World's Smartest Billionaire Enters Beer Distribution Business


Dear Client:

Occasionally at dinner parties wealthy individuals will approach me -- knowing that I am somehow connected to the beer industry -- and ask, "How do I go about buying a beer distributorship?" For the past ten years or so my stock answer has been, "Nobody outside the industry gets into beer wholesaling anymore. Major suppliers will only approve consolidation with existing distributors." Of course, none of these people have been the world's smartest billionaire, so... If Columbia Distributing's major suppliers approve their pending sale (see BBD 07-28-12) with investment vehicle Meritage Group (and you gotta believe the parties ran a trial balloon with them before announcing it), that is no longer true. In fact, BBD has heard that their are dozens of private equity firms circling beer distributorships. And Meritage has itself sniffed around other distributorships we hear, and may be in the market for more.

Meritage is the private equity investment vehicle for the family of legendary investor/mathematician Jim Simons, who has an estimated net worth of $10.6 billion and is ranked by Forbes as the 27th-richest person in America. He was also named by the Financial Times in 2006 as "the world's smartest billionaire", as he used complex algorithms to make his fortune running Renaissance Technology, one of the most profitable hedge funds. He retired a few years ago. Meritage no doubt likes the steady cash flows of beer distribution.

Will there be more like them? Is this a one-off thing or will we see a rush of private equity money influx into beer distribution as we've seen somewhat with craft brewers? Tough to tell. But one thing is for sure: the notion that there are only a one or two approvable buyers for beer distributors doesn't pan out anymore. And perhaps beer distributorship values haven't peaked yet.

PROFESSIONAL MONEY. This marks the second entry of private equity into the middle tier, the first being the 70% stake BDT Capital (Byron Trott's private equity firm) owns in Chicago's City Beverage along with Anheuser-Busch. Also, recall that Glazer's is run by former investment banker Shelly Stein. Professional money has entered beer distribution, while professional management runs them. It's not surprising when you consider the reliable cash flows distributorships offer. Our hunch: This is just the beginning.

DEAL DIFFERENT. We should note that Meritage isn't really a private equity firm like we think of private equity firms. It is a firm with essentially one client: Jim Simons' family, (probably set up that way for tax reasons), and as such can stick with deals for longer horizons and may be looking for cash flow rather than increases in value to flip. We also note CoHo is a slightly different animal in that it is cut off on two sides from consolidation due to an international border and the Pacific ocean. So this deal does have its unique qualities.


It turns out that it was New York's attorney general, not Maryland's, which has launched an investigation into energy drinks' marketing practices. And it's not just Monster, but Pepsi's Amp and 5-Hour Energy, according to the Wall Street Journal, citing a source, (but notably not Red Bull so far).

NOT ABOUT CAFFEINE. The New York AG is focused on whether the drink makers are misleading consumers with inaccurate labeling and advertising, and could expand the probe to other companies. It's not really about caffeine levels. The AG is determining whether they overstated the benefits of certain ingredients while understating the role of caffeine.

...AND NY LAW. NY state law prohibits adding caffeine from more than one source without disclosing overall caffeine levels, and guarana is a source of caffeine. If there is a violation, the companies could pay civil fines and penalties, and to change their labeling and marketing.


Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed into law SB 3399 which amends the state Beer Industry Fair Dealing Act (BIFDA). The bill lowers the threshold for arbitration from 15% of the distributor's volume to 10% of the distributor's volume, says distributor memo. In the event a brewer cancels or terminates a distributor without cause, the brewer is required by BIFDA to pay reasonable compensation to the distributor for the value the distributor added to the brand. If a brewer refuses to pay, the distributor has the right to go to court. In 1999, an arbitration process was created for low volume brands (under 15% of the total volume) because going to court was too costly.

Until tomorrow, Harry

"I'm an idealist. I don't know where I'm going, but I'm on my way."
Carl Sandburg

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