When John O’Sullivan and his former business partner, the late Michael Sullivan, first purchased the rights to the Stroh’s and Miller brands for the Flint area, the company was distributing about 400,000 cases of beer annually.
But the year was 1976 – right around the time that Miller Lite came out – so the volume didn’t stay that way for long.
As Joanie O’Sullivan-Butler, John’s daughter, tells it: “It was the first lite beer on the market, and it was just huge. Distributors across the country grew by leaps and bounds. Our sales jumped up to about a million cases in one year – they had to build a bigger (70,000 square-foot) warehouse, which was finally completed in 1980.”
Joanie was just a baby at the time, but she’s well-versed in the distributor’s history. After all, it set the stage for her present career as vice president and co-owner of the family business, which now distributes about 2.5 million cases of beer across seven counties each year.
You were practicing law in Washington, D.C. a few years ago. What brought you back?
In 2007, the company purchased Oak Distributing, which used to be the Coors distributor in Flint, so I came in and worked on it with my dad. I did all of the paperwork, the purchase agreement and everything. It was really eye opening. There was a lot to it.
We had a few other acquisitions after that, so my dad asked my husband, Sean, if he'd be interested in coming in (as a general manager). We've been working together ever since.
What's it like to work alongside your family?
It's great, although it does have its challenges. There's a different dynamic that comes with working with your parents. And then working with your husband all of the time, there's good days and well... (Laughs) You want to leave work at work, but we never do. Our kids know more about business than they probably should at their age. But I grew up that way, too, so it's normal to me.
Do you plan to pass the business on to them?
Hopefully. It's funny because sometimes we'll go to Kroger (one of our clients), and I'll check out the beer aisle and straighten up the shelves. And my daughter, Ava, will be like, "That Blue Moon is out of place," and people will look at us (as though thinking), "What is this 11-year-old talking about..."
Do you have any plans for growth?
As far as new products go, we're always on the lookout for new products coming into the state. We're always looking for acquisitions as well, but being that most distributorships are family businesses, that doesn't happen very often. To get a successful family business to sell, there has to be strong motivation. Usually, that only happens if there's some sort of uncertainty about things like law changes.
How would you describe Flint & Genesee to an outsider?
I think Flint is right on the brink of something big. It's not just major national companies coming in and investing in downtown Flint; it's independent people, like the guys behind Tenacity Brewing, who believe in the area and are taking the risk. And then you read about things like the renovation of the Capitol Theatre and MSU opening its campus, and it's just so encouraging. I think it's the perfect time to get into business here.
What advice can you offer to other business owners?
For more information about John P. O'Sullivan Distributing, visit www.jposullivan.com.