Profile: NABCA Chairman J. Neal Insley, Chairman of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control

J. Neal Insley is making history at NABCA by being the first chairman of the board to ever serve almost two full-year terms consecutively: he initially stepped into the role last year when the previous chairperson resigned after only one month of service. Insley also came into this leadership position during an interesting time, as many intense conversations are currently taking place regarding how control states will function in the future.

A Colorful History

The start of Insley’s official appointed term coincides with the NABCA annual conference, which kicks off in Phoenix, AZ, on May 15. Currently serving as the chairman and commissioner of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), Insley initially focused on a career in law enforcement upon graduating from college. After three years serving as a police officer with the Virginia Marine Police, Insley traded in his uniform for plainclothes and took a position as a special agent with Virginia ABC.

“I greatly underestimated the scope of what the agency did when I first came in,” Insley recalls. “To this day, I am amazed by the broad spectrum of everything this agency touches.”

Several years after joining Virginia ABC, Insley began attending law school, taking evening and weekend classes while continuing his work as an agent. After graduating, he left Virginia ABC and worked as a state prosecutor. His entrepreneurial spirit eventually led him to found his own law firm specializing in regulatory and ABC law. Insley ultimately moved his practice to the law firm LeClairRyan, where he became team leader of the firm’s hospitality law group. In 2010, Insley returned to his old stomping grounds, where he was appointed to his current position with the agency by Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell.

“Neal brings a unique combination of skill sets, not only to his job in Virginia but as NABCA chair,” says Jim Sgueo, president and chief executive officer of NABCA. “In addition to his experience in law enforcement and as an attorney, Neal also possesses a very strong managerial skill set, and an understanding of alcohol and beverage policy and sales operations. He’s had a great deal of experience in all of these areas, giving him insights that enhance his effectiveness.”

With such a diverse professional background, Insley laughingly admits it seems appropriate that he take the reigns as NABCA chairman in a rather unorthodox fashion. He credits his colleagues at NABCA with helping to make the transition as seamless as possible.

“We have such a great NABCA board,” Insley states. “They are all truly commensurate professionals. I don’t know that the transition would have been as smooth for me without the support of that group, along with the great NABCA staff.”

Two Years, Two Themes

Founded in 1938, NABCA serves as a sort of information clearinghouse representing the control states. According to Sgueo, the organization’s primary goals as of late are threefold: first, NABCA strives to provide timely, accurate and relevant control state sales statistics to its members. It also works to expand product deliverables to its members and to continue the expansion of research and understanding of alcohol policy changes, both from an economic standpoint and a public health standpoint. Keeping the overall objectives of NABCA in mind, each new chairperson of the organization selects a specific area of focus for his or her term. When Insley took office in 2012, the selected topic was already in place, and it was “Progressive Control.” “This is a topic that I feel very strongly about. I’m always saying that greatness is never born from complacency. We always need to be working to improve things and make them better, and that’s what progressive control is all about,” Insley states.

A major way in which control states have been adjusting the ways they do business is by modernizing all of their systems, and NABCA has played a large role in supporting that initiative. One challenge NABCA has faced during the process is to continue maintaining a sense of balance and neutrality when providing information to the states. This was especially important during the past year, which saw some notable changes in the industry landscape.

“One of the biggest challenges NABCA is facing right now concerns the discussions and debates on liberalizing the alcohol beverage laws and regulations in the control jurisdictions,” Sgueo explains. “It appears that policymakers are trying to better understand the specific control state models that they are dealing with and determining if deregulation or modernization will improve customer satisfaction, maintain state revenues and continue to positively impact the safety and public health of their communities.” While Insley welcomed the detailed discussions on these topics that NABCA has been able to facilitate during the past year, he stresses that the organization has a responsibility to approach such talks in a certain way.

“Our position is always neutral so we can engage in fruitful conversations based on scientific, peer-reviewed information that we can share with the public,” he says. “We have to have open, honest discussions that are based on factual information. And we need to make sure that whatever happens as a result will help us build a better system than what we currently have.”

