Every new chairperson for the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association (NABCA) chooses a theme for their year of service.
For Shauna Helfert, this year’s chairperson-elect and the administrator of the Liquor Control Division (LCD) of Montana’s Department of Revenue, the theme will be “Responsible Control.”
“‘Responsible Control’ means how to do a better job, how to be efficient and effective and responsible to the citizens of the control state,” explained Jim Sgueo, NABCA’s President and CEO.
Shauna Helfert noted, “‘Responsible control’ is about being proactive, about using Best Practices and making responsible decisions.”
As the administrator of Montana’s control agency, Helfert has a lot of hands-on experience. “I’m involved in the day-to-day operations,” she said. While many of NABCA’s board members fulfill an oversight role in their agencies, Helfert is responsible for running her state’s operation.
Helfert has worked at Montana’s Department of Revenue for 15 years, 11 of those in the area of beverage alcohol control. (Her first four year, she worked as a corporate tax auditor.)
In 1998, Helfert was made the liquor distribution manager. She was in charge of the state’s liquor warehouse and she managed the contracts the state has with its agency liquor stores. At that time, the state’s liquor licensing was a separate entity.
At the end of 2005, the state reorganized its liquor business so that licensing and distribution were combined in a single division of the department of revenue. Helfert became the administrator of this new division, the LCD. “It was an exciting opportunity,” she said. “I always look forward to learning.”
In Montana, the Liquor Control Division, which has 30 employees, is the sole wholesaler of spirits in the state. It runs its own warehouse, which stores supplies of 870 listed products and almost 1,800 special-order products. (If a special-order product sells more than two cases a month or 24 cases annually, the LCD will maintain a supply of it in its warehouse.)
The LCD processes and delivers the orders for its 97 agency stores. These stores, in turn, sell to the public, for off-premise consumption, and to the approximately 1,500 all-beverage license holders. An all-beverage license allows the holder to sell beer, wine and liquor, for both on- and off-premise consumption, and also allows gambling.
The LCD also administers the licensing and regulatory responsibilities for all entities producing, importing, distributing or selling beverage alcohol in the state. Currently, there are more than 4,600 licenses in use.
Served on Most Committees
Because Helfert has been involved in liquor control and has been a member of NABCA for so long (five years as a board member and three years as a proxy before that), she has served on almost every NABCA committee. “Yes,” she said, thinking about it, “I have been involved at some point with almost every committee.”
In keeping with her accounting expertise, Helfert will be leading a discussion on alcohol excise taxes, in a seminar entitled “Message in a Bottle,” at NABCA’s annual conference, held this year, May 13-17, in Phoenix, AZ.
She is currently the chair of NABCA’s Internal Affairs Committee. This is the committee that handles the running of the association itself: the operating of its headquarters, its technology needs, its meetings and conferences.
“And for a long time, I sat on and was chair of the Products & Procedures Committee,” said Helfert. Much of the work of this committee centers on establishing Best Practices for operational issues, such as warehouse management and distribution. “Products & Procedures is the committee that spearheaded our Best Practices efforts,” said Sgueo. Adedd Helfert, “This committee is especially close to my heart. It is where I started [at NABCA.]”
The Potential of Best Practices
And this is where she first saw the power and potential of Best Practices. “Several years back, our committee started doing more Best Practices and got a very strong positive response,” she said.
The concept of NABCA’s Best Practices program is simple and simply makes sense. “We share ideas. Each of us doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel,” said Helfert. “We look at what other states and the industry are doing that is innovative and creative.”
Determining a Best Practice can also mean looking at the information and insight that other entities have on the issue. It might be as simple as looking into how other businesses handle their operations. How, for example, do big box retailers run their warehouses? “What does Wal-Mart do? What does Costco do? What can we learn from them?” said Helfert.
It can also mean consulting experts in certain areas and even having them brainstorm with one another, which was a driving force behind NABCA’s creation of their Alcohol Policy Alliance. In addition to NABCA members, this group is also comprised of public health experts and supplier representatives (currently from Sazerac, Brown-Forman and Sidney Frank). “It used to be that health experts would say one thing on a topic and industry would say another. They didn’t necessarily trust each other,” said Doug Fox, current NABCA chairperson and commission chairman for the North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. “But NABCA has been a great facilitator. All the participants on the Public Health Advisory Committee are able to meet and discuss issues such as energy drinks, ‘buzz beers,’ couponing and pricing.”
