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Metro Beverages is Moving Ahead

August 18, 2008

By Stowe, Gene

While customers’ tastes change in the ups and downs of the economy, beer wholesaler Metro Beverages Inc. keeps moving ahead with a mix of products that keeps everybody happy.

“People will drink whether the economy’s good or the economy’s bad,” says Sam Roule, vice president and general manager of the 63- year-old family business.

The distributor, which has Miller, Coors and Pabst franchises, sells subprime brands such as Miller High Life and Keystone Light, domestic primes such as Miller Lite, Coors Light and Miller Genuine Draft, imports such as Guinness and Newcastle Brown Ale, and craft beers.

“The imports and the craft beers are premium products, so they command a higher price,” Roule says. “When the economy sours somewhat, we see a switch in buyer preference to cheaper beers.

“Craft beers and imports have seemed, in the downturn, like an affordable luxury,” but mid-range drinkers might decide to economize. “You see some of these people trading down to the Miller High Life or Keystone Light because it’s cheaper.

“Overall, it’s the same. Our numbers are pretty much flat compared to last years, as far as sales year-to-date. We haven’t seen a decline in the product. Beer has proved itself to be pretty recession-proof.”

Products include Killian’s Irish Red beer products, Smirnoff Ice, and Mike’s Hard Lemonade as well as specialty brews such as Shiner, Leinenkugel, Blue Moon, Samuel Adams, Eerie, Tommyknocker, Pete’s Wicked Ale and Magic Hat.

It sells Magnum Malt, Mickey’s Malt, Olde English, Steel Reserve and St. Ides malt liquors and Sharps, Coors, Kaliber and Mad Croc non-alcoholic brands, and it hopes to add more brands.

Roule’s grandfather, Arthur Roule Sr., was a major investor when the business started, and an uncle, Charles Spinning, ran the company until 1971. Roule’s father, Robert Roule, is now president and CEO, and his brother, Benjamin, is vice president of sales and marketing and on-premises sales manager.

“It’s a family business,” Roule says, explaining that the company started in Michigan City in 1945 as LaPorte County Beverages. “We moved our operation to South Bend in 1988 and changed our name to Metro Beverages.

“There was a distributor here in town that was getting ready to go out of business. We bought Michiana Beverages and moved our operations.”

The company was in the Michiana Beverages building on Olive Street for three years and moved in-to a building with a 67,000- square-foot warehouse on Lathrop Street. when it acquired the Coors franchise in 1991.

Brewers’ marketing strategies have resulted in a proliferation of packaging, up from 250 to 400 different sizes and styles in the past five years.

In 2003, Metro Beverages, which now serves St. Joseph, LaPorte, Elkhart, Marshall and Fulton counties, bought a nearby building on Foundation Drive. At the site are its sales and marketing office and a 30,000-square-foot warehouse for point-of-sale materials such as signage and brand merchandise, including cups and t-shirts.

“We are a wholesaler for retail accounts,” in the middle of a federally mandated three-tier system that includes brewers on one end and retailers on the other, Roule says.

The distributor has two markets – on-premise, such as bars and restaurants, and off-premise, such as liquor stores, grocery stores, supercenters and drug stores.

“People go and buy the product, take it home and consume it,” he says, adding that in a downturn, more people buy the product at stores and take it home.

Roule grew up with the company, which now has 105 employees and sells nearly 3 million cases a year. It was in the top 2 percent of Miller’s distributors in 2003 and 2007.

“It’s the only place I’ve ever worked,” he says. “I started back when I was 12 years old, in the Michigan City facility,” pulling weeds in the parking lot. He moved on to repackaging damaged product, then became a driver’s helper on the delivery trucks.

Roule graduated from Indiana University Bloomington in 1997 in general studies, came back and went to work in the sales department.

Ben, who is three years younger, lived in Indianapolis and worked for Monarch Beverages, the Miller-Coors distributor there, for two years before he came back to the family business five years ago.

The business has changed dramatically.

“The industry is currently going through a series of consolidations,” he says, adding that a joint venture of Miller and Coors approved could mean more marketing dollars.

Gone are the days from 30 or 40 years ago when sales reps went into bars and bought rounds for the house.

“That doesn’t happen today,” he says. “Our people do not drink on the route. It’s all business. It’s a message our brewers are very serious about. We want our products enjoyed responsibly.

“We have to be very careful how we market our products. We have to do so in a very responsible manner.”

For more information on Metro Beverages Inc., see the Web site at www.metrobeverages.com.

Copyright South Bend Tribune Corporation Jul 14, 2008

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