Today’s aspiring wine executives are among the best educated in history. Complicated strings of fancy letters trail off their business cards, signifying advanced degrees in engineering, business administration and viticulture. They intern in sunny winemaking climes and extern in swanky hotels.
Not so with Harvey R. Chaplin, chairman and chief executive officer of Southern Wine & Spirits of America, who earned his education the hard way. Indeed, Chaplin quips that his “college education” was earned at Schenley Industries, at the time a leading distilled spirits marketer as well as the American importer of Dewar’s White Label Scotch. He started in the mailroom straight out of high school and worked his way up to become assistant director of marketing. This was followed by his work as a distributor in upstate New York, which Chaplin jokingly refers to as his “graduate school.”
In 1968, he joined Southern Wine & Spirits of America. Before he became its chairman and CEO in 1994, Mr. Chaplin served in numerous senior executive roles, running day-to-day operations of the company from 1968 to 1993.
Chaplin recalls that his very first critical challenge at Southern Wine & Spirits, then “a struggling young distribution house,” was to “straighten out” the company’s newly acquired Southern California distributorship. “The most important thing I did was to change the corporate business philosophy there,” he says. “It was not exactly profitable when I arrived, and it had to be fixed from the bottom up.” He spent two months reorganizing it, bringing in new personnel and focusing on improving relationships with suppliers. “And once we straightened out Southern California, we were able to expand to the north, years later.” In the years that followed, Chaplin expanded the business into 29 markets, growing Southern into the largest distributor in America.
Today, Chaplin is considered an industry icon for developing the distributor network that has helped make America a wine drinking nation.
Head of the “how-come” department
“The incredible success that he’s built really hasn’t changed him as a person,” explains his son, Wayne E. Chaplin, president and chief operating officer. “It’s about people, family, integrity. Sometimes success changes people. But he’s the kind of person that remembers where he started, how he started, and that really guides him and helps him.”
Harvey, his partner Mel Dick, senior vice president of Southern and president of its wine division, and his team developed innovative, powerful techniques to sell wine where it had never been sold before. His sales force pounded the pavement, knocked on doors and brought the message of the importance of wine sales to tens of thousands of retailers and restaurateurs. He encouraged them to offer, stock and display wine in their establishments before it was fashionable. Chaplin and Dick devel- the strong distributor model that many other companies adopted. Without Chaplin, Dick and a robust network of distributors, the proliferation of wine knowledge and wine consumption would not have taken place in this country.
Chaplin is particularly known for his laser-like focus on supplier concerns. “My philosophy has been one of cooperation between the two tiers of our industry because I believe we both need each other for our i n d u s t r y ’s progress,” he says.
Unlike many octogenarian executives happy with emeritus status, Chaplin continues a hands-on role with the business. “He’s always been driven,” recalls Dick “and he’s as driven today. If we go into a meeting in the morning, he’s there all day, listening and participating. He’s not an 8 0 – y e a r-old who wanders in every three days, makes a couple of phone calls and then leaves. He’s truly unique.”
Chaplin also jokes that he’s head of the “How-Come Department.” Say what? “He’s the one asking the questions,” Dick explains. “How come we didn’t do this? How come we didn’t do that? How come this happened? It’s a pretty good department to be in.”
Still stories to be told
When asked about his legacy, Chaplin modestly points to his son Wayne, noting his son’s business and civic accomplishments: “Wayne is a model modern executive—a lawyer, an accounting major and technology savvy; and I am just the opposite. He is the successor; he is it.”
Meanwhile, Chaplin’s son Wayne has a very different interpretation. “I don ’t think his legacy is over,” he muses. “There are still a lot of stories to be told.” He credits Chaplin’s success to the fact that he started very much at the “entry level in this industry,” and never forgot his roots or his vision. “It’s a reminder to everybody in the industry that with hard work, focus and commitment, the sky is the limit.”
Wayne Chaplin describes business lessons handed down from his father: “First and foremost, the most important thing in business is the people who run the company. People make the difference in making an organization what it is and what it can be.
“Second, in business your word is more valuable than anything else you have, and the expression of your word is your bond that is true. Fin all y, never forget your roots. You should never forget where you began, so that you treat people and their problems as if they are yourown.”
These are lessons that every university should teach. For his unparalleled role in generating interest, distribution and sales, and for his contribution to the continued healthy growth of this industry, Wine Enthusiast is proud to raise a glass to Harvey Chaplin as the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award for 2009.
Chaplin will be honored, along with all other Wine Star award recipients at Wine Enthusiast’s 10th annual Wine Star Awards ceremony, on January 25 in NYC. Read more information about the 2009 Wine Star awards ceremony.