Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Rob Samuels Named COO at Maker's Mark.

I learned about the naming of Rob Samuels to the position of Chief Operating Officer at Maker's Mark when a reporter called me yesterday for a comment.

Reacting off the top of my head I said a couple of things. Most of all I think it symbolizes Beam's intention to leave Maker's alone, at least so far as anyone can see. Rob is now in place to replace his father when that day comes.

That's all well and good, but the cynic in me wonders how meaningful a title like COO is when Maker's Mark is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Beam Global, which is itself a wholly-owned subsidiary of Fortune Brands.

You'll notice that the announcement makes no mention of who really owns and operates the company. The words "Beam" and "Fortune" appear nowhere in the lengthy press release, not even in the "About" section at the end where such mundane background facts are usually revealed. It encourages the illusion that Maker's Mark is independent, owned and run by the founding Samuels family, which has not in fact been the case in nearly 30 years.

Part of the problem is title inflation. When I started in advertising each agency had one creative director. That was the title of the person who ran the agency's creative department. Today everyone with more than six months experience is a creative director and big agencies have hundreds of them. People seem to like the way big titles look on their business cards, even if they don't mean very much.

When the term 'president' became meaningless because so many presidents were really just division heads, the actual company heads started to be called the "Chief" something or other. Now that's pretty debased too.

This is nothing against Rob who I don't know. We've never met. Considering how long and how deeply I've been involved in this business, that may tell you something right there.

So is he really just a brand ambassador? A living link to the brand's heritage, like Fred Noe is at Beam? Not knowing Rob I don't know if his personality is anything like his dad's but I doubt it. Bill Samuels is one-of-a-kind. One hopes for his sake that Rob has been given a job that will make good use of his talents and experience, and not just his ancestry.

Earlier this year I coined the term "Potemkin Craft Distillery" to describe companies that pretend to be little craft distilleries when they're selling a product they didn't even make. This isn't quite the same thing -- Maker's Mark bourbon is still made at the Maker's Mark Distillery -- but I wonder if this feigned independence will ultimately undercut their credibility.

If I catch you trying to mislead me about something, I have to assume you are willing to mislead me about everything.


Michael Shoshani said...

With something like that, I tend not to look at the executive titles anyway, because at the end of the day (another "marketing" term I dislike), it's neither Bill nor Rob who is distilling, aging, and bottling Maker's. Right now, it's Kevin Smith; before him it was Dave Pickerell, and before him Steve Nally, and so on.

I'm actually more apprehensive when a distillery replaces its master distiller, because even though the final product should have a continuity of the house (or label) style, every distiller has his own personal touch, his own "bag of tricks".

So I suppose I'm a cynic, but I don't give a rat's ass who's sitting in the front office, so long as they don't interfere with the distillery. I'm much more interested with who's tending the stills and what his particular ideas are so far as how the mash is cooked, the barreling/bottling proof, heating the warehouses, and so forth. That's something that will show up in the bottle.

Chuck Cowdery said...

True enough and we shouldn't lose sight of that but, FYI, the master distiller at Maker's Mark now is Greg Davis.

Anonymous said...

Hello, Chuck.

Saw your blog and it made me smile. If you think it’s confusing to you, you should have heard the struggles we went through. “Son of the Son of the Man Who Created the Whisky” wouldn’t fit on a card, and “Bill’s Replacement” was way not going to happen. Having grown up around the business and Maker’s Mark – and hundreds of fans have reminded me of this in the past couple of days – my biggest task is to make sure the whisky remains exactly the same. As you know, we’re not the most efficient operation in the business, and I’m going to make sure we stay that way. So, maybe the title should be “Chief Don’t Screwituparator” or “Director of Continuous Inefficiency” . Thanks for the reality check.

PS Big shoes to fill that are often colorful!

Rob Samuels
Director of Continuous Inefficiency

Chuck Cowdery said...

Well played, Rob. Thanks for taking my comments in the spirit in which they were intended. I look forward to continuing this conversation in person.

ESJ said...

If I catch you trying to mislead me about something, I have to assume you are willing to mislead me about everything.

What a gem, Chuck. Beyond your column, how appropriate that is to this political season!

Crash said...

Mr. Cowdery,

Always enjoy your observations. Your comment about titles reminds me of the fallout over the 1976 election and the explosion of new subcommittees in the U.S. House of Representatives. The so-called "subcommittee bill of rights" came to pass, and there were so many junior House members who were now chairmen of these little subcommittees that it moved Rep. Mo Udall to joke, “We’ve got so many committees and
subcommittees now that if you can’t remember somebody’s name, you just say ‘Hi, Mr.