Making Friends Is His Business

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Making Friends Is His Business

William P. Laufer of Anheuser-Busch Inc. may be one of the youngest suppliers inducted into the Convenience Store News Hall of Fame, but that does not belie the wealth of his industry experience and knowledge.

It is his dedication, expertise and single-minded focus on customer service that over the years has caught many retailers' attention. Of course, those traits are what resulted in his being nominated and ultimately inducted into the Hall of Fame by a Blue Ribbon Panel of 45 retail industry executives comprised of past Hall of Fame inductees, members of the Convenience Store News Editorial Advisory Board and other esteemed industry leaders.

"I am very honored by this award," said Laufer, vice president, supermarket and trade relations. "The most meaningful part of this award is that it came from a panel of retailers. Since the 1950s, our corporate slogan at Anheuser-Busch has been, 'Making Friends Is Our Business,' and I try to do that. I pride myself on getting to know each retailer I work with and understanding their business. I've made a lot of friends in the c-store industry since 1993 when I started working in this channel. It's been a great time for me, and we have been through many challenges together."

There is another unusual thing about Laufer that few other professionals can claim these days — he has happily dedicated his entire 27-year career to Anheuser-Busch. He joined the company straight out of college in 1979, where he spent the first half of those years on the wholesale and brand marketing side of the business. Then in 1993 he moved to the retail side as convenience store segment manager, and his career has been on an upward trajectory ever since.

"First of all, Anheuser-Busch is a great company. The leadership at the company has been strong throughout my career," said Laufer, who turns 50 this month. "It's the people that make the difference. Anheuser-Busch is an intense company and the people who last and excel are extremely dedicated and loyal to the company and its brands. We are able to celebrate our successes together because we work so hard to reach our objectives, and we achieve success because of our focus on planning execution."

In 1995 Laufer was promoted to director of segment sales marketing and a year later was elevated to sales director for national retail sales. Then in 1998 he was named senior sales director for the group and within two years was appointed to vice president of convenience, mass merchandise and club channels, before moving exclusively to the convenience channel. Currently, Laufer is the vice president of supermarket and grocery channel, having moved to this role in September of 2005.

Asked about his earliest memorable learning experience in the convenience store industry, Laufer immediately recounted his first-ever retailer sales call.

An early mentor taught Laufer an invaluable sales lesson. Instead of walking into a sales call and trying to tell everyone what you know, this mentor told him to go in with a blank sheet of paper and focus on the needs of the customer.

"So that's exactly what I did," Laufer said. "After my opening, I sat down with a blank sheet of paper and the retailer told me, 'The first thing you can do is get to know my business; know the entire convenience store, know what my No. 1 SKU is in the soda category; my No. 1 SKU in tobacco, snack foods, all categories.' He told me that if I knew that, I would gain the respect of the people I called on. It was great advice that I have applied to my business and have never forgotten."

Over the years, Laufer has made it his mission to get immersed in all areas of the convenience store alcohol beverage business. As a result, he and his sales teams have been able to successfully develop beer category programs and promotions that are not only applicable to convenience stores, but dead-on target.

"I worked hard to understand all facets and all levels of the convenience store business, from the store associate's and store manager's point-of-view to chain headquarters," Laufer said. "I decided early on that I needed to know what went on in the store on a daily basis and the challenges operators face at every level of the organization, regardless of the size of the chain or independent store."

The people on the front lines of the business often have the best ideas and solutions to their problems, according to Laufer.

Another strength of his is the deep knowledge he has of all facets of the beer business, namely the wholesale distribution and brand side of the business.

"My success would not have been achieved had it not been for all I've learned about the value of the strong wholesale system behind me, and great teams behind me on both the brand and wholesale side," Laufer said "It allows me to look the retailers in the eye and say, "This is what we can do …" and know I can follow-up and have the plan executed. That's a remarkable thing in any industry."

And that's a big reason retailers recognized Laufer for induction into the Convenience Store News Hall of Fame.

An Industry Evolving

The biggest change in the industry that Laufer has observed is the level of sophistication today versus 10 to 15 years ago, not to mention the advances made in automation and communications that have changed everyone's work life.

"It used to be a chain could put together a program or strategy and execute it, regardless of the category, and it would take years for another chain to catch up," Laufer said. "Today anything a leading chain does, we find the next day, or the next week at the latest, so the competing chains know exactly what they're doing."

As a result, the convenience store business is much tougher today than it was years ago. "To stay vital in today's economy, the convenience store has to do everything right. They can't just do one or two things right anymore."

Even the top performing chains are challenging suppliers more and more to help them beat their best. "That makes us better as a supplier and I am sure every supplier out there is getting the same questions from the best chains," he said. "They want to know what opportunities they are missing. I did not see this intense focus on the pursuit of excellence early in my career."

"Fundamentally, what convenience store retailers do best, is know their customers and their stores," he added. And as a long-time member of the NACS Supplier Board, Laufer is continually impressed with how convenience store retailers get involved in government relations and the other activities they engage in for the good of the entire industry. "As a whole, NACS as an association is unsurpassed in retailing with the show, education, government relations and other proactive involvement," Laufer said.

Another positive characteristic of the convenience store industry — which gives it depth and richness — is the large number of entrepreneurial, independent operators it has "who continue to find new, innovative ways to sell products," he added.

Few would be surprised by the one industry weakness Laufer identified. "The biggest weakness has always been the lack of information and data retailers have. The industry is gaining ground, but data still is not quite as rich as other channels."