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Rochester Top 100: Firm taps growth with more share, territory

In an industry where family succession still prevails, Wright Wisner Distributing Corp.’s second generation of leadership has led the company to exceed $100 million in revenues for the past three years.
 
The company, which does business as Wright Beverage Distributing, has added 45 employees this year and expects to increase revenues by 10 percent in 2013. Fifty-one percent of its business is in the Rochester area.
 
The original three partners, Robert Wisner and brothers Claude Wright and Bruce Wright, started the company in 1953 with three brands to distribute: Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co.; F.X. Matt Brewing Co. and Molson Breweries of Canada. Bruce Wright and Wisner worked at the company, and Claude Wright was an absentee owner who worked for Paige Airways Inc.
 
Claude Wright’s son, Claude H. Wright, bought the company from Wisner in 1976 when Wisner was 70 years old and ready to retire. He bought out his father’s and uncle’s shares as well. He acquired an ailing business bogged down with debt, making less than $5 million a year.
 
"They really couldn’t make a living," said Claude H. Wright, now CEO and owner. "Dad said he used to cash his check at Paige Airways and help Bob and Bruce out all the time. … It was a struggling small business."
 
Before buying the business, Wright took a year to learn from Wisner. He already knew part of the business from years of driving a beer truck on his summers off from Penn State University.
 
After college, Wright worked at Marine Midland Bank as a lending officer for six years before taking over the company.
 
Ultimately, he decided he would rather work for himself.
 
Schlitz Brewing went bankrupt 18 months after Wright bought the distributorship, making the first few years difficult.
 
"Basically to survive we had to pick up other brands, and we also grew in territory by buying out other distributorships," he said. "It’s a business of consolidation, because if you don’t have a 20 percent market share, you’re not going to compete effectively."
 
The first major break came with a partnership with Stroh Brewery Co. of Detroit, which had the slogan "From One Beer Lover to Another." The move gave Wright Wisner Distributing more clout in Western New York and expanded the company’s market share to make it competitive.
 
During 37 years of Wright’s ownership, the firm has made 20 acquisitions and has grown from 27 employees and 500,000 cases distributed annually to 336 employees with more than 10.5 million cases delivered nationally and locally across 13 1/2 Upstate New York counties.
 
Some 50 trucks distribute the products from two distribution centers in Le Roy, Genesee County, and Henrietta. In the summer more than 70 trucks distribute beverages throughout Upstate New York. The company has sales locations in Buffalo and Seneca Falls.
 
Wright makes it a point to know his employees.
 
"I think he empowers his management team to manage the business for him, (but) he’s very much a hands-on owner," said Dan Bresnahan, sales and marketing director. "He cares a lot. … You don’t see (that) all the time."
 
The company has 4,600 retail accounts.
 
Last summer the firm acquired Finger Lakes Bottling Co. Inc. and Rochester Beer and Beverage Corp. to expand further.
 
Some of its top alcoholic brands are Sam Adams of the Boston Beer Co., Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Saranac of F.X. Matt Brewing, and Genesee Brewing Co. Non-alcoholic brands account for one-third of the company’s sales with brands such as Dr. Pepper, Snapple, 7UP, Polar Seltzer and Sunkist.
 
The business adds roughly a dozen brands a year. In the distribution industry, brand territories are defined by contract.
 
"What you’re trying to do is you’re trying to consolidate the brands," Wright said. "I can never be a Budweiser distributor because I’m viewed as their competition."
 
Without time to see a new product mature, products are assessed quickly by companies, hoping the choice to distribute does not mean carrying dead inventory.
 
Bresnahan said, "If I collect 100 new brands this year, yeah, I could pound my chest and say, ‘Hey, we’re proud we have all these brands.’ But if I can’t do them justice and do our part as their distributor, what good is it to have them in house?"
 
Wright knows where he came from and who helped to get him there.
 
"We had one small building and five trucks," he said. "You have to have a lot of good employees. They know me, and I know them."

The Rochester Top 100 program is presented by the Rochester Business Alliance Inc. and KPMG LLP. Launched in 1987, it recognizes the fastest-growing private companies in Greater Rochester. This year’s Rochester Top 100 event will be held Nov. 6. For more information, go to rochesterbusinessalliance.com.

Wright-Wisner Distributing Corp.
A beverage distributing company
2013 ranking: 98
Founded: 1953
Top executive: Claude Wright, CEO and owner
Employees: 336
Location: Henrietta

11/22/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected]

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