Inside Track: Beverage industry déjà vu
Brien Fox of Henry A. Fox Sales now heads the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America.
Brien Fox isn’t the first from his family tree to head the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America. His father, Henry “Happy” Fox of Henry A. Fox Sales Co., chaired the same organization in 1996.
In early April, Brien Fox, president and CEO of Grand Rapids-based Henry A. Fox Sales, was named the new chair of Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America. He was formally installed in his one-year chairmanship at the WSWA national convention in Orlando in mid-April. His father was named the 2015 recipient of the WSWA’s Wholesaler Lifetime Leadership Awardat the same convention.
The Fox family began its wholesale beverage distribution company in 1952.
“Prior to that, we were brewers,” said Brien Fox, and their most famous brand locally was Fox DeLuxe, brewed in downtown Grand Rapids at Michigan Street and Ionia Avenue. The brewery was managed by Brien’s grandfather.
The Fox family was from Chicago and got into brewing in 1938, with three breweries at their peak. In the 1940s, the family acquired Grand Rapids Brewing Co. and its famous Silver Foam brand, according to Fox.
When the family brewing business was consolidated in Chicago in the early 1950s, it marked the start of the wholesale beverage distribution business in Grand Rapids. The company picked up the Stags beer brand, and then Blatz and Pabst Blue Ribbon, brews that started growing in sales throughout the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s. As a few big brands began to dominate the market, many small brands like Fox DeLuxe did not survive.
Brien Fox graduated cum laude from Forest Hills Central High School in 1993, and then earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration at the University of Notre Dame — also cum laude — in 1997.
Fresh out of college, Fox was hired by E. & J. Gallo Winery. Established in 1933 in Modesto, California, by Ernest and Julio Gallo, the company is now the world's largest wine producer with wineries in the United States, Italy and Australia.
“They are one of the top companies to work for, not only in alcoholic beverages but in consumer products, in general,” said Fox, who was based in Chicago and worked in sales, covering most of Illinois.
He was with Gallo for three years and is grateful for the on-the-job training he received. When asked what his big career break was, he instantly replied, “Gallo is probably it. They are as good as it gets in terms of sales training in the consumer products area.”
Gallo was a unique opportunity to learn about the industry, he said. “And I liked it, so I stayed in the industry and then ended up moving back to Michigan to run the family company.”
He began working for the family business in 2000 as general sales manager.
Henry A. Fox Sales, with about 150 employees, covers all of Michigan and is one of the largest wine wholesalers in the state. Its beer distribution is focused on craft beers — a growth market that seems far from saturated, particularly in West Michigan.
Brien Fox saw how hard Gallo works to educate its wholesale customers and consumers about the products it sells, and Henry A. Fox Sales does the same. That’s no small matter, since Fox distributes more than 4,000 items.
Fine wine has come a long way in the U.S. over the past 50 years, and Gallo played a historic role in that development. According to a report last fall in U.S. News & World Report, in 2013, the International Organization of Vine and Wine determined wine consumption in the U.S. had surpassed France.
The magazine also reported that wines from the New World have become more popular around the globe; the first place brand is Barefoot, with Gallo coming in second. Since 2005, Barefoot has actually been a division of E. & J. Gallo.
More beer is consumed in this country than wine; globally, in 2013, it was 187 billion liters compared to 24 billion liters of wine.
Serving as chair of the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America is practically a full-time job. WSWA is the national trade association representing the distribution sector of the wine and spirits industry, with more than 360 member companies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It is the voice for wholesalers in Congress, as well as before the executive branch, the courts and with the U.S. news media.
Member firms represent more than 80 percent of the U.S. wine and spirits market.
“I’m honored to be selected chair of an organization that truly brings a unique cross-section of stakeholders, businesses and entrepreneurs together to help our companies, our employees and our communities compete, succeed and thrive across all 50 states,” Foxsaid. “As chair, I’ll help renew and strengthen our commitment to advancing the interests and independence of wine and spirits distributors. I look forward to helping guide the WSWA as it addresses the many issues, opportunities and trends facing our industry at the national level.”
Fox said the WSWA has long been and will continue to be a strong advocate for common-sense, responsible regulations that balance economic opportunities with the need to protect public health and safety.
“Alcohol is a product that, by its nature, will always need to be regulated,” Fox said. “WSWA will continue to spread the message that alcohol is a special product that must be marketed and sold in a special way so only responsible adults of legal drinking age have access to them.
“Other nations are struggling to find that balance, with sometimes deadly consequences. WSWA strongly believes the modern regulated beverage system in the United States is a model that delivers choice, encourages growth and promotes responsibility.”
“WSWA will continue to advocate for states’ rights and the ability for each state, including Michigan, to determine its own regulations and laws concerning the marketing and sales of alcohol beverages,” he added.
“We provide a balance,” he told the Business Journal. “On the one end you have the prohibitionists who want to ban alcohol, or make the DUI zero tolerance, or tax alcohol to an exorbitant amount. Then, on the other end, you’ve got people that just want to ship direct to the consumers and want no regulation and don’t worry about (alcohol sales) next to a school.
“I live locally; I have kids who go to our schools in the community. I want the same amount of balance as the next person. I don’t want a liquor store open 24 hours a day next to my elementary school,” he said.
Fox is a board director for the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association, and prior to becoming chair, was vice chair at WSWA. Recently, Gov. Rick Snyder appointed him to serve on the Michigan Grape and Wine Council.
Fox is also president of the Spring Lake Junior Sailing Association, a member of the Grand Rapids Rotary Club and Notre Dame Club of Grand Rapids and a Next Generation member of the Family Business Alliance of Grand Rapids.
Henry A. Fox Sales Co. is a classic Grand Rapids family-owned business, which is why Brien Fox is such an enthusiastic member of the Family Business Alliance.
“We have something special in West Michigan when it comes to the family businesses that thrive here. I’m not sure why,” he said, adding that, throughout America, those with family businesses are all too aware it is “hard to transcend the generations and keep a family business going.”