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CEO taps success with his customer focus

Since June, Wright Wisner Distributing Corp. has added 19 jobs to grow the company’s total employee base to 312, up from 286 last year.
The Henrietta-based company has added 100 employees over the last five years, and Claude Wright, 58, president and CEO, is showing no signs of slowing down.
By year’s end, Wright Wisner will have sold 8.2 million cases of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, in line with company projections, despite a cool and rainy summer.
Wright Wisner holds a 46 percent market share in Monroe County and 35 percent in Wayne, Seneca, Cayuga, Ontario, Yates, Schuyler and northeast Steuben counties, Wright says.
Last year the company added 34,000 square feet to its Rochester facility, where the company has 10 truck-loading docks and can accommodate five rail cars. The company used its proximity to the railroad last year to unload 300 boxcars of its Coors, Miller and Corona brands.
“We’re one of few distributors in New York State that uses rail. I believe in it,” says Wright, a former banker.
In addition to the seven aforementioned counties, Wright Wisner also has a 65 percent share of the non-alcohol market in Genesee, Livingston, Orleans, Wyoming, northwest Steuben, Niagara and Erie counties.
James Growney, former CEO of CPU Inc. and a member of Wright Wisner’s advisory board, says aggressive expansion like this is part of Wright’s leadership style. Growney calls Wright a bulldog and risk taker who pursues his goals relentlessly. But Wright places a lot of importance on consulting regularly with his management team, Growney adds.
“Claude does a lot of the broad thinking and strategy, but he’s not a stand-alone entrepreneur,” Growney says.
He adds that while Wright’s strategy may be aggressive, it always is based on extensive research and knowledge of the marketplace.
“He has a great ability to network with people,” Growney says. “He’s very astute in how he studies opportunities by reaching out to this network.”
In September, Wright Wisner added four products to its existing lines when it bought the distribution rights to the Guinness brand from Buffalo-based Try-It Distributing Inc. for $1.9 million.
To meet the demands of its Guinness business in Niagara and Erie counties, Wright is moving one of the company’s three facilities from its 48,000-square-foot location in Batavia to a facility in LeRoy more than four times its size. Wright Wisner will move into the 210,000-square-foot plant in January, by which time the company will have invested more than $5.2 million in the expansion.
Wright purchased the LeRoy plant, once a Kodak distribution facility, in May. He decided to leave Batavia after he exhausted all possibilities for purchasing additional property around his existing plant, he said. He originally planned to expand operations to meet future growth when he moved to Batavia in 1991.
“If I put an addition on that (Batavia) plant now, and I’d need at least about 35,000 feet-maybe 40,000 feet because of our expansion into the Buffalo market. If I grow again, I have no place to go,” Wright says. “It was a big decision for me to move (from the Batavia location). It was the only building we’d built from the ground up.”
But the new warehouse, located in an Empire Zone, will do more than accommodate current growth, Wright said. It will be bigger than the company’s 125,000-square-foot Rochester facility and will house 13,500 square feet of cooler space and 15 trailer docks to meet the company’s growing market share and expanding product lines in the region.

Fast growth

The bulk of Wright Wisner’s growth has been due to its expansion in Buffalo. To meet this growth, the company’s Batavia business grew from 44 employees in 1999 to 98 employees in June.
Since adding Guinness products, Wright Wisner’s growth in Niagara and Erie counties has accelerated. But another motor of growth has been the company’s addition of the Yuengling brand.
The Yuengling brewery is the fourth largest in the United States. Wright Wisner began introducing the brand to Western New York six weeks ago, which is another reason behind the company’s recent expansion.
Before September’s brand expansion, the company sold only non-alcoholic beverages such as Snapple, 7 UP, A&W Root Beer and other soft drinks in Niagara and Erie counties. The new brand additions will lead Wright Wisner’s expansion into alcoholic beverages in its westernmost counties.
Among the beers Wright Wisner sells are Genesee, Red Dog, Pabst, Keystone, Milwaukee’s Best, Olde Milwaukee, Molsen, Heineken, Foster’s, Amstel Light, Bass and craft beers such as Sam Adams, Killian’s and Saranac.
The company also sells Seagrams, Widmer and Zima brands, plus non-alcoholic beers.
Wright Wisner sells soft drinks, juice and bottled water with brands such as Snapple, Sunkist, Country Time, Gatorade and Vermont Pure.
Wright Wisner in Rochester is the parent company of two fully owned subsidiaries: C.H. Wright Distributing Corp. in Batavia, soon to move to LeRoy, and B.E. Wright Distributing Corp. in Seneca Falls.
Since Wright took over at Wright Wisner in 1977, he consistently has grown the company by acquisition and the addition of new brands.
When he bought the company, it was in an 18,000-square-foot leased facility on University Avenue and had approximately 28 employees and three brands.
Two years after Wright took over the company, one of the brands went bankrupt. But Wright was so convinced of the company’s potential he proceeded to buy the Seneca Falls company, B.E. Wright, from his uncle Bruce that same year.
By 1984 Wright had made its first big purchase: V.F. Murphy, a wholesale beer distributor based in Batavia. At that time Wright Wisner had 46,000 square feet in Rochester, 30,000 square feet in Seneca Falls and 20,000 square feet in Batavia.
Today, Wright Wisner has grown by 172 percent to 125,000 square feet, B.E. Wright has grown by nearly 90 percent to 56,700 square feet and C.H. Wright has grown by 135 percent to what will be 210,000 square feet at the company’s new location.

