Photo Above: West Virginia ABCA staff includes Beer Administrator Cindy Clark, Spirits Administrator Kim Hayes, Commissioner Ronald Moats and IT Director Randy Haynes (seated, left to right), as well as General Counsel Anoop Bhasin, Procurement Officer Dana Hoffman, Comptroller Julia Jones, Enforcement Director Thom Valencia, Secretary to the Commissioner Jane Reed, Spokesman Gig Robinson and HR Director Lisa Wensil (standing, left to right).
Like so many state agencies, the West Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Administration (WVABCA) has faced budgetary constraints in recent years, and it’s currently operating with the smallest team in its history (only 80 full-time staff members).
Despite these challenges, the agency has consistently increased both sales and overall product volume the past five years. During the 2015 fiscal year alone, the WVABCA generated $94,152,428 in retail sales and sold a total of 707,651 cases.
How does the agency continue improving performance when finances and staffing remain stagnant? According to Commissioner Ronald Moats, the WVABCA’s success boils down to three things: a commitment to public safety, continuous improvement of operational efficiencies and a strong focus on customer service.
“We constantly strive to provide the best service we can to our business partners,” Moats says. “We treat everyone as customers, and we do everything we can to make their experience working with us as good as possible. We’re always trying to improve – that’s something that will never change.”
A History of Service
The WVABCA doesn’t have customers in the traditional sense. In 1990, the Charleston-based agency privatized all of its retail stores and now acts as a licenser, wholesaler, and enforcer. Moats has maintained his customer service-focused philosophy for many years, and his long history with the WVABCA gives him a unique perspective on the organization.
Moats began his tenure with the agency in 1989 and served in a variety of capacities, including roles in warehouse operations and bailment, along with holding the position of acting commissioner in 2003 and 2004. In 2005, Moats left the WVABCA to work in the office of then-governor Joe Manchin. He also spent time as the assistant to the director of the West Virginia Lottery.
In 2011, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin asked Moats to return to the WVABCA in the role of commissioner. Moats inherited an agency facing numerous challenges. He met those difficulties head-on and was hailed as a leader who focuses on building relationships to foster a climate of continued growth.
“I didn’t have a lot of resources coming in, but I’ve been fortunate to work with a great team of people who are dedicated to the work that we do and are committed to taking things to the next level,” he says.
In addition to collaborating with his internal staff, Moats also focuses on maintaining positive relationships with the agency’s retailers and suppliers, citing their feedback and buy-in as crucial to the success of the WVABCA. The state has a modest, but growing, alcohol beverage industry, and the number of local wineries, breweries and distilleries in West Virginia continue to increase each year. Moats thinks that being proactive about engaging with these partners results in a positive impact for all parties.
An annual trade show that the agency sponsors each September is just one example of how the WVABCA brings together retailers and suppliers to discuss industry trends and new products. In addition to being a hub of information sharing, the trade show also generates approximately 8 – 9% of the state’s yearly liquor sales.
While customer service is very important to him, Moats stresses that public safety is always his primary concern. The agency oversees 5,000 retail licensees, and immediately after his appointment, Moats cracked down on several hundred licensees who were in violation of various protocols. Those licensees received administrative penalties, and the agency set a precedent that infractions would not be tolerated.
The WVABCA also invested a great amount of time and effort in public education. Prior to Moats’s appointment as commissioner, the agency finalized the development of a DUI simulator, which was funded by grants provided by State Farm, the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association (NABCA) and the West Virginia Governor’s Highway Safety Program. The multi-screen simulator allows students to safely experience the difficulties drivers may encounter at various blood alcohol content levels.
Moats says the simulator is effective because it capitalizes on the popularity of video games among young people, and allows students to have a physical experience, instead of just being lectured to about the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol.
“If we talk to these kids and give them some idea of what it’s actually like to drink and drive, hopefully they’ll make better decisions,” he says.
Since the program’s launch in November 2010, the simulator has traveled to nearly every West Virginia high school at least once, reaching more than 25,000 students. The simulator is also used at various summer events, reinforcing its message statewide.
Another popular educational outreach effort is the No School Spirits public service announcement (PSA) contest, which is currently running for the third consecutive year. Designed to complement the DUI simulator program, the No School Spirits contest is open to all West Virginia high schools. Students are encouraged to submit an essay or video explaining why their school should be chosen to help produce a PSA addressing the issues of underage drinking and drinking and driving. Funded by State Farm, NABCA, and the West Virginia Governor’s Highway Safety Program, the contest awards a $5,000 first place prize, a $2,500 second prize, and a $1,000 third prize to the winning schools. Additionally, the first prize entry is produced as a televised PSA that runs in the spring (during prom season).
