How To Scale Up Trade Education: In Conversation with Eric Hemer MS MW

Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits of America is the biggest distributor in the US, making them a key player in the market. They also have a strong commitment to wine education, with 11 dedicated educators on staff. Eric Hemer, Senior Vice President, Director of Wine Education at Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, explains Southern’s approach to wine and spirits education, and why they consider it so important.

How To Scale Up Trade Education: In Conversation With Eric Hemer MS MW

Areni Global:

What role does Southern Glazer play in both the American wine market and the global wine market?

Eric Hemer MS MW:

The United States has a rather unique system — the three-tier system — and we are a wholesale distributor in the United States. We are the largest wholesale distributor. We were founded in 1968. So we play that key role here in the American wine market as the middle tier between producer and retailer, and restaurants. So we do not sell directly to consumers. We have to go through that third tier in the link. We started off in one state, Florida, and today we are in almost all markets and Canada. And we also recently have purchased a brokerage in the Caribbean. So we’re now covering all of the Caribbean as well. So we are truly North America.

How big is education for Southern Glazer in terms of people, in terms of percentage of revenue?

I have a team of 11 dedicated wine educators that cover the United States, and we have a lot of resources back of the house in terms of graphic design, in terms of content creation, that sort of thing. So we manage to cover most of the US with just 11 people and myself. We use a variety of educational tools these days, as do most companies, from classroom education to online education.

My main objective is simply to ensure that we have the best educated, most certified sales consultants on the street in the country, period.

Ninety percent of it is internal training and we do some external education as well. And we’re also involved in various organizations outside the company that are related, like the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, and the Institute of Masters of Wine, of course. And the Court of Master Sommelier and Society of Wine Educators. So we use a lot of external certification companies to certify our people, but we have our own internal training material as well. With 23,000 employees, it’s more than a full-time job just training our personnel. And the idea is nothing new: it’s the train the trainer idea, making sure that our people are capable and qualified to go out and do staff trainings.

The idea is nothing new: it’s the train the trainer idea, making sure that our people are capable and qualified to go out and do staff trainings.

Eric Hemer MS WM

How many people do you train or do you educate a year?

It’s in the hundreds and it varies from year to year. Since I started this job in 2014, our personnel have achieved over 14,000 wine and spirits and sake certifications. Next year we will easily surpass 15,000 total certifications. So it really ebbs and flows and we’ve been adding on new certifications as we go along. For example, WSET finally released a Level Two sake program, which we’ve just started on. We have some beer certifications for markets that sell beer. So any beverage that we sell, we’ve got an educational program for.

Most people hold more than one certification, and of those 23,000 employees, they’re not all sales and sales marketing. I’d say 16,000 or so are on the streets, selling in some capacity, and then we’ve got a huge back of the house operation. Our back of the house people are very interested in learning about the products that we sell. Some of our most enthusiastic members come from other jobs other than sales. We always have a few people from accounting or even merchandisers who don’t necessarily sell anything but just go and set up product displays. They may start as a merchandiser and then go into sales and move up into other positions throughout the company. So we really believe in educating our people. We want everybody to understand and know about the products that we sell.

I should mention that my team of educators are all very highly credentialed. We have Master Sommeliers, we have WSET Diploma holders, and we have certified wine educators from the Society of Wine Educators, which is fairly unique to the North American market. We expect salespeople to achieve, at minimum, within 90 days of employments, WSET Level Two.

We have an introductory course called Wine Basics, which they have to take within 90 days of employment, and then within two years, as long as their employees in good standing, we start them on the WSET path.

When you think about wine education today, what would you say is the purpose of wine education and what should wine education achieve?

I think it’s more important than ever before, just because the world of wine has grown so much over the past several decades. I think that all tiers of the wine industry, whether you are at a winery, whether you are an importer or a distributor, have an obligation to become educated as much as we can to help guide our customers. When I first started, the industry choices were so limited, we didn’t even know that wine was made outside traditional western European countries. And California was the only New World region that we had for sale. We’d never seen Australian wines or New Zealand wines or anything from South America.

All tiers of the wine industry, whether you are at a winery, whether you are an importer or a distributor, have an obligation to become educated as much as we can to help guide our customers.

