No tears in their beer

Chesbay Distributing offers employees activities and opportunities

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Print this page by Joan Tupponce
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Patrick Collins is president of Chesbay Distributing, which sells
over 7 million cases of beer a year. Photo by Mark Rhodes

Chesbay Distributing’s business is beer. That is apparent in one of the company’s employee events, a craft-beer competition.

In addition to brewing beer, teams from company departments develop marketing plans and labeling systems. “Then they are judged and a trophy is awarded to the winner,” says Kathrine Wylie, the company’s marketing manager.  “All of our departments are represented [in the contest]. It’s turning into something fun.”

The contest is just one way that the Chesapeake-based wholesale beer distributor connects with its employees and maintains morale.

Chesbay officials say the company appeals to jobseekers because of the opportunities it offers.

“In the last year or so we have attracted a lot of employees from competitors,” says Jerry Fortner, Chesbay’s director of human resources. “We are known in the area as having the strongest compensation package and raises for sales, delivery and warehouse employees [among] beverage distribution companies.”

Delivery drivers are paid in the upper $50,000 range while merchandisers and warehouse workers make $16 an hour.

Chesbay traces its roots to Norfolk Beverage, which was founded in the mid-1980s. The name was changed in 2000 to reflect the company’s growing footprint. “We felt like Norfolk Beverage was too narrow,” Fortner says.

The company’s territory grew outside the Chesapeake area three years ago when it acquired Kozak Beverages, a Miller beer distributor based in Petersburg. Chesbay’s  territory now stretches north to Petersburg, west to Amelia County and south to North Carolina.

The company distributed Miller beer until 1999 when it added a Coors portfolio. In 2012 it joined Reyes Holdings, a family-owned conglomerate of beer distributors representing import, craft and domestic beers.

Today, Chesbay distributes around 35 beers, ranging from Miller to Virginia craft beers such as Hardywood, Ardent and Lickinghole Creek.

The company sells  just over 7 million cases of beer a year. “Beer is a good business to be in because it’s pretty much recession proof,” Fortner says.

The company now has around 170 employees. None is pigeonholed in one job or one segment of the business, Fortner says. Employees can move from one department to another during their careers. “We work hard on employee engagement,” Fortner says. “We want people to develop and grow as promotions become available.”

The company’s management, including company President Patrick Collins, maintains an open-door policy in listening to employees’ concerns. “We have a hotline number that employees can call if they feel an issue has not been addressed properly,” Fortner says.

Chesbay organizes a variety of employee activities such as Family Fun Day. The event includes carnival rides, music, food, a beer garden and door prizes. “Last year we topped out at about 450 people,” says Wylie.

In addition, the company holds an annual awards banquet to recognize top performers in each department, awarding them $1,000 each.

In 2013 Chesbay started its “Hunger Action Month Initiative” during which it conducts a food drive at its warehouse to support the Food Bank of Southeastern Virginia. “Every department gets involved, and this year we competed internally, our sales department versus our operations department. We were able to collect and donate 5,205 pounds of food and necessities,” Wylie says. “This is double what we collected in 2016.”

Chesbay is always looking for ways to retain employees, company officials say. “Warehouse, merchandising and delivery jobs are tough, physical jobs,” Fortner says, noting that a yearly attrition rate of 15 percent is typical in the industry.  “We think we have done a good job of hedging our turnover.” 

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