NABCA also had a meeting, in November, with three commissioners of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), to share information and ideas about alcohol regulation.
Determining a Best Practice can also mean consulting with spirits industry leaders. And this is something that Fox, whose theme for his year as NABCA chairperson was “Building Bridges,” pursued avidly. During his year, Fox and other board members met with 14 different suppliers at the suppliers’ headquarters. “We gave a presentation of who NABCA is and what it does and we also had meaningful discussions about issues that affect us both,” said Fox. Helfert gave an example from the meetings: NABCA asked the spirits companies, “What are your efforts regarding social responsibilities, such as reducing dangerous and unlawful drinking?”
And of course, there is a lot of knowledge and experience right within NABCA itself. Each NABCA committee, such as the Regulatory Committee, the Education Committee and the Information Technology (IT) committee, has a number of issues, things which all or most of the control states face, that can be explored for Best Practices, explained Helfert.
In the Products & Procedures Committee, Helfert said, possible topics of conversation include, for example, “How do different states handle the receiving of products into their warehouses?” and “How do they identify and handle damaged products?”
“There is so much existing expertise at the committee level,” said Helfert. “I’d like to do Best Practices on a lot of the essential issues that we face every day. I’d like to expand Best Practices, ask ‘Who’s getting it right?’ in all the areas, such as licensing and education and enforcement, and develop a comprehensive list or library.”
Helfert plans, not only to tap the existing knowledge and experience within the NABCA, but also to continue the work of past chairpeople. “Doug Fox did a fabulous job as chairperson, building solid relationships with industry and with public health experts,” she said. “By all means, I am going to continue that effort.”
Best Practice Initiatives
At the Montana State Capitol building in Helena, MT, from left, Shauna Helfert, incoming NABCA Chairperson and Montana’s Liquor Control Division (MLCD) Administrator; Steve Swenson, the MLCD Distilled Spirits and Project Manager; and LaNor Stigen, MLCD Accountant.
The Montana LCD has benefitted from NABCA’s expertise itself in many ways. For example, last April, it, like the other 19 NABCA state members, sent a representative to attend ProMat, a warehouse trade show held in Cleveland, courtesy of NABCA. All told, 45 people attended, representing all of the control states. The Montana LCD, which is currently requesting funding for a renovation of its warehouse, is “using information we gained from this trip,” said Helfert. And Montana was not the only one. “That trip was money well spent by NABCA,” said Fox. “We all took back something. We all saw [warehouse technology] that we wouldn’t have normally been aware of.”
NABCA hopes to continue to provide such “field trip” opportunities to its members. Last year, in addition to the trip to the warehouse trade how, NABCA also sponsored a trip to Kentucky for one person from each member state to learn about bourbon and other whiskies. A total of about 40 people attended, touring two distilleries (Sazerac and Maker’s Mark) and meeting with representatives of several whiskey companies.
“Sending people to seminars and educational field trips is, in itself, a Best Practice,” said Helfert.
The Montana LCD was also able to expand its educational efforts, thanks to a NABCA grant. In the last year, the Montana LCD increased the number of trained community volunteers teaching responsible service, from 16 across the state to 84. “Without the NABCA grant, we would not be where we are today,” Helfert said. “We hope to, not only teach licensees about underage drinking, but also move to educating parents. In today’s world, our kids face bigger risks than we did and there is also a lot of good research out there now about the effects of alcohol consumption on the young brain.” Helfert wants to continue to expand the LCD’s educational efforts. “We want to coordinate with everybody, with other state agencies, retailers, industry, law enforcement, parents, community partners and public health groups, to talk about what we can do to reduce underage drinking in our communities,” she said.
“And the relationship building that NABCA does absolutely helps states. Interacting with industry and with public health organizations, establishing good relationships, results in better policy,” continued Helfert. For instance, at this year’s annual conference, NABCA’s 72nd, participants will include industry leaders such as Joseph C. Gallo, President and CEO of E&J Gallo Winery, Jim Koch, President and founder of the Boston Beer Company, and William Newlands, President USA of Beam Global Spirits and Wine. Marketing expert Danny Brager of The Nielsen Company, the media measurement company, financial analyst Kaumil Gajrawala, from the global financial firm UBS, and Dr. Peter Anderson, a European public health expert who focuses on alcohol issues, are among the other experts who will be participating in business sessions, workshops and seminars.
