R.L. Lipton Takes Its Case(s) to the Mahoning Valley

AUSTINTOWN -- In a sense, R.L. Lipton Distributing Co. acts as the central nervous system of the local beer industry.

From its offices and warehouse on Victoria Road, the company supplies more than 1,100 retail customers in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties with products manufactured mostly by its anchor brewer, Anheuser-Busch Inc.

On any given day, there are about 200,000 cases – or roughly the equivalent of 4.8 million cans and bottles – of beer and wine stacked like building blocks on the floor at the company’s sprawling 121,000-square-foot distribution center, just waiting to go somewhere, says operations manager Walter Kohowski.

“We’ll be close to three million this year,” he says of case sales. “As long as it’s nice and sunny, our business is good. We’ve always been at the mercy of the weather.”

On a particularly warm and sunny afternoon in late July, all Lipton trucks were out on the road while lift drivers zipped in and out of aisles, picking and placing orders for future distribution. “We average between 12,000 and 14,000 cases a day going on the trucks,” Kohowski says.

Restaurants, supermarkets, taverns and convenience stores are among the many customers that rely on R.L. Lipton to keep their refrigerators stocked and customers happy.

The company distributes Anheuser-Busch beers such as Budweiser, Bud Light and Busch, but also carries Yuengling, Copa Di Vino wines, Monster Energy drinks, and a selection of craft beers.

“The craft industry has taken off,” says sales manager Ed Carissimi. “It’s not as much in Youngstown as in other markets, but we’re getting into more of it.”

For example, in 2011 Anheuser-Busch purchased a majority stake in the Goose Island Beer Co. in Chicago, then an independent brewery, to get its foot in the craft beer market, Carissimi says. “People are looking for more flavor, higher alcohol content and colorization,” he explains.

The company also distributes for other craft beer companies such as Kona Brewing Co., Summit Brewing Co., and O’Fallon Brewery, he says.

And recently, R.L. Lipton signed a distribution agreement with the North Country Brewing Co., based in Slippery Rock, Pa.

“We’re the only distributor in the state of Ohio for this beer,” Carissimi notes. “We’re excited about that because it’s close to home.”

Meanwhile, Anheuser-Busch has produced a series of malt-based drinks similar to margaritas and other flavored alcoholic beverages. “It brings a new spin to the industry,” he reports.

Still, the old standards bring the highest volume sales in this part of the state by far, Kohowski says.

“We average around 5,000 to 6,000 cases a regular week of Bud Light cans,” he reports. “The week before the Fourth of July, that shot up to 2,300 cases per day.”

Many of the brands in high demand need to be restocked every day, which makes it more efficient for the night crew.

“It’s for rotation and expediency of the build at night,” Kohowski says.

About 95% of the beer R.L. Lipton handles is shipped directly from the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Columbus, Kohowski says. However, the company has taken orders directly from St. Louis and other Anheuser-Busch brewing centers.

R.L. Lipton runs between 17 and 20 side-loader trucks per day, most of which fill the 16 bays. “We fill six trucks at a time,” Kohowski says. Recently, the company purchased two 18-bay trucks, he adds.

A separate section is devoted to the most popular products R.L. Lipton handles, to wit, Budweiser and Bud Light. Here, more than 100,000 cases of beer are stacked more than 25 feet high.

“We’ll turn this over in 30 days or 35 days,” Kohowski says of the inventory. “In the four days before the Fourth of July, 99,000 cases went out of here.”

In addition to handling deliveries for R.L. Lipton, Kohowski says that its trucks deliver for Tri County Distributors Inc., a separate, but related, company and competitor that shares warehouse and office space on Victoria Road. Tri County Distributors moves about 600,000 cases of other brands of beer and wine in a year, he notes.

Kohowski, in the beer distribution business nearly 40 years, says that today the sales staff is much more educated and possesses a deeper knowledge of the market. Forty years ago it wasn’t unusual for a driver to assume many of these sales and logistics responsibilities.

“All the guys do now is deliver. They go by their invoices,” he says.

Still, the volume of packages has increased, placing other pressures on drivers as they fan out on their routes. “They’re swamped,” the operations manager declares.

Each driver leaves in the morning with a map of what is in their truck, and where each product is located.

Overall business remains relatively flat – about a 1% to 2% gain year-over-year, says Carissimi, the sales manager. “The industry has softened, so we’re seeing moderate growth,” he reports.

Twenty years ago, it wasn’t unusual to experience 9% to 10% growth each year, Carissimi says. “You’re not going to see growth like that again,” he predicts.

In the Youngstown region especially, which remains economically challenged compared to other markets, sales aren’t nearly as robust as they were three decades ago because of a population that is smaller and older and an overall fragmentation of different products.

“Brand loyalty isn’t as profound anymore,” Carissimi observes. “We’re looking for the niche that the consumer is trying to grab onto.”

PICTURED: Walter Kohowski is operations manager at R.L. Lipton Distributing Co. where 200,000 cases of beer and wine are ready for delivery.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
CLICK HERE to subscribe to our twice-monthly print edition and to our free daily email headlines.