Bernie Little Beverages Corporate History
The Bernie Little family's association with Anheuser-Busch began in 1963 with the sponsorship of the Miss Budweiser hydroplane. That association and the friendship of August Busch, III allowed Bernie Little, Sr. in 1972 to purchase the Anheuser-Busch brand distribution rights for a 3 county area of central Florida and form Bernie Little Distributors based in Lakeland.
In 1973, Bernie Little, Jr. was conscripted into military service while attending Emory University. The draft was ended before he was called into service and he moved to Lakeland to join his father in the business. As Bernie Sr. was focused on the Miss Budweiser hydroplane, it allowed Bernie Jr. to make all the mistakes necessary to understand the business. Those early years were a learning experience and the most important thing Bernie Jr. learned was that the mind of a man can do more than the hands of a man.
In 1975, Bernie Jr., with a forceful determination, took the company on a major expansion program. The company constructed a new distribution facility in Lakeland that tripled capacity.
In 1975, IBM had released the System 32 computer, the first low-end business computer primarily marketed to small & midsize businesses for accounting applications. Bernie Jr. had a strong mathematical mind and understood the potential efficiencies to be gained by using computers to model routing efficiencies. He retained the services of a NASA expert in the RPGII programming language and had custom distribution logistic software created.
In 1980, Bernie Little Distributors became the first Anheuser-Busch wholesale distributor in the southeast to implement a computerized system of sales and delivery routing logistics. It was this focus on efficiencies that allowed the company to compound its profitability at a rate unheard of in the beer distribution business.
In 1983, after a decade of working through the ranks Bernie Jr. became president of the company. Bernie Jr. used this new authority to further expand the business.
In 1984, the company purchased the Anheuser-Busch brand distribution rights for an additional 5 county area in south central Florida and a distribution center in Belle Glade. Through the application of both forceful determination and logistical efficiencies the sales and profitability of this new territory grew rapidly.
In 1985, the company opened a new state-of-the-art distribution center in Sebring to support the rapidly expanding sales.
In 1988, Bernie Jr. returned to college and over the next five years he earned a bachelor degree from Florida Southern College and a master degree in business administration from Rollins College, attending at night and on weekends. His master degree thesis was on the use of compensation systems as a motivational tool to align employee behaviors with employer goals. He implemented many of his thesis ideas into the beer distribution business, which was perfectly suited for the exercise. Many of these compensation systems were adopted by countless other beer wholesalers and are still in use today all over the country.
By 1995, Bernie Little Distributors was the most highly awarded wholesale distributor in the entire Anheuser-Busch system, earning triple Ambassador status in the brewer’s Dimensions of Excellence program.
In 1997, Bernie Little, Jr. acquired the Anheuser-Busch brand distribution rights for a 6 county region of north central Florida and formed Bernie Little Distributing. A new distribution center was built in Ocala Florida.
Over the next 13 years, the Ocala based Bernie Little Distributing became the fastest growing Anheuser-Busch distributor in the country for 10 of those 13 years and achieved a market share of 70%. The organization accomplished this success using the same formula of forceful determination, logistical efficiencies and aligned compensation
systems. The company motto was "Work Hard - Work Smart." It also helped to exclusively represent Anheuser-Busch, brewer of the finest malt beverages in the world.
In 2007, Bernie Little Distributing purchased the brand distribution rights for the InBev and Rolling Rock brands. The InBev brands included European imports Stella Artois, Beck’s, Bass Pale Ale, Hoegaarden and Leffe. The Rolling Rock brands included Rolling Rock and Rolling Rock Light.
In 2008, the Belgian-Brazilian brewer InBev acquired Anheuser-Busch ending the Busch family’s five generations of leadership of the company. With the departure of August Busch, so left a brew master’s passion for the quality of the product and an intense loyalty to employees and distributor partners. This change in control also caused many Anheuser-Busch wholesale distributors to seek out other brewer’s products, especially imported brands and craft brands. Anheuser-Busch had changed under the new ownership of InBev and so had the dynamics of the market place.
In 2010, Bernie Little Distributing made a blockbuster deal to acquire the brand distribution rights for a 15 county region of north Florida for a dozen different brewers and their numerous brands including:
- DG Yuengling & Son’s: Yuengling, Yuengling Light, Yuengling Black & Tan, Yuengling Porter, Yuengling Premium, Yuengling Bock, Chesterfield Ale.
- North American Breweries: Seagram’s Malt Coolers, Genesee, Dundee, Imperial
- Heineken USA: Newcastle, Sol
- MillerCoors: Mickey’s Ice, Grolsch
- Warsteiner Importers Agency, Inc.: Warsteiner
- Binding Brauerei: Clausthaler
- Beverage Alliance: Carlsberg, Elephant Malt, Skol, Jacobsen
- Spaten USA: Spaten, Franziskaner • Carib USA: Carib
- Edleweiss Imports, Inc.: Tucher Weiss, Tucher Weiss Light, Tucher
- Weiss Hefe, Tucher Weiss Dark, Tucher Weiss Kristal
- Ferolito Vultaggio: Crazy Stallion Malt Liquor
- Cerveceria Nacional Dominicana: Presidente
The star of the portfolio was Yuengling, a family owned brewery with a heritage and passion for the business that paralleled the Busch family. The brand distribution rights for the counties not currently serviced by the company were sold to neighboring wholesalers who could more efficiently service the territory.
Also in 2010, the company added a portfolio of non-alcoholic brands including such popular brand names as Arizona Ice Tea, Boylan Sodas, Dad’s Root Beer, Mountain Valley Spring Water, Nestle and Vermont Hard Cider.
In 2011, Bernie Little Distributing added a full line of wine products to the brand portfolio by partnering with the Opici Wine Company. Opici is an 80-year-old family business currently run by Dina Opici, a fourth generation family member.
Also in 2011, the company sought to acquire the Anheuser-Busch distribution rights for a 3-county area to the east of Ocala with a distribution facility based in Deland. The closing week of the transaction Anheuser-Busch used a legal maneuver to scuttle the deal and instead transfer the brand distribution rights to a former Anheuser-Busch employee.
In 2012, the Lakeland based Bernie Little Distributors was selected by Anheuser-Busch as the No. 1 wholesale distributor in the United States, out of 700 distributorships nationwide.
At the end of 2012, Bernie Jr. chose to sell the Ocala based Bernie Little Distributing in order to pursue other investment activities including the passion for aviation he inherited from his father and the love of land he inherited from his mother.
At the time of the sale, the Bernie Little companies were the largest Anheuser-Busch wholesaler in Florida and one of the largest in the country selling more than a million bottles of beer a day.