Another area of focus for Helfert will be the statistical reports and data on alcohol sales that NABCA compiles from and for its members. This data is used by NABCA members and is also purchased by beverage alcohol suppliers and others. “We have a great product, produced with a great deal of effort,” said Helfert, “and we want to continue to make sure that this information is accurate, timely, reliable and useful. We want to produce the best product possible.”
The income from the sale of this data is important to the association. It represents nearly 70% of the association’s budget, according to Sgueo. “It is an important part of what we do and the funds enable us to be involved in the creation of public policies, to interact with other entities involved in the beverage alcohol industry and to create services for our members that we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise,” he said.
This data, which represents about one-quarter of the entire distilled spirits market in the U.S., is considered so much more complete and reliable than other market information sources that it is often extrapolated by users to give them a gauge of the entire U.S. market. “In our case, control states are able to do a total capture of all [distilled spirit sales] in their market,” explained Sgueo. “We are able to provide an invaluable insight.”
Montana Legislative Issues
Helfert is on top of the legislative issues that many control state agencies face as well. During a legislative session in Montana, which lasts for 90 days, “I spend a great deal of time on legislative issues. It is an important aspect of my responsibilities,” she said.
In this latest legislative session, Helfert strove to include LCD input in a new beer law. Under the old law, in Montana, any beer that had an alcohol content over 7% by weight, was treated like a spirit: it was sold only by the state’s agency liquor stores and by all-beverage licensees. Under the new law, beers with an alcohol content, by weight, of up to 14%, will now be treated as beer in the state of Montana and can be sold by all the retailers and restaurants that can sell beer.
“Our concern – again – is ‘Responsible Control.’ We don’t want citizens to be caused harm,” said Helfert. The LCD worked with interested parties of the bill to add an amendment that says that the alcohol in the beers must actually be derived from at least 75% fermentable “malted cereal grain.” In other words, they must really be the products the new law is designed to allow – expensive, handcrafted, specialty beers – and not high-alcohol, low-cost malt beverages.
Similarly, during this legislative session, “We had a great success,” said Helfert. The state legislature passed new restrictions on energy drinks containing alcohol. Effective October 1, these products will now only be available through the LCD’s agency liquor stores.
During this legislative session, the LCD is also in the midst of asking for funding to renovate its warehouse. “Our warehouse wastes more space and uses more energy than it should,” said Helfert of the LCD’s 100,000-square-foot warehouse, located in Helena.
Some of the planned retrofits would allow the warehouse to comply with Governor Brian Schweitzer’s 20×10 Initiative, which calls on Montana’s government to reduce its energy use by 20% by the year 2010. “We could do a few things that would save us one-third of our energy costs,” said Helfert of the LCD warehouse. “And long-term, we would be saving by extending the useful life of the building.” The proposed renovation would cost less than $2.5 million and, if all goes according to plan, could be completed by December of this year.
The Montana LCD recently completed another set of improvements. At the end of 2008, it unveiled new capabilities on its website. Licensees can now, for example, renew their licenses, paying the fee and submitting necessary documents online. And, for example, agency liquor stores can view their accounts to review what they ordered last week. The public can look up information on licensees online, such as who owns the establishment and what kind of license they hold. “Offering these new online capabilities was a sizeable project,” said Helfert, “but it helps us to provide better service and creates more transparency and understanding of what we do.”
In the end, for both NABCA and the Montana LCD, Helfert is committed to “Responsible Control.”
NABCA Board of Directors
The following is a list of the current NABCA Board of Directors.
Product General Manager
Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board
James “Dyke” Nally
Idaho State Liquor Dispensary
Lynn M. Walding
Alcohol Beverage Division
Iowa Department of Commerce
Maine State Liquor & Lottery Commission
George F. Griffin
Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control
Michigan Liquor Control Commission
Mississippi State Tax Commission
Alcoholic Beverage Control Division
Liquor Control Division
Montana Department of Revenue
New Hampshire State Liquor Commission
Douglas A. Fox
North Carolina Beverage Control Commission
NC ABC Boards
Division of Liquor Control
Ohio Department of Commerce
Philip D. Lang
Oregon Liquor Control Commission
Patrick J. “PJ” Stapleton, III
Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board
Dennis R. Kellen
Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control
Walter E. Freed
Vermont Department of Liquor Control
Esther H. Vassar
Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Board
Washington State Liquor Control Board
West Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Administration
Wyoming Department of Revenue
PHOTOGRAPHY BY STEVEN BEGLEITER