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Father-daughter duo mix risk with stability at $220M beer business

Even after five decades in the beer and beverage business, John Saputo isn’t ready to walk away. If (when) he does, he’s confident the next generation is ready to run the company.


  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 5:00 a.m. April 4, 2023
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
John Saputo says watching his daughter, Andrea Cox Saputo, take on more responsibility at Gold Coast Eagle has been one of his proudest moments as a dad and business owner.
John Saputo says watching his daughter, Andrea Cox Saputo, take on more responsibility at Gold Coast Eagle has been one of his proudest moments as a dad and business owner.
Photo by Harry Sayer
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John Saputo recently met with a group of money people to sign the latest documents to take on debt for his $220 million family-run beverage distribution business, Gold Coast Eagle Distributing. It was a five-year series of financial tranches for the cash-heavy business, Saputo says, calling it “more debt than you could possibly believe.” 

One person in the room that day was his daughter, Andrea Saputo Cox. Recently named president and equity manager/owner of the Lakewood Ranch-based company, Saputo Cox signed the documents along with John Saputo. “She said ‘I’m here with you, I’m totally in,’” the elder Saputo says. “That was one of the proudest moments of my life.” 

Both father and daughter chuckle when asked if that means the high-energy Saputo, a U.S. Marine colonel who served 32 years and won a Bronze Star for heroism, will now officially retire. The answer? Not likely. 

But, at 72, Saputo does intend to slow down. Or, in his words, give the stuff he doesn’t like to Saputo Cox, like HR, operations, logistics, etc. and do more of the stuff he does like to do. That revolves around seeing customers and talking about the litany of beverage products Gold Coast offers under the Anheuser-Busch/InBev brand. “There is nothing here Andrea can’t do,” he says. “She can successfully run the entire company. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

Saputo Cox, 45, while not shying away from the responsibility of being the final decision maker, says she likes that her dad will be around to both bounce ideas off and, sometimes, disagree with. “There’s pressure but I really love that he’s still here for me when I need help,” she says. “There are times when we don’t see eye to eye but we will often agree on what’s best for the business.”

Saputo Cox not only follows her dad into the beer and beverage business, but her grandfather, great-grandfather and an uncle, albeit in different entities selling different brands. 

And her accession at Gold Coast, which serves the Sarasota and Manatee markets, comes during a time of significant upheaval in the beer and beverage industry. The pandemic is one of the culprits on that front. At first, sales across the industry cratered, as stay-at-home orders wrecked the bar and restaurant side of the business. But some states relaxed delivery and other alcohol sales rules, giving the sector a boost. Overall, according to a report from Fortune Business Insights, the global beer market is projected to grow from $786.27 billion in sales in 2021 to $989.48 billion in 2028, a compounded annual growth rate of 3.68%. 


Growth mindset

Yet challenges industry-wide, in a Whac-A-Mole kind of way, continue to line up. The list ranges from inflation-induced higher prices for everything from aluminum for cans to grains for beer to a painfully-tight labor market to a carbon dioxide shortage. 

Gold Coast Eagle has, for the most part, been able to stiff-arm those challenges, at least in sales growth. The company posted $222 million in revenue in 2021, up 7.7% from $206 million in 2020. It has about 200 sales, service and support associates. That team helps process, sell and deliver 275 brands of beer, water, soda and other beverages, with some 1,500 SKUs. To illustrate how the complexity of the business has grown, Saputo points out that 25 years ago the business handled seven brands of beer and 56 direct packages, or SKUs.

“It’s a grueling and complicated business,” Saputo says. “It’s so competitive now because consumer tastes are all over the board.”

Gold Coast Eagle dates back to Nov. 1, 1996, when John Saputo acquired the distributorship from the Goodman family, who had operated Twin City Distributors. Saputo is a third-generation beer wholesaler: His grandfather, Joe Barraco, ran a three-truck operation outside Detroit in the years after Prohibition, where Saputo and his brothers worked and learned the business. The beer wasn’t part of the Anheuser-Busch family, Saputo notes, adding he and his brothers were paid in experience, not necessarily making enough money to go into the business for themselves. But Saputo stuck with it, and eventually managed or owned distributorships in Michigan, New York and North Carolina before coming to Florida. 

