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CUE THE BEER: Crews at Heart of America Beverage Co. average 385 deliveries per day, according to co-owners Brian Gelner, left, and Harwood Ferguson.
SBJ photo by Jessica Rosa
CUE THE BEER: Crews at Heart of America Beverage Co. average 385 deliveries per day, according to co-owners Brian Gelner, left, and Harwood Ferguson.

Business Spotlight: Towers of Hops

Heart of America delivers 1,000 unique alcohol products to 26 southwest Missouri counties

Posted online

Standing among pillars of beers from around the globe, Heart of America Beverage Co. LLC Executive Vice President Brian Gelner opens a side door to another room.

Inside the sub-40 degree, 11,000-square-foot icebox, roughly 3,000 kegs of various sizes await to be loaded onto trucks and delivered to area bars and grocery and convenience stores.

In Heart of America’s main warehouse, a vast 100,000 square feet in a Republic business park, workers on forklifts zoom through stacks of beer pallets containing about 1,000 unique products from 35 suppliers. Their first destination is the 10 loading docks leading outside.

About 90% of the warehouse’s contents is beer. MillerCoors makes up more than 50% of inventory, says HOA President Harwood Ferguson.

Company officials say HOA crews average 385 deliveries a day.

Locally, the biggest name under HOA’s roof is Mother’s Brewing Co. LLC.

Owner Jeff Schrag says the microbrewery has worked with HOA since it launched in May 2011. Mother’s Brewing works with 18 distributors to reach markets between Kansas City, St. Louis and Arkansas, but Schrag estimates HOA handles about half of the brewery’s distribution.

“They sell more of our beer than any other distributor,” he says.

Domestic beers aren’t alone at HOA. International brands on hand are plenty: Modelo from Mexico, Peroni from Italy, Sapporo from Japan, Warsteiner from Germany, Foster’s from Australia and LaBatt Blue from Canada.

“We can fit just about any want out there,” says Gelner, who’s also the company’s chief financial officer.

A rising star, he says, is the new alcohol seltzer products, such as White Claw and Truly.

“The hottest part of the beer category this year has been the hard seltzers,” Gelner says. “It’s adding a lot of growth and excitement to the industry.”

Ferguson says the seltzers make up about 2.5% of inventory, so it remains to be seen if the drinks are an industry fad. By comparison, nonalcoholic products, such as Red Bull and Calypso lemonade, represent 8% of sales.

The mass amount of alcohol does have a shelf life. Ferguson says it’s between four months and a year, though the warehouse only holds enough product for about 20-25 days of deliveries.

For a quick turnaround, HOA runs 29 delivery routes to sellers like Brown Derby, Price Cutter, Kum & Go, Casey’s and Macadoodles. Gelner says Walmart stores are the largest recipients.

In all, HOA handles about 1,700 accounts, Ferguson says, with the majority receiving an order on average of once a week.

The beer distribution business is a stable market, according to the National Beer Wholesalers Association. The U.S. beer industry sells more than $119.3 billion in beer and malt-based beverages yearly, per data compiled by the 3,000-member association, of which Gelner was elected chairman in October.

Heart of America’s revenue grew about 3% in 2018, though officials declined to disclose annual revenue.

“Because of the regulation, we don’t have a lot of ups and downs of a lot of industries,” Gelner says. “We’re not one of those industries that’s going to grow 50% one year and be down 40% the next year. It’s nice, steady, consistent growth.”

HOA currently distributes to 26 southwest Missouri counties.

“Like all businesses, you’re either looking to get bigger or you’re not going to be around,” Gelner says. “We would like to look for other opportunities throughout Missouri or possibly in states around us to add on.”

The company operates a distribution facility in Joplin, where about 30 of the company’s 175 total employees are located.

Within the last year, the company branched out into spirits, though there’s no top-shelf liquor in the warehouse.

“This is a new and exciting area for us to be branching out in, and I think it will continue to be a small part of our business,” Ferguson says, adding he doesn’t see spirits becoming more than 5% of overall business.

HOA’s spirits line includes Boulevard Fling, a new premixed canned alcohol from Boulevard Brewing Co., Recipe 21 and See Ice vodkas.

“It’s not going to be the pretty bottles you see on the back of the walls. It’s going to be what’s underneath that people mix things with,” Gelner says.

The Gelner and Ferguson families have been in the industry for a combined 90 years.

Harwood Ferguson’s father, Jim, started Coors of the Ozarks in 1978, eventually morphing into HOA. Brian Gelner’s father, Richard, bought Premium Beverage Sales in 1973, putting the companies on a trajectory for a merger in October 2016.

Around that time, the Ferguson family’s Coors business, already rebranded as Heart of America, was planning to build the current 148,000-square foot warehouse. It was completed in 2017.

“When Brian and I began talks to merge the companies, we were already in the process of planning this facility,” Ferguson says.

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