Harvey Chaplin began his career in the wine and spirits industry while still in high school, working in the mail room at spirits marketer Schenley Industries. Chaplin rose through the ranks during a 16-year tenure at the company, eventually becoming assistant director of sales. In the 1960s, he left Schenley to work at a wine and spirits distributorship in upstate New York. Toward the end of that decade, he became a partner in a new Miami-based wholesaler called Southern Wine & Spirits of America (SWS).
Launched in 1968, SWS quickly began expanding throughout Florida. In 1969, the company took a gamble and ventured west to acquire a small California distributor called Landfield, which had revenues of less than $100 million and was losing money. In those days, distribution in the Golden State was fragmented, and brand loyalty was virtually non-existent. A huge divide existed between Southern and Northern California, and Landfield initially did little business in the north. After a decade and a half of hard work, SWS acquired the Northern California distributor Grape Empire in 1984. By then, the company was persuading major suppliers to grant them statewide exclusives. Chaplin spent much time out west developing that business, and California became the cornerstone of the company’s nationwide expansion efforts.
By 1990, sales at SWS had reached $1.3 billion, and the company was present in three states—Florida, California and Nevada. SWS had become the nation’s No.-1 spirits and wine distributor, a position it has never relinquished. The company’s geographical footprint continued to grow. By 2000, five new states had been added—South Carolina, Kentucky, New Mexico, Arizona and Hawaii—and revenues had reached $3.5 billion.
But the party had only just begun. The next 15 years witnessed unprecedented expansion and consolidation at the second tier, and SWS was at the forefront. By 2005, revenues reached $6.2 billion, and the company was present in 19 states. In 2015, sales hit $11.8 billion, and SWS was doing business in 34 states and Washington, D.C, with a nearly 25-percent share of the market.
This past January, SWS took its biggest step yet when it agreed to join forces with Texas-based Glazer’s Inc. to create a distribution powerhouse covering 44 states, as well as Washington, D.C., Canada and the Caribbean. The deal combined the $11.8 billion in revenue from SWS with the $3.7 billion from Glazer’s to form a juggernaut with over $15 billion in annual sales.
Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits has 20,000 employees, including a sales force of more than 12,000. The company distributes over 150 million cases of wine and spirits annually and serves more than 350,000 on- and off-premise customers. Southern Glazer’s accounts for a nearly 30-percent share of the U.S. spirits and wine market by value, and its major suppliers include Diageo North America, Moët Hennessy USA, Beam Suntory, Pernod Ricard and Bacardi, among numerous others.
Chaplin is now chairman of the new Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, while former Glazer’s chairman Bennett Glazer serves as executive vice chairman. Chaplin’s son, Wayne—who was SWS’ president and CEO prior to the merger—is now Southern Glazer’s CEO, and former Glazer’s CEO Shelly Stein serves as president.
The Glazer’s deal created the first truly national spirits and wine distributor and represented the pinnacle of Harvey Chaplin’s already-storied career. “It’s a wonderful feeling to get this deal done,” he told Marvin R. Shanken in an exclusive interview in Shanken News Daily this past January. “We’ll now set about growing the business.”
Wayne Chaplin paid tribute to his legendary father in that same interview. “I think about SWS’ humble beginnings in 1968, when we faced so many competitors who had been around since Prohibition,” Wayne said. “To reach this point, based on my dad’s vision to build out this business, to roll the dice every single time and to invest the farm every single step of the way, is really an incredible story.”