Tyler Young, operations/logistics manager, John P. O’Sullivan.
“As a small business owner, sometimes we guess wrong on how much inventory we will need each week, based on what people are buying,” says Justin Knight, owner of Corner Bar & Grill in Fenton. “If we are looking like we are going to be short on something, I just give them a call, and they show up with more stock. It doesn’t matter what day it is; I can count on them to come through. Their customer service is fantastic.”
In addition, Joanie is very passionate about supporting the communities that have supported her family business for so many years. The company avidly supports the St. John Applefest in Fenton, Great Lakes Loons in Midland, Eastern Michigan Fair in Imlay City, the HAP Crim Festival of Races and Canoes for a Cause on the Kawkawlin River, and this year they are a sponsor of the Ally Challenge, a Professional Golfers Association Tour Champions event at Warwick Hills in Grand Blanc. Joanie is also on the boards of Whaley Children’s Center and the Michigan Beer & Wine Wholesalers Association.
“We are well positioned for continued growth in the state of Michigan, and continue to seek out opportunities for expansion,” Joanie states. “We are preparing for the growth by adding 18,000 square feet to our current 70,000-square-foot facility. This will also include a brand new 6,000-square-foot keg cooler.” This major project was slated to begin after Labor Day 2018.