Departing MillerCoors Chief Customer Officer Dan Werth reflects on 20 years in beer

Dan Werth is leaving the beer business after nearly two decades to work with the man who brought him into it.

Werth, chief customer officer for MillerCoors, is departing at the end of the year to become chief operating officer of Woodinville, Wash.-based winery Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. There he’ll report to CEO Jim Mortensen.

Mortensen and Werth worked together during the 1990s at Philip Morris USA. When Mortensen went on to take the top sales job at Miller Brewing Co. (then part of Philip Morris), he asked Werth to come along as the general manager for northern California.

“I never thought I would leave MillerCoors, but this is the kind of opportunity where you just can’t say no,” says Werth, who leads the MillerCoors sales team that works with chain retailers. “They know what they’re getting, I know what I’m getting into, and I get the chance to take on new challenges and an expanded portfolio.”

We caught up with Dan to talk about how the beer industry and retail landscape have evolved since he joined the company in 1999. One thing that hasn’t changed: the quality of the people and the importance of relationships.

“I was shocked at how open and supportive the folks from Miller Brewing Co. were,” says Werth, who is 52. “I was surprised at how willing people were to offer help, how supportive they were, and how tight of a community we had with distributors.”

You’ve spent nearly 20 years in the beer business. How much has it changed since you started?

A lot (laughs). At that time European imports were the big and growing imported brands. In California you had a handful of crafts like Anchor Steam, Sierra Nevada and Pyramid. Corona and the other big Mexican imports were showing growth but were still relatively small. And our biggest competition was Anheuser-Busch.

Since then we’ve seen massive fragmentation. There are thousands of craft brewers. The European imports have a smaller piece of the pie and Mexican imports are on a roll. The competitive picture is much more complex. And as for innovation, when I started you didn’t have the wave of innovation you see every year in the industry.

You’ve worked with chain retailers for a long time and in a variety of roles, including your current role and previously as head of the team that calls on Kroger. How have they evolved?

I called on chains at Philip Morris and I knew as a general manager at Miller one of the biggest values I could add would be calling on chain accounts like Safeway and Albertson’s.

Chains represent a much bigger slice of the business now compared to when I started. They’re more consolidated. And they’ve gotten more sophisticated in how they analyze and use data, in how they use shopper loyalty data to mine for insights.

And right now you’re seeing more and more chains get involved in e-commerce. It’s exploding. Right now we see a few that are on the leading edge, but soon you’re going to see a lot more get more involved. It’s where their customers are going.

How do chain retailers see the beer category?

It’s a big business. Beer is still one of the key traffic drivers for grocery and c-stores. Always has been and always will be. They know it’s important.

What are retailers looking for from suppliers?

They’re looking for insights to drive category growth. In the category you have baby boomer shoppers, you have Gen X shoppers and you have millennial shoppers. Each represent about a third of the business and they’re all looking for different things, so retailers want to know how to balance the needs of these three groups. The suppliers who can bring the brands and insights that will help retailers navigate this environment are the ones who will win.

You’ve been involved in chain from the time MillerCoors launched. In that time, surveys of retailers and distributors consistently rank MillerCoors as the best supplier in beer. Looking back, how does it feel to be a part of that?

It’s a huge deal. When we started, a lot of skeptics said we couldn’t do it. But we did. And that’s really a tribute to our people. There’s a lot of pride in what we’ve accomplished and we are not resting on our laurels.

CM Profit Group had us ranked on top in off-premise for some time, but on-premise was one area where we needed to make progress. We got the No. 1 ranking this year, and that’s an affirmation of our people, the resources we invested, our tools and solutions, as well as the quality of the team calling on those accounts.

The chain team has a lot of pride in what they’ve accomplished, and they are not resting on their laurels, I can tell you that.

Any closing thoughts?

To build on what I was just talking about, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past 20 years or so, it's that you can’t overestimate the importance of people. I’m not the first to say this, and I surely won’t be the last, but people make the difference in a business as competitive as beer. Ultimately, the best team wins. And MillerCoors — and not just the chain team — has the best overall team in beer right now. They’re committed, they’re passionate, they believe, and the organization does a great job in providing training and building capabilities. I’m looking forward to seeing what they’ll do next.