Food & Beverage

Executive Perspectives: Merrilee Kick

The CEO of packaged cocktails company BuzzBallz—and spirits offshoot Southern Champion—thinks the coronavirus crisis is going to hang around for a while.

One day while lounging by the pool, Merrilee Kick, then a high school teacher, came up with the idea for single-single-serve cocktails sold in brightly colored round containers. She pursued the concept and turned it into a multimillion-dollar business called BuzzBallz. Kick has since expanded into spirits with an affiliate named Southern Champion, which sells brands of rum, vodka, gin, and bourbon. 

How are you coping amid the COVID-19 crisis?            

We are considered an essential businessapparently, people drink more in difficult times. However, we are also doing a lot of things that we didn’t have to do before–like wearing masks, gloves, getting our cook to make lunches to go, reassigning people to critical job locations. We are disinfecting the entire place every weekend, and are constantly cleaning handles and equipment. Our workers wash their hands every hour, and we practice social distancing. We are donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to make hand sanitizer and get it shipped to military, airlines, police, fire depts, pathology labs, hospitals, city government emergency centers, grocery stores, etc. It’s all hands on deck. Everybody on the team is eager to help.  

Did your business continuity plan work, or were there surprises?  

Business changed, we pivoted. We are still doing our regular business, but we added a hand sanitizer line. I’m hoping this is only a temporary thing. 

What are the short-term ramifications for your specific industry?  

We are all pitching in to help humankind. Everyone is bottling hand sanitizer that has the capability to do so. It costs us quite a bit of money and a lot of stress. I’m working all day and night to source masks from China, thermometer guns, gloves, all the PPE, etc. We are paying not only for the sanitizer but the costs of the goods and shipping to get it to 45 states.   

Have you found silver linings in these difficult times?  

Yes, booze sales have gone up! Maybe we’ll get a little publicity for helping out, but that’s not why we’re doing it. We are one of the few distilleries that have bottling lines; our mission is to help. All of our competitors that have some capacity are doing their part, too. Our distributors and partners love us because we are helping them. 

How are you maintaining your company culture?  

We are a team. Everyone is pitching in. People in sales, marketing, and finance are all working in production to help bottle hand sanitizer. We are having more frequent team communication (via ZOOM or outdoor meetings to keep distances). We are still cooking lunch for everyone every day, but people can’t eat it in close quarters. They are helping us keep the company going, keeping us essential, keeping their paychecks coming in too. I’m giving them hazard pay, alsofor all the full-timers as well as the temps that are working in the factory. 

Another cool thing was that we filled everyone’s tank with gas. Every little bit helps. We are doing everything and more to keep our employees safe. We also started taking temperatures of every employee when they walk in the door.  

What have you learned that may change your policies or strategies for the future?  

I think COVID-19 will hang on for a while. I bought 400 days’ worth of masks because I think it will have to be watched very carefully. We will still temp control, wear masks and gloves, and use hand sanitizer. I think we will still use ZOOM for sales meetings because it just makes more economic senseunless there is an urgent need to be there in person. 

Do you have advice for other local business leaders?  

Be compassionate to your employees—don’t cut their pay and eliminate positions only if you have to. Cash is king in a crisismake sure you have enough on hand to make payroll and fixed costs and re-ramp-up costs. Get an SBA bailout loan or refinance your debt, or take out your line of credit (and get a lower interest rate on that too). Communicate frequently with employees on where things stand and what you’re doing. Coordinate during the chaos; things will not be routine for a while. Be creative and pivotmake something that is in critical need, help someone in critical need. 

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