Part of Gold Coast Eagle’s growth stems from the Sarasota-Bradenton population boom of the last 25 years: more people, more beer drinkers. (The company sold 3.4 million cases of beer in 1996 and 6.5 million cases in 2022 — up 91.17%.) 

Another key in the company’s success? Its state-of-the-art headquarters and hospitality center on the Sarasota County side of Lakewood Ranch, in the corporate park. The facility, on a 23-acre site, includes a tasting room, rotunda, beer garden and conference room that holds up to 200 people. The company has opened the facility to dozens of nonprofits and charitable organizations to host events, and county officials have used it as a staging area during hurricanes or similar weather situations. “We have a lot of pride in giving back to the community where we live,” Saputo Cox says. 

John Saputo adds his affinity for giving back stems from a lesson he learned from his father, that to “build your business, first build your community.”


'Every seat'

Saputo Cox is one of four sisters raised by John Saputo and his wife, Denise.. The youngest sister, Bethany Dugger, lives in Ohio, where her husband, Devyn Dugger, is the equity manager of Dickerson Distributing. Saputo acquired Dickerson, north of Cincinnati, in 2014. The oldest sisters, twins Katherine Tanner and Sarah Mackie, aren’t in the beverage business. 

Saputo Cox started early, back to when she was 12 or 13 years old, cleaning out truck bays and washing tires when vehicles returned from daily deliveries. That was in summers during middle school — Saputo recalls her also circling around the warehouse in rollerblades, too. She was promoted to reconciling truck loads and office work the following summer. 

By the time Saputo Cox graduated from high school and the University of Florida, she had her own merchandising route. She then moved through all positions in the company, from pricing, graphics, sales, warehouse, sales management, operations and finance to human resources, community outreach and marketing. She’s handled sales for small bars and big grocery stores. “I sat in every seat in the company,” she says, “to learn it all.” 

While Saputo never doubted her abilities, his belief in Andrea was cemented in 2003, when he left the company to head overseas for reserve duty for the Marines during Operation Enduring Freedom. That’s when, at 27, Saputo Cox earned her equity certificate — a complicated and stringent process Anheuser-Busch/InBev puts all its owners through, to make sure they can handle the nuances of the business. 

The business didn’t miss a beat under Saputo Cox. “A regional Southeast vice president called me when I got back,” Saputo says, “and said ‘we knew she was good but we didn’t know she could run the whole company.’”


Next up

Saputo Cox took a decade or so off to raise two kids, who are now in high school. She came back to the business in spring 2020. Hugh Shields, a 19-year Gold Coast Eagle employee who handles marketing administration, in addition to many other front-facing tasks, says Saputo Cox’s return was a big win for the business. “I begged her everyday for 10 years to come back,” Shields quips. 

Not that John Saputo couldn’t handle the business, but Saputo Cox’s calm demeanor mixed with high-level work ethic, especially during the topsy-turvy post-pandemic era, has become a rallying point for the company. “In the beverage business you have to be able to put a case on a shelf or load a pallet,” Shields says, along with all the other administrative tasks. “She’s definitely the kind of person who leads by example. She will never ask someone to do something she hasn’t done herself.”

Saputo Cox is one of seven women to have a leadership role among the 450 distributorships in the Anheuser-Busch InBev network. For that, the parent company often reaches out to Saputo Cox for insight into womens’ sales habits and patterns, while her biological parent says he tries to stay in the background — as much as a Type A executive and father can. “It's fun. I get to see her make decisions that I would’ve made,” he says. “It’s like being driven in a car where I just get to sit back, have a beer and relax.”

While Saputo Cox is just hitting her career prime, the obvious question is will her children, John, a high school senior at Riverview High School in Sarasota, and Meghan, a sophomore at Riverview, follow her in leadership roles at Gold Coast? Both plan to go to college, their mom says. Then they might be thirsty for the family business. “Both have worked at the distributorship and express interest in coming into the family business,” Saputo Cox says. “But they also have outside interests.” 

 

author

Mark Gordon

Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.

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