The start

Wright Wisner was formed in 1953 by Robert Wisner, Bruce Wright and Claude Wright, Wright’s father.
His dad, now deceased, was an investor in the company. Instead of working at the distribution company, he worked as a pilot at Page Airways Inc. His family, which included Claude and four daughters, lived in Webster.
The elder Claude Wright served as a flight instructor during World War II, and by the time he was 79 had accumulated 35,000 hours as pilot in command.
“My father was the original employee of Page Airways. He was vice president of engineering and most of all he was a pilot,” Wright said. “He retired in 1984 from Page Airways and he owned and flew a twin-engine Beechcraft until he was 79, four months short of his 80th birthday.”
Wright fondly remembers flying with his father.
“When I was a kid growing up, my dad would be in Arizona or Texas, and since I was as high as the dashboard, I’d be in the plane with him going places,” Wright says. “Dad used to tell me that his paycheck from Page Airways, he used to give a large portion of it to Bob and Bruce to keep the company going.”
At that time Wright Wisner sold three beverages. Today the company sells 650 beverage products, 68.5 percent of which are alcoholic and 31.5 percent are non-alcoholic.
Wright says he was meant to become an entrepreneur.
After he graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a bachelor of science degree in business, he joined Marine Midland Bank’s headquarters in downtown Rochester. He began working in 1970 as assistant vice president of corporate banking. In 1976, he took a leave of absence with the intent of buying Wright Wisner.
A year later he bought the company.
“I’m an entrepreneur. I like taking risks. I had started a development company called Mt. Morris Development Co. We owned a small plaza, so I like to go out,
create and do things,” Wright says. “I like to work for myself.”
Wright began the development company during his years at Midland Bank.
Similarly, his father helped form a development company during his years at Page Airways. The name of the company was formed by combining the names of its founders: John Wilmot, James Morrissey and Claude Wright. Wilmorite Properties Inc. began as a home building company.
Wilmorite, which was founded in 1950, today ranks fourth in the Rochester Business Journal’s list of property management firms, with approximately 5.2 million square feet of commercial space managed locally.
Wright sold his share of the company in 1958.
“Dad was an entrepreneur, and I think that’s where I got the bug,” Wright says.
Wright has two children, Contessa, 23, and Claude, 18. He says he does not know whether his children will follow in his footsteps at Wright Wisner.
Both his children have worked at the company during spring breaks. Since Contessa now works for Ford Motor Co. as zone manager in the marketing, sales and service division for Boston, Wright says only time will tell if his children decide to join the company.
For now, he spends six days of the week at work.
“I’m open every Saturday. I’m the only person that is,” Wright says. “I keep our business here open from 9 (a.m.) to 1 (p.m.) and that’s specifically if I have someone who needs product they can either come here to pick it up or we’ll go out and make a special delivery. My competition doesn’t do that.”
Wright says he works with a lot of small stores and restaurants that deserve good customer service.
Wright’s friend Robert Latella, partner at local law firm Hiscock & Barclay LLP, knew Wright while Latella was chief operating officer at Genesee Brewing Co. Since then, he has served on Wright Wisner’s advisory board.
“He’s often traveling and visiting customers in the market, which is a sign of a smart and successful distributor,” Latella says. “It means a lot of late nights. If you’re going to call on a tavern owner, it’s not going to be at 10 in the morning.”
Wright explains: “I’m in the people business. We sell to small stores, restaurants … they work long hours. They have to put the key in the door every day and make a business out of it.”

Winning personality

Wright’s friends and colleagues say he has a charm that is irresistible but discreet and honest.
Wright serves on the advisory board at KeyBank N.A. KeyBank president Leonard Hess says Wright’s insight into the local business market has been an invaluable asset to him since Hess joined Key Bank 14 months ago.
“He is very engaging and a delightful person to talk to-a dynamite guy,” Hess says. “As you go through life, it’s rare that you find someone you connect with, trust and find you would do anything for.”
Latella describes Wright as a fun-loving guy who is involved in the community.
Wright serves on a number of advisory boards and associations both statewide and industrywide. They include the Molson Canada Beer wholesale advisory board, Stroh Brewery Co. wholesale advisory board, Coors Brewing Co. advisory board, and the New York State Wholesalers Association.
He also serves on the board of the Oak Hill Country Club, near where he lives with his wife, Nancy, in Pittsford. He has served on Oak Hill’s board as president and house chairman.
He calls himself an avid golfer and car buff.
“My favorite car is the BMW M5. I used to own one of the originals, a 1991 model. I like to purchase used performance cars, three to four years old, and enhance the suspension, braking and performance, etc.,” Wright says.
He modifies some himself, but says help is always handy at work.
“We have full-time mechanics that help me,” Wright says.
The company’s Rochester facility has a full-time staff of mechanics that help service Wright Wisner’s 75 delivery trucks.
His company is the largest non-union beverage distributor in New York, Wright says.
“I’m proud of it. I pay 100 percent of every employee’s health insurance, regardless of their position,” he says.
While he says health care coverage is one of his biggest concerns in the coming years, he believes it is important to maintaining employee productivity and loyalty.
“All I ask my employees for is productivity, and I help them with everything else.
“I have great employees. I have very little turnover,” Wright says.
He gives an example of one of his secretaries who began working for him when she was 64.
“She still works Mondays and Fridays; she’ll be 83 in May,” he says.
Given Wright’s own views on retirement, he might work well into his 80s too.
“I couldn’t retire. I’m just not a retiring kind of person,” he says. “I enjoy work too much.”
(rbj@rbj.net / 585-546-8303)

11/12/04 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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