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Labatt USA executive’s beer career began behind a bar while attending college

During college 35 years ago, Doug Smith tended bar at a little North Boston Irish tavern called Murphy’s. In one way or another, he has been slinging beer ever since.

In the 1980s he worked as a truck driver for Lake Erie Distributors in Lackawanna, before getting a job in sales at Try-It Distributing. Eventually, the University at Buffalo business graduate landed a position with Labatt USA, which is now a subsidiary of North American breweries. Today, he is the company’s vice president of sales.

In that role, he manages the entire North American Breweries portfolio throughout the United States, the Caribbean and part of Canada. The company’s core brands are Labatt and Genesee as well as Magic Hat from Vermont, Pyramid from Oregon and Seagrams Escapes from Rochester.

“It was a long journey, but kind of a cool one,” Smith said.

Q: You started as a bartender. How did that prepare you for what you do now?

A: You find out that everyone’s got a story. In Buffalo, everyone’s three degrees of separation – no matter where you’re from or what church you went to. So if you just take the time to listen to everyone’s story, you can find common ground.

Q: What’s it like being a macrobrew in a craft brew town?

A: It presents some challenges but some opportunities, too. We’re Buffalocal. Our headquarters is here. Also, Labatt is the great pilsener style, lagered for a little bit longer in cold-aged tanks, so the style is kind of interesting to craft folks, too.

The other thing about craft is, you’ll drink one or two and really appreciate them. Then if you want to have another couple beers, they’re a little bit too heavy. So how do you drop down to something that’s a little bit more sessionable? That’s where Labatt is really trying to play its card.

Q: How do you sell Genny Cream Ale to the next generation consumer?

A: A lot of people never wanted to drink their dad’s beer. It wasn’t cool. There’s even a product out there called Not Your Father’s Root Beer. So maybe what your parents did was not cool.

But now what your grandparents did was very cool – it skips a generation. Millennials are going back to their grandfather’s beer. And that is causing a resurgence in Genesee. Plus, it’s New York’s oldest brewery. It’s union-made, 60 miles from Buffalo. A lot of the malt was brought in through the grain elevators at the foot of Main Street. Buffalo’s been the No. 1 market for Genesee for many, many years. There’s always been a really good local tie.

For the millennial, what’s old is cool again. There’s a lot of nostalgia. We’ve got the Zubaz cans – they’re striped liked the pants which were famous in the ’80s. Those cans are going crazy and there’s a lot of viral talk about how cool they are. So, I think it’s nostalgia.

Q: Does Buffalo deserve its reputation as a big beer-drinking town?

A: Yes. It has one of the higher per capita beer drinking rates in the country. Buffalo is a very social community. We probably have an extraordinary share of festival and outdoor events in the summertime. I really don’t know of any other community in the country that I travel to that have this number of festivals, outdoor events outdoor social activities in the summertime. Buffalo seems to have four things going every weekend. I think it’s a very social community and beer is a very social drink and it’s a very big part of that experience.

Q: What’s your best-seller?

A: Labatt Blue Light. There’s a resurgence in light beer because of the refreshment – it’s a little bit more sessionable. Of the Labatt family, it’s 60 percent of our total sales.

Q: Summer is your peak season. What do you do now heading into fall?

A: Now we focus in on the tailgate experience and drive the football message. Then we’re a significant sponsor of the Sabres. October, November December is big, those family holidays. And Halloween is one of the biggest holidays, but it’s only about a week long.

Q: Why do you think the passion we have for Labatt tapers off as you travel away from the Great Lakes?

A: It’s a discovered beer in Buffalo. Young families growing up along the Canadian border vacationed in Canada. Everything tastes a little better when you’re on vacation, up in Canada sitting by a lake with your family. With Labatt they could bring it back home.

Think about Corona. Where did it get its start? California, along the coast near Mexico. Corona’s advertisement is the beach in a bottle. Labatt is tied to the north and the freshness.

Q: How do you sell Labatt to people who don’t have that attachment?

A: Wherever we can, we associate it with hockey. That gives us the right to play in other markets like Pittsburgh, Columbus, Boston, Philadelphia – areas that would be outside of the rim.

And we follow the Buffalo migration to find our strength in places like Charlotte, Tampa, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Places people want to get a piece of their home or their past. We do a lot of the Buffalo Bills backer bars. There’s a pretty large network of those across the country and Labatt does phenomenally in almost every one of those across the country. It’s amazing. Then other people try it and like it, so you’ll get some spillover effect.

Q: Do you get free beer?

A: Yes. We get a case of beer a month for home use, so that’s kind of nice. I do have some access to swag, too, whether it’s a shirt or a cooler. We are always first in line to make that available to community for fundraisers and events.

Q: Why is selling beer better than selling, say, lawnmowers?

A: Do I really even have to answer that? I don’t know if everybody loves mowing their lawn. You may need a lawnmower, but you don’t love it.

email: schristmann@buffnews.com

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