Eric Hemer MS MW

So I think it behoves all of us to have as much education as we can so that we can properly guide the consumer and to help promote new wines and regions.

There’s so much misinformation out there and disinformation, so much greenwashing, that you really need an educated salesforce to help guide our customers, who can help guide their customers as well.

What makes education so critical in terms of being able to sell wine?

Just from a simple sales aspect, a well-educated salesforce gives us an advantage over our competitors, I think.

Is that something that you’ve measured?

No, it’s more anecdotal and what we see in the industry. We are the biggest, we consider ourselves the best in the North American markets, and we definitely have a larger sales force and more education. I think we put more of an emphasis on education than our competitors do. Everybody knows education’s important, but we were out of the box pretty quickly on education 20 years ago or so. I’ve been in education for Southern for two thirds of my 35-year career. And I think if you look at our growth over that time period, a lot of the success can be attributed to having the best and the best educated salesforce.

You need to know about wine, but you need to know about selling as well. How do you balance those two things?

It’s a double-edged sword. You can’t just have wine geeks that have no idea how to sell anything, so we actively recruit employees that come to us with a decent level of wine knowledge, especially for our fine wine divisions. Then we’ll evaluate those employees so that we can sort of fine tune their continued wine education path while they’re working for us. So we spend a lot of time and effort on recruiting the right people to come to Southern.

We have talent management and talent development personnel that makes sure that everybody is extremely well equipped when they hit the street. We recruit a lot of bright young talent from universities. We do job fairs. We hold our own internal programs like fast-track programs to identify those that will be successful in, not just sales, but all of our various departments. Before a salesperson even goes out on the street, they go through quite a bit of intensive sales training and training with all of our different software tools. It’s very complex these days.

Before a salesperson even goes out on the street, they go through quite a bit of intensive sales training and training with all of our different software tools. It’s very complex these days.

Eric Hemer MS MW

We spend more time teaching wine for sure. If I had to come up with a number, I’d say 80% of it is wine education and 20% spirits, including sake. Spirits just aren’t that complicated. It seems like every day we’ve got a new flavoured vodka or a new single barrel bourbon to sell, but it’s less complicated.

What do you need to know in order to sell wines? You can’t know everything, and yet you need to know a lot of things.

We certainly try to stay up to speed with contemporary issues and what’s trending, and we incorporate that into all the classroom training we do. Plus we have our own learning management system online, Southern Glazer’s University, where we post all kinds of educational seminars such as these contemporary topics that you’re mentioning.

We just completed a new alternative viticulture certificate course. It’s on our website, and all employees are urged to take. We don’t require them to take it, because they’re required to take so many online classes already for suppliers, for brand education, for HR training. There have been so many new things that have developed over the past few years that are certainly important to society, diversity and tolerance and all of the other things that are sort of under human resources. Our employees have to be up to speed with all of this. It’s a very complex world that we work in these days, and trying to find the time for the sales force to continue to improve their knowledge through contemporary issues can be challenging.

I do a podcast myself. We do twice monthly that I keep short to a half an hour, just for people when they’re driving from account to account.

Predominantly we create this material ourselves, and so we tailor make it for our employees, but they are applicable to customers. We do share some of our resources with our customers, both on and off-premise customers, and we have something called Proof, which is our platform.

What’s the part of [existing] wine education that you thought was lacking?

The trouble with printed material is it’s obsolete as soon as it’s released. One moment, there’s something new. And what you were talking about yesterday is now obsolete.

Sale management will come to us and say, look, we don’t have any educational material on sustainable viticulture. We don’t have anything on orange wine, natural wine. What’s biodynamics mean anyway? And so we’ll create materials based upon a need from our customers and our salesforce.

Right now I’m working on a new programme that’s designed to be classroom format. It’s really less of a focus on geography and more of a focus on the most important grape varieties and the styles and wines that are made from them and how to sell them. That’s a key component that’s missing in a lot of outside certification programs. You get all the foundational education that you could possibly want, but how do you apply the foundational knowledge to sales? And I know that’s a topic that a lot of people talk about, so we’re really trying to focus on that.

You get all the foundational education that you could possibly want, but how do you apply the foundational knowledge to sales? We’re really trying to focus on that.

