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Spirit of America Award 'The Colonel'

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  • | 6:00 p.m. May 14, 2004
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Spirit of America Award 'The Colonel'

John Saputo


Gold Coast Eagle Distributing Co.


John Saputo bought the Sarasota/Manatee Anheuser Busch distributorship eight years ago when it controlled 53% of the local market.

Pundits and bankers alike told Saputo he was crazy; it wasn't sensible to expect more than 50% market share.

Saputo, 54, laughs as he recalls the skeptics' comments.

In 2003, his sales teams sold 5.4 million cases of beer to grab 69.8% market share. And he increased sales in every brand carried by the Gold Coast Eagle Distributing Co. This year he expects revenues of about $80 million, compared to $75 million in 2003.

"Everyone thought I was crazy," he says, "but put your nose to the grindstone, and everyone thinks you're brilliant. Isn't that the way it is in business?"

Last year's growth occurred even though Saputo spent several months overseas, serving as a colonel with the U.S. Marine Reserves.

Saputo responds to commendations with modesty. He's quick to say it was easier to run the business than to spend eight months assigned to Desert Storm/Desert Shield. Modern technology, he says, including cell phones and e-mail, made long-distance management feasible. He also credits his daughter, Andrea Saputo Cox, the company's vice president of marketing, for her leadership in his absence.

After Saputo received 10 days' notice of his deployment, he hastily went into a preparation mode, which included the signing of wills and trusts. He says the process was "pretty morbid."

"You have to do everything you need to do before you die," he says. "It's like dying, but you don't know that you're going to die. Andrea and I signed documents and permission for her to run the company in my absence - a lot of things that assume you're dead."

As part of the pre-deployment preparations, Saputo outlined a plan with his daughter, which described how she would handle issues in his absence, or who she would contact for advice if he was unavailable by means of modern technology.

Saputo Cox says her father's absence passed smoothly for the company. She collaborated with the vice presidents of sales and operations on major decisions.

Saputo's return to American soil - and to the helm of his company - happened even more quickly than his departure. He first received word from headquarters while patrolling the recently fallen Baghdad.

"It was very strange," Saputo says. "I was on patrol in downtown Baghdad with three armored Humvees with 50-caliber machine guns and everyone armed to the tee, waiting for snipers to shoot or IEDs (improvised explosive devices) to go off - literally in the middle of night patrol when I got a command from headquarters that Central Command wanted my pictures and a report of who was shooting at us and why.

"There was a plane leaving at 1:30 a.m., I was told to pack and to get to the base in Cutter. I had half an hour to shower and put on clean clothes. Thirty hours later I'm landing at Tampa International Airport. Thirty-three hours from combat, I'm standing in the new house my wife built me on Lighthouse Point in Longboat Key."

Back at the office, Saputo flavors his management style with patriotism. His work force of about 150 boasts about 37% veterans, a reflection of Saputo's commitment to hire any veteran with an honorable discharge and a good record - regardless of whether he has immediate need of their services.

"I hire them whether I have space or not because they bring a positive, gung-ho attitude, the ability to work in any environment, they don't complain, and - it's very hard in this state to do - they're drug free," Saputo says.

Likewise, he says, veterans usually find themselves immediately comfortable with his management style, which he is the first to admit, is military in nature.

"I get accused of running this place like a Marine infantry battalion," Saputo says. "It's true. It's management by goals, management by objectives. It's pay for performance."

Management by example means working side by side with associates, no matter their position in the company. His payoff: intense loyalty from his associates.

Ed Johnson, a Navy veteran hired by Saputo eight years ago, says he's more than willing to work extra hours for a leader like Saputo.

"He shows up early at the warehouse (office), does his paperwork and then jumps on a fork lift and helps crew unload transport trucks," Johnson says. "Then he might go back to the office for meetings. Then he'll go look for the driver or salesman with the heaviest load that day and help him. He's the most hands-on wholesaler principal I've ever been around.

"He's the colonel, you know."

The second level of Saputo's management style is employee empowerment. His people know they can spend his money to make a customer happy.

He tells the tale of a recent phone call from the owner of a BP Station in Myakka City which had run out of a couple of products. The salesman for that area ordered what Saputo calls a "hot shot delivery," sending a driver to deliver only four cases of beer. Obviously, that delivery did not pay for itself, but Saputo sees the big picture.

"The customer will give that back to me 10 times in loyalty and extra sales," Saputo says. "In sales you can't look at the financial ramifications of every decision. You look at what's good for the customer and the brands."

Also unique to Saputo's approach: Everyone works within a team, and everyone knows everyone else's job. And everyone, except top management, is paid entirely through commission.

"In the Marines we say, 'Every Marine is a rifleman,' " Saputo explains. "In the beer business, my adage is, 'Every associate is a salesman and a merchandiser.' If my administrative assistant is in a grocery store, she knows to give a report. She knows if something's out of stock to make a call."

Saputo, an accounting graduate from Boston College, is a third generation beer distributor.

His grandfather, he says, operated a five-truck distribution operation before, during and after prohibition. His father owned a 10-truck operation based on the west side of Detroit. Saputo bought his first distributorship in Raleigh, N.C., and later bought part-ownership in other distributorships throughout the Hudson River Valley area.

When Anheuser Busch approached him, saying they were tired of competing against him, Saputo bought into their Rocky Mt., N.C., distributorship. When his market share exceeded 70% in that location, Anheuser executives asked him to take over the Sarasota distributorship.

Saputo has successfully navigated the industry's shifting trends throughout the years, from the days when consumers wanted premium beer with full taste and alcohol content, through the demand for low calorie beer to the modern taste for low-carbohydrate content, and specialty and imported beer.

He forecasts continued growth for Gold Coast Eagle Distributing. He anticipates new annual growth of an added million cases within the next 10 years. Within three years, he plans to find a site to house a state-of-the-art facility to accommodate that growth.

Saputo supports more than 325 charitable events each year through the company. He also keeps a close eye on politics, a must for a company that pays 40% in taxes for each case of beer sold, he says, jokingly adding that his company is one of the area's largest tax collectors.

Off the job, Saputo spends time with his wife, Denise, often aboard his boat, "The Golden Eagle."


Employees: 2001: 120; 2002: 130; 2003: 140.

Revenues: 2001: $64.5 million; 2002: $71.2 million; 2003: $75 million.

Average annual growth: 7%


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