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Entrepreneur’s ‘Unconventional’ Style Leads to Recognition for BuzzBallz Firm

Founder Merrilee Kick is honored as one of 14 'Winning Women' at EY conference in California.
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Merrilee Kick with some BuzzBallz product.

Merrilee Kick, who founded one of the nation’s only woman-owned distilleries and wineries, admits she has an “unconventional” approach to her ready-to-drink cocktail business. Kick, the president and CEO of Carrollton-based Southern Champion/BuzzBallz LLC, has named one of her latest wine products Closet Freak, for example. Its slogan: Get Your Freak On. “Our products are all edgy … ,” says Kick, a former Plano West high school teacher. “I don’t have any white-stuffed-shirt guys. A lot of young people work for us, and they bring a lot of creativity and fun to the brand. Being a teacher has also kept me young.”

Kick and her youthful, irreverent outlook were recognized Thursday when EY named her one of only 14 entrepreneurial “Winning Women” in the United States. All 14 women in the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women program, a national competition and executive education initiative, were honored during a luncheon at the EY 2016 Strategic Growth Forum in Palm Springs, California.

“I’m an EY Winning Woman!” Kick said enthusiastically in an interview. “We’re an eclectic group of ‘sisters’ who have formed a bond. We support and bounce ideas off each other, because we all have different strengths.” She was the only one of the 14 from North Texas.

Kick, who also was a finalist in the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year 2016 program for the Southwest region, has begun to grow Southern Champion beyond its signature core product, called BuzzBallz. Individual, 6-plus-ounce drinks made with rum, vodka, tequila, or wine (Kick calls them round, “party-ball drinks that are strong enough to give me a little buzz”), BuzzBallz still account for 90 percent of the company’s sales. But more recently Kick has expanded the offerings to include more wine, premium spirits, and private-label bottling. Walmart, Total Wine & More, American Airlines Center, and Spirit Airlines are among her major customers.

With sales now in 40 states, Kick is aiming to expand internationally next year into such markets as Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand China, Mexico, and the Caribbean. “Our gross margins are very high—over 60 percent,” she said, adding that gross revenue now tops $20 million annually. Not bad for a former schoolteacher who started her company six years ago with a $175,000 SBA loan and a home equity line of credit on her personal residence. At the EY conference in California, Kick was taking meetings with venture capitalists—and talking about doubling her revenue in 2017.

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