In addition to these high school programs, the WVABCA has produced two grant-funded training videos specific to both on- and off-premise licensees, which show how to identify underage individuals with fake I.D.s and prevent over-service. The agency also works closely with colleges and universities, state and local law enforcement agencies, community coalitions, and other organizations to promote messages centered on responsible drinking and serving.
The WVABCA has focused on internal warehouse and system improvements over the years. In 2011, the process of updating seven existing legacy systems began. The primary goal of the overhaul was to improve operational efficiencies.
Once the various aspects of the new system were reviewed and approved by the state’s central office of technology, the in-house component – consisting of case management, enforcement and licensing applications – launched in April 2014. Several months later, iPads were distributed to inspectors so all forms could be instantly accessed in the field.
The final phase will be an online licensing and renewal system, which will be rolled out to all off-premise licensees in early 2016. The new online licensing system will also mark the first time that the WVABCA has accepted credit card payments.
West Virginia utilizes a bailment system for alcohol distribution, and the agency implemented an online bailment control system in March 2015 that allows retailers to place orders online. While the online licensing system was outsourced to an external company, the control system was created in-house to allow for a more customized program tailored to the agency’s own unique needs. As a result, both the WVABCA and the state’s 178 licensed retailers are happy with the upgrades.
“We’ve received such positive feedback from our retail partners,” says Kim Hayes, Director of Spirits and Wine at the WVABCA. “It’s an ideal system because everything is web-based and mobile-optimized. All of the data is shared online and in real time.”
Improved e-mail and reporting capabilities are another key feature of the new bailment control system. Previously, all users would be e-mailed copies of reports related to their respective areas. The new system uses a portal log-in model, allowing users to visit the site at their convenience while giving them access to personal data and recent reports at any time.
Once completed, the entire series of system overhauls will have cost the state approximately $400,000. However, the agency thinks the expense was well worth it.
“We needed to invest in a major systems enhancement in order for us to continue to improve,” says Randy Haynes, Director of Information Technology with the WVABCA. “Some of the systems we were using previously weren’t being updated or even supported anymore, so this was a necessary move that will ultimately benefit West Virginia in many ways.”
Technology isn’t the only operational area of the agency that’s been improved. Several major renovations have taken place in the WVABCA’s warehouse. The 150,000-square-foot structure is located in Nitro, about 12 miles from the agency’s headquarters. Housing more than 2,200 active SKUs, the warehouse received some much-needed enhancements beginning in June 2012, when the building’s original overhead fluorescent lighting system was replaced with new, energy-efficient fixtures.
The project took five weeks to complete, and the agency structured the process to avoid operational shut downs. Additionally, the renovation replaced 400 light fixtures with just 245 energy-efficient bulbs, resulting in electricity cost-savings, increased efficiency and improved visibility throughout the warehouse.
“Our efficiency more than doubled the amount of light in the warehouse,” says Ed Hart, Warehouse Manager with the WVABCA. “The staff noticed it right away, and it was a big morale boost for the team. Better visibility also means improved safety for our team, which is an important benefit.”
Another improvement that enhanced visibility in the warehouse was the replacement of 74 skylights located throughout the structure. The skylights were replaced in 2015, and a 250-kW diesel generator was installed to keep the warehouse functioning in the event of a power outage. This is especially important because the building houses a server back-up for agency headquarters. The warehouse was also completely repainted, and minor flood control issues were fixed.
The total cost of all recent warehouse improvements was $400,000. Both warehouse and technology improvements are now on a preventative maintenance program, meaning that Haynes and Hart work closely with Moats to predict and plan for additional improvements they anticipate for the coming years.
“Everything in IT is on an updated renewal cycle,” Moats says. “We also have identified future needs for our warehouse, such as new dock-levelers within the next couple of years. Everything is carefully budgeted for, so there shouldn’t be any big surprises down the line.”
Melissa Niksic is a freelance writer and marketing communications strategist from Chicago, IL. Her work has appeared in Chicago’s Daily Herald newspaper, Time Out Chicago, Suburban Life newspapers, and various magazines. She is also the author of several children’s books. Follow her @MelissaNiksic.
What advice does the WVABCA have to offer other control states that are working to improve their organizational structures? Here are some tips from Moats:
- Pay attention to customers. Connect with customers on a regular basis and solicit their feedback, truly listening to what they have to say. Their feedback is crucial to the success of any good business operation.
- Learn from each other. At the WVABCA, Moats strongly values the wealth of experience that exists within the internal staff as well as with external agency partners. Regular communication with these key stakeholders results in a much stronger organization.
- Empower employees. Create an atmosphere that makes all employees feel empowered by encouraging new and innovative ways in which to serve your customers.