Another concern of Insley’s is that control states always keep in mind the complete demographics of the people that they serve.

“In a control state, we’re responsible for generating revenue, but our focus isn’t just on the bottom line,” Insley says. “We are primarily focused on serving our customers, and our customers are all of our constituents. You have to remember that about 50 percent of all people don’t drink at all, or they maybe have one or two drinks per year. Those people are still our customers even if they aren’t regular consumers of alcohol, and it’s important that we make sure that we protect those people as well.”

That sense of social responsibility will carry over into Insley’s second term as NABCA chairman, which will concentrate largely on the control portion of the organization’s mission. For Insley, he wants to ensure that the states continue moving ahead with system modernizations, and that they never lose sight of being socially responsible. He compares these tactics to a pendulum that never stops moving between the areas of progression and control.

“Many police departments use the motto, ‘To serve and protect,'” Insley says. “I liken our motto at NABCA to be the reverse: ‘To protect and serve.’ You’ll definitely see a large focus on health and wellness over the course of the next year.”

Notable Virginia Initiatives

Many of Insley’s key focus areas at NABCA carry over to his work as Chairman at Virginia ABC, which has made great strides in the past year as well. Insley’s mantra of continuous improvement is reflected in his home state’s numerous milestones across all areas of the agency.

One milestone came as the result of a comprehensive review of Virginia ABC warehouse operations performed by the Internal Audit Division. The audit identified several internal control deficiencies that have since been corrected to improve overall operational efficiencies. Additionally, the development of a Product Management Committee has aided in the organization’s ability to identify and respond to rapid changes in the marketplace.

“We spent a lot of time looking at how we do our own listings, and determining how we can operate more like a business,” Insley explains. “The results have been remarkable. We now do our listings on a quarterly basis, and we have a new method in place to help us manage hot products. We’re definitely in a much better place than we were a year before.”

The Product Management Committee is a standing committee that meets every two weeks and includes representatives from across the agency, including individuals from stores, logistics, and analytics. The primary goals of the group were to implement some standardized business practices throughout the organization to help processes operate more smoothly, to enhance the transparency of how products are listed, and to improve relations with the agency’s supplier community. Additionally, the committee was charged with documenting all operations processes going forward to ensure that the agency will not suffer when employees ultimately leave or retire from the organization.

Several key changes that have resulted from this committee include the implementation of a new marketing division, which will be critical in the development of a long-term marketing plan for the agency, and the creation of a supplier sub-committee.

“We’ve been meeting on a quarterly basis with our supplier advisors to discuss improvements that can be made and opportunities to strengthen our relationships,” explains J. Craig Vanderland, chief financial officer with Virginia ABC.

Operations is just one area in which Virginia ABC has concentrated on improving as of late. Enforcement is still a top priority of the department, and Insley reports that a great deal of attention has been focused on analyzing how agents’ time is best utilized. Several changes have been made to allow agents to spend more of their time on the street conducting investigations. (In 2012 alone, the Virginia ABC conducted 9,647 criminal investigations; made 1,811 arrests; and completed 7,309 inspections of licensed establishments.)

Adding To Enforcement

An exciting new development on the enforcement front is the acquisition of a field support vehicle, which was ordered by the department last fall and arrived in April, becoming fully operational this spring. Capable of serving as a centralized command post, the field support vehicle is intended to be a visible community presence at large-scale events where alcohol enforcement operations are routinely conducted, such as large festivals and NASCAR races. The vehicle will support the public safety mission of the division, and can also be loaned to other agencies to respond to other events as needed, such as natural disasters.

“This is a game-changer for us,” says Shawn Walker, director of the Virginia ABC Bureau of Law Enforcement. “Not only will we have the benefit of being a more structured organization at these large events, but the vehicle is also a great PR asset. It will also allow us to help other agencies within the state who don’t have the resources to secure a vehicle like this of their own. Now they can use ours. It really gives us a strong foothold in those partnerships with external organizations that we’ve relied on for so long. Now we are able to help those partners even more.”

