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During the height of the pandemic in 2020, the U.S. economy had been put on an extended pause as the world grappled with the worst rapidly spreading virus in a century. The restaurant, bar, hospitality and travel industries were halted globally with little to no notice. There were no playbooks, guideposts, best practices or templates to combat the direct business effects of a shutdown, as no one anticipated or could forecast its end.
Enter, Rodney Williams, president and CEO of Belvedere Vodka — a premium spirit that’s also part of global luxury behemoth LVMH. One would assume the CEO of a spirits brand would ride the pandemic out cautiously as laws around the delivery of alcohol liberalized in places around the world. Not so, recalls Williams, as he was still an ever determined optimist and pushed change instead of more of the same.
In an interview with Williams, we breakdown how he achieved tremendous success during turbulent times with all the odds against him.
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“In many ways, the pandemic has made me agile and surprisingly hopeful. For starters, we had to rethink our strategy and reconsider our benchmarks for success. Our ability to reach consumers in restaurants, bars and nightclubs has been directly impacted,” Williams says.
Indeed, this was true for the entire spirits industry according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS).
“Permanently enacting marketplace modernizations introduced in response to COVID-19, from online delivery to cocktails-to-go, will aid in the recovery of restaurants, bars and craft distilleries,” DISCUS president and CEO Chris Swonger said at an annual economic briefing.
DISCUS’s report cited “fast acting state leaders who implemented creative temporary measures to keep hospitality businesses afloat amid months-long shutdowns.” However, Williams knew success for Belvedere depended on agility, ramping up and even launching a new campaign in the middle of a global pandemic.
First, let’s start with Williams’s background. He earned a BA from Amherst College and an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School. Afterwards, he learned how to deal with brands in crisis and lead them through to success in unlikely industries. He worked his way through the ranks at titans of industry: Johnson & Johnson, leading to exponential growth in many of its brand followed by Onstar’s division of General Motors, where he oversaw the award-winning $55 million dollar “Batman” advertising campaign. Williams then made his way into wine and spirits, taking on high-profile roles with Jackson Family Wines, Robert Mondavi and finally joining Moët Hennessy as SVP and CMO, where he led the brand into record growth and winning five Gold Cannes Lions all on the way.
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Now, in 2020, he faced a set of challenged unseen before in the 21st century.
“Rather than slow down, we ramped up our storytelling efforts,” Williams remarks. “And even launched our new campaign platform, Made With Nature. The platform is a way to connect our consumers to our guiding philosophy: Make the highest-quality product possible with all-natural ingredients and nothing else.”
Williams bet on this, and as it turns out, he was right. According to the Conscious Consumer Spending Index, the pandemic has led to a surge of socially responsible buying patterns from companies who employ key responsible business practices in their production and giving back to the environment.
How does Mr. Williams respond to his apparent success in predicting this? In addition to following the ancient process of crafting Belvedere (I also learned along the way that all distilled spirits are gluten free and that vodka does actually have taste because of the soil its base spirit is grown in they call it ‘terroir’ and proved it with their Single Estate Series), Belvedere set ambitious CSR benchmarks that they are actually fulfilling this year even after the pandemic wreak havoc to every industry on the planet.
They became the first operating distillery to receive a grant from the European Union for an on-site biomass facility that will open later this year to pilot an extensive green energy and will begin producing 100% renewable energy, subsequently reducing energy-related CO2 emissions by 80% for Belvedere to then become fully energy carbon neutral in 2022. Their other big promise was on going organic. Starting this year, new Belvedere product will be organic. They received their certification for organic production and are currently working with their farmers in Poland to transition to 100% organic farming starting from 2023.
“Our latest innovation, Belvedere Organic Infusions, represents our first certified organic vodka,” Williams says. “Moving into the organic category is a natural progression for the Belvedere brand. The organic certification is inspired by how we’ve always been making vodka and while not new, it’s still quite uncommon in the spirits industry at scale despite there being fast-growing consumer interest. Ultimately it ensures that Belvedere Organic Infusions are crafted only with ingredients that are farmed with no artificial pesticides, additives, or chemicals, allowing the natural taste of each ingredient to shine through.”
With all of the activity occurring at Belvedere, Williams stresses that success in leadership is still one of the most critical pieces. However, he admits it’s not an exact science or something to master overnight.
“I aspire to foster a work culture that encourages and engages team members from different backgrounds and problem-solving approaches to work collaboratively to build the business,” he says. “It’s not always easy, but it makes for a richer worklife and more dynamic, engaged team.”
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