Virginia ABC: Learning and Adapting

In his first year on the job as Chairman of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, Jeffrey Painter has grown fond of a certain phrase.

“This is not your grandfather’s ABC,” he recalls himself saying time and time again during public appearances. From modern stores to technology advancements to education efforts to complex enforcement initiatives, today’s Virginia ABC has certainly come a long way from generations ago.

“I remember the days where you walked up to a counter, ordered what you wanted and that was the extent of it,” Painter says. “Slowly we came into the era of having a shopping experience at stores, and today we’re taking that to an entirely new level on all fronts.”

The progress has resulted in record revenue. The Virginia ABC cracked the $800 million mark in total sales for the first time in Fiscal Year 2014. That included a $140 million profit and $387 million in total contributions to the state’s general fund.

But revenue is only part of the equation. The breadth and scope of the state’s education, prevention and enforcement initiatives is at an all-time high, and new technology has played a crucial role in those efforts.

 

Getting the Word Out

The Virginia ABC celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2014, and the department used that opportunity to raise awareness for its wide array of functions whenever possible.

“Certain groups are aware of some of our functions, but I think it varies with each audience,” says Chief Operating Officer Travis Hill. “Legislators know about $140 million we contribute in profits, but they may not be aware of our education and public safety efforts. Go to a college campus, and they’re aware of the resources we offer on alcohol education and responsible consumption but probably not much else. We truly run the gamut here.”

Commissioner Henry L. Marsh III puts it another way: “A lot of people tell me we’re like a secret agency,” he says. “People don’t know how much we contribute to the state.”

The department celebrated store openings with extra emphasis in 2014, making the most of the ceremonial opportunities to spread the word. Enforcement officials did a series of radio interviews to mark the event, and the education team built the 80th anniversary into many of its initiatives.

Beyond just ceremony, the department stressed the importance of its relationships throughout the year. Key among those are the relationships with its licensees and with the lawmakers at the state capitol in Richmond.

The ABC demonstrated the importance of the partnership between itself and its licensees by bringing store managers and regional mangers to its headquarters for periodic product knowledge training.

“When someone comes into one of our stores with a question about rye versus wheat Bourbon or a specific type of tequila, we want to equip the employees to be able to answer those questions,” Painter says. “We think it’s important to relay that type of hands-on training.”

In addition to hosting an 80th anniversary event for employees in Richmond, commissioners Marsh and Judy Napier also made numerous visits to stores across the state to meet employees, field questions and listen to concerns.

“Our employees touch every county and city every day,” Painter says. “We’re very cognizant that these folks are our front line, so we’ve done a number of things to reach out to them to make sure they have all the tools they need.”

The relationship with state lawmakers is equally as important, so keeping them abreast of all the ABC’s initiatives is a priority.

“We have to be careful to keep a good relationship with the state, because if we don’t they could prevent us from modernizing by shifting those resources elsewhere,” Marsh says. “If we can’t continue to modernize, we can’t satisfy the consumer.”

 

Updating the Customer Experience

Store modernization was an emphasis in 2014. The ABC opened three new premier stores last year, all of which feature modern design elements and dedicated tasting areas.

The Williamsburg store features an additional centerpiece decorative item — a reproduction copper still — that is a nod to the area’s history of moonshine production. Not coincidentally, legal moonshine sales were up 40 percent year-over-year at that location. The centerpiece design concept has been so successful that the ABC plans to consider implementing it for all future renovations and new openings.

Just as important as redesigning stores is making sure that consumers are able to find the products they want on the shelves. To that end, the ABC now updates its product listings quarterly rather than biannually.

“We’re getting sophisticated about what consumers want simply by asking them,” Painter says. “We’re also able to respond to the market in a much more nimble fashion, rather than having to waiting and missing out on what’s hot right now.”

 

Enforcement in a Changing Environment

No part of the ABC better encapsulates the phrase, “It’s not your grandfather’s ABC,” than the Bureau of Law Enforcement. In this day and age, the enforcement group is tasked with a more diverse range of duties than ever before.

The bulk of the resources remain dedicated to a network of special agents, who operate out of nine regional offices around the state. In addition to the traditional investigations and compliance checks, agents are responsible for investigating licensee misconduct ranging from the falsification of tax and business documents to illicit drug and gambling activity. With more than 15,000 regular licensees and another 17,000 banquet/special event licenses issued per year throughout the state, there is plenty to monitor.