Eric Hemer MS MW

Okay, this grape is Verdicchio and it comes from this part of Italy. Where do you sell it? How do you find a home for Verdicchio on a wine list? Where can you go out and promote this wine? In what avenue of trade will you have the most success promoting this particular grape variety? So we’re trying to take a different angle on traditional wine education. Hey, this wine tastes like this, now go sell it. Where are you going to sell it? Let’s give you some tools to go out and make new placements with this.

Do you have education material on pricing and positioning?

Absolutely. Price categories are super important for everybody to understand. We have a very diverse book and even in categories that are becoming so expensive, we make sure that our salespeople are aware of maybe lesser-known appellations that fill the bill for somebody that can’t afford to buy a hundred plus dollars bottles of wine. There is something for everybody. We’re very cognizant of brand pricing and category pricing as well.

We hear a lot about hospitality having a lot of problem in recruiting people. Is it the same thing in your part of the wine world ?

So every restaurateur I know, from the finest establishments in the land to those that are less so, are having staffing problems. And it creates a new opportunity for us and a challenge for us too, because we have a whole new set of people to go out and train. A lot of sommeliers have left the profession and aren’t coming back. A lot of restaurants that used to have a dedicated sommelier position have decided they can make do without it. You’re constantly training new customers

So you were saying that for distribution it’s not that hard to recruit?

It’s always challenging, but it’s less difficult now because we’ve dedicated the resources to going out and getting the best people. Like I said, we have whole divisions that we never had in the past, like talent development, talent management recruitments; once we have them, we continue to develop their sales skills as they become sales consultants and fine wine consultants. So the job certainly doesn’t end once the employees hired.

Do you have an idea of how many people come for the wine and how many people come from the role?

I think if you look at the typical new employee that’s coming to our fine wine side, they tend to come from a restaurant background.

Is there a point where wine education gets in the way of sales performance?

That’s a good question, and I think it really varies from person to person. Sometimes you do see employees with a high level of wine knowledge tend to only promote the type of wines that they like to drink because they feel that they shouldn’t have to sell wines what they wouldn’t drink, what they feel are beneath them or don’t appeal to their personal taste. We try very hard to dissuade them from that notion. The best sales personnel, regardless of their level of wine knowledge, can sell everything and find a way to do it.

The best sales personnel, regardless of their level of wine knowledge, can sell everything and find a way to do it.

Eric Hemer MS MW

As a teacher or as an educator, what would you say your responsibilities are towards your students?

My primary goal is just to make sure that they have the tools they need to be successful on the street selling wine. I think just by focusing on those twin goals, we accomplish pretty much everything we need to accomplish when it comes to education. And there’s nothing wrong with the word teacher. I pride myself on being a teacher.

Do you talk about wine and health and how to equip people who are surrounded by alcohol every day? Is that part of the education program as well?

We all talk about it and we all promote responsible consumption. Whenever we do any type of tasting — informal or formal — everybody is required to spit, to use a spittoon. Everybody’s very much aware of over consumption, not just from a health standpoint, but from a safety standpoint. We have salespeople who’re going to go get in their car and drive somewhere. So we’re very, very careful to make sure that people are not drinking wine — they’re just tasting wine. And of course we have all types of HR training when it comes to that, and that includes responsible sales and service, and responsible consumption of alcohol.

Everyone says that the wine consumption is decreasing in the US amongst the younger generation. And I’m wondering how much that is linked to people in the trade. If we have more educated people, will we have more consumers?

It is an interesting question, and I’m not sure what the answer is, but certainly we’re seeing the latest generation of adults drinking less. They’re concerned about their health. That’s probably what the key facet that’s given rise to low- and no-alcohol categories that really were just virtually non-existent prior to this. So it’s good because we’re able to shift to meet the needs of the latest generation of consumers. A lot of companies are experimenting with CBD products, so we’re not saying we only have to sell wine, spirits, beer, et cetera. We sell a lot of water and a lot of other non-alcoholic products. But I don’t think it’s a matter of education. I think it’s a matter of choice.

Everyone says you need to be resilient in the world today because changing so quickly. And I was wondering how you can teach resilience?

You’ve got to maintain an open mind. I think don’t get closed in and say: We can only sell this core group of products.

This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. To hear the whole conversation, listen to full episode.

Additional Resources on Education:

To keep in touch with our research, analysis and events, subscribe to our newsletter.