The field support vehicle will allow Virginia ABC to be entirely self-sufficient when communicating in the field, both with its own agents on the ground and with external agencies. Walker claims that it will be one of the most technologically advanced vehicles of its kind. While the sticker price of such a state-of-the-art vehicle rounds out at nearly $740,000, this particular model comes with a zero-dollar cost to Virginia taxpayers.

“It was paid for entirely by asset forfeiture funds, not with taxpayer dollars,” Walker says proudly. “I can’t think of a better use for those dollars.”

Additional enforcement initiatives include multiple programs designed specifically for alcohol licensees. A recent awareness and safety-themed campaign featured compliance posters that were displayed in high-traffic areas within the stores, perfectly positioned for maximum customer exposure. Two ongoing compliance training programs, Managers Alcohol Responsibility Training (MART) and Responsible Sellers and Servers: Virginia’s Program (RSVP), provide in-person training on serving and selling responsibly.

Virginia ABC also maintains strong partnerships with external organizations in order to maximize resources and ensure that important messaging is successfully communicated to as many large groups of people as possible. The Youth Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Program (YADAPP), which exists primarily to prevent underage drinking, facilitates an annual summer leadership conference for hundreds of students from across the state. Each student becomes part of a team tasked with developing an individual Strategy to Act Now (STAN) plan to design and ultimately put into place within their own community.

Another collaborative effort spearheaded by Virginia ABC, is the Alcohol Aging and Awareness Group (AAAG). Facilitated by multiple state agencies, community groups, and healthcare and medical practitioners, this program is dedicated to enhancing the education of the elderly and raising awareness about the dangers of mixing alcohol and medications. Additionally, the AAAG focuses on providing medical practitioners with helpful resources to assist them identify and treat at-risk individuals.

Other Virginia ABC initiatives include the College Tour, which visited three state universities in 2012 and encouraged students to take responsibility for spreading responsible drinking practices on their own campuses. Virginia ABC also partnered with the Virginia College Alcohol Leadership Council (VACALC) in an effort to rally even more college students and get them involved with alcohol awareness initiatives.

Leadership and Management Program

Virginia ABC’s focus on continuous improvement is also reflected internally with the agency’s own staff members. A year ago, ABC rolled out the Leadership And Management Program (LAMP), which was specifically designed to provide emerging leaders in the organization with high-impact training to aid in their professional development and in the long-term interest of the agency. Renata Fonville, training manager with Virginia ABC, says that the idea for LAMP materialized when the organization realized that 40 percent of its employees from the baby boomer generation would be eligible to retire in the next decade. “We recognized that there would be a great deal of valuable institutional knowledge that would be lost with that group,” she explains. “We wanted to develop a way to retain that knowledge for our organization and prepare other people within the agency for taking on those kind of roles.” LAMP participants must receive the approval of their supervisors in order to apply to the program. They interview and if accepted, they commit to a rigorous year-long series of workshops and assignments focusing on the development of leadership, management and operating environment skills. The LAMP group meets approximately two days per month, and a large portion of time is spent working on team projects that are connected to the Virginia ABC’s strategic plan. This allows the employees to learn more about the inner workings of the organization as a whole, while also contributing to the agency’s growth and development as part of their training program. Kathleen Shaw, public relations specialist with Virginia ABC, is participating this year in LAMP’s second cohort. She reports the overall experience is extremely positive.

“It’s definitely a morale-booster for employees, and it increases employee engagement by helping us grow professionally within the organization,” she states.

The leadership program has also resulted in some immediate changes and improvements within Virginia ABC.

“We pay close attention to the ideas and recommendations brought forth by our LAMP participants, and many of them have already been implemented,” Insley reports.

Ultimately, Insley’s goals for the Virginia ABC and for the NABCA are closely aligned: never stop looking for opportunities to improve, and don’t lose sight of your primary responsibilities when doing so.  





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