But that’s only the beginning. The ABC initiated a series of improvements in 2014 to further modernize its enforcement operation. The first was to reorganize its field offices, most notably upgrading its Charlottesville office from a satellite location to a full-fledged regional headquarters.

“As population centers grow around the state, we had to evaluate how we deployed our agents,” says Law Enforcement Director Shawn Walker. “These territories were carved up 25-30 years ago, but were they still valid today? In many cases the answer was no.”

With personnel dispatched more efficiently, the next priority has been training. On one front, the enforcement division is undergoing a group-wide training initiative that will allow it to become an accredited law enforcement agency. Few control states have accredited enforcement divisions (it is not required by law), but the Virginia ABC made the decision to voluntarily take the additional step of gaining accreditation.

“We certainly have had policies and procedures in place and followed all federal and state laws,” says Special Policy Advisor on Law Enforcement Ryant Washington. “Accreditation just shows that you are working within the best practices of the profession overseen and recommended by peers.”

On a second front, Walker noticed that as his senior agents were retiring they were taking their substantial knowledge and expertise with them, and the department was suffering. This was especially true in the special operations group, so Walker has prioritized training programs that help minimize the disruption as the workforce transitions.

This is important because special operations investigations have increased in size and scope in recent years. The division has taken on the responsibility to look beyond strictly ABC violations and connect with other law enforcement departments to build multi-state, multi-jurisdiction cases.

Walker recalled one particular case in which an illegal moonshine operation was detected by the ABC, but the agents were able to develop a much larger case that eventually brought down a multi-state cockfighting ring with additional charges on drug, gambling and weapons violations.

Another tool that has aided special operations is the $750,000 Field Support Vehicle that was purchased with asset forfeiture funds during 2013. In addition to its primary function as a mobile outpost to support special agents in the field, the FSV is also used by the education division for periodic tours of the state.

 

Educating Current and Future Customers

Virginia is one of the few control states with a stand-alone education division separate from its enforcement group. But that doesn’t mean the two divisions don’t work closely together. Many of the education group’s public events feature enforcement agents as speakers.

The education department goes well beyond just speaking engagements, however. One of the group’s marquee programs in 2014 was its awarding of prevention grants. Despite losing the federal funding its grant program had enjoyed in previous years, the education group still awarded $81,000 in grants to 11 recipients around the state. The grants benefitted local coalitions and university groups, who used the funding for prevention initiatives tailored to their specific communities.

In a further effort to empower the citizens of Virginia, the education division rolled out a new program geared toward educating middle schoolers called Being Outstanding Leaders Together (BOLT). In response to the average age of alcohol experimentation dropping to 13 years old, the BOLT program trained high school students to lead one-day alcohol education seminars at local middle schools.

“Our emphasis is on training the trainers,” says Education and Prevention Manager Katie Weaks. “The most effective strategy is to train those who will then go back into their communities and pass down what they’ve learned.”

The BOLT program may be brand new, but the ABC’s college tour education program has been going on for close to 30 years. The tour continued in the fall with visits to James Madison and the University of Richmond, with upcoming visits to Virginia Tech, William & Mary and George Mason scheduled for the spring.

The one-day events focus on enhancing knowledge about high-risk drinking and strategies to prevent harm, as well as identifying opportunities to promote a healthier and safer campus through service and action.

The education group also takes full advantage of modern technologies, making all of its publications, posters and brochures free to download over the internet, along with the ability to host training programs on the web.

 

Planning for the Future

Though the Virginia ABC is largely up to date with its technologies, leadership has identified a few key areas where reinvestment could pay long-term dividends. The key to accomplishing those projects is to budget them out over the long term.

“We’ve identified internal infrastructure and external large projects that are priorities, but these aren’t things we can just do overnight,” Painter says. “We can’t just go out and buy them at the last minute. So regardless of how long we’re here or who comes in after us there is a plan, and to me that is an incredibly exciting and positive development.”

The first phase of technology upgrades is a redesign of the ABC website, plus the added ability for customers to order products online and have them available for pickup at their local ABC location.

“Our website is not keeping up with the e-commerce platforms that drive business in the private sector,” Napier says. “We’re changing the entire look and feel of the site to make it a lot more user-friendly.”

The second phase of advancements will address the licensee community with the mission of allowing more of the forms and payments required to be completed online. Additional technology reinvestments that are on the table for the future include an overhaul of the financial management system and the auditing software.

“In this economy, people are moving to easier forms of interaction and we need to do this as well,” Hill says. “I tell folks, ‘We have the luxury of being a monopoly, but that’s no reason not to think of how we can make improvements.’ We can always make improvements.”

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