Maija McManus

Boston Business Journal Q&A: Bill Burke of Burke's Distributing on how to run an evolving business

Maija McManus
Boston Business Journal Q&A: Bill Burke of Burke's Distributing on how to run an evolving business

Bill Burke’s family has been delivering beer and spirits to thousands of businesses inside Route 128 since 1935. To date, the 320-employee company serves 750 off-premise licensees and 2,350 on-premise locations, distributing the wares of 34 different beer suppliers and 12 spirit suppliers. 

In its relatively small footprint, Burke Distributing Corp. handles approximately 7 million cases of beer a year. Now coming up on its fourth generation, the business has changed substantially since it began at the end of prohibition. Burke, president and CEO of the company, spoke with Jessica Bartlett of the Boston Business Journal about the transformation, and how the craft beer industry changes have substantially altered his business.

This was your grandfather’s business. How did he get into it? He had a local grocery store. He would deliver food and one guy said, ‘Hey, Walter, if you are ever selling beer, I will buy it.’

When did you make the decision to affiliate with MillerCoorsIn 1954, my grandfather met Frederick Miller, and got the distribution. Due to different reasons we sold Miller (then) in 2000, we bought the Miller rights back. (Now) we’re not only MillerCoors but Sam Adams, Corona, Guinness, Mike's, Pabst, Narragansett. We have a ton of other crafts, imports. 

How have you sustained over 83 years? The affiliations with people, and the ability to change and adapt. The beer business has changed immensely. In 1982, we did almost 10 million cases of Miller only. That was done with 42 SKUs (for different products). Now we’re doing 7 million cases of beers with 1,800 SKUs. 

What’s the biggest challenge? Probably getting and hiring people. It’s so difficult to get drivers and get people who want to work hard … And also dealing with the complexity of the portfolio and how that’s changed over the years … The shift of the business is constant.    In the past, the most popular were lagers, like Bud Light, Miller Light, Coors Light. Today those buys are decreasing and craft is getting bigger and bigger. Sam is doing well now with us, but it’s all the local crafts today that everyone finds sexy. The more local, the better.

How has your business adapted to meet the needs of the craft beer market? We’ve had to hire a lot more sales reps. … between all the different suppliers we have and the understanding of how to sell the (products), along with the fact that our account base keeps growing. We’ve had to have more of an expert type of sales force.


How do you manage with an inventory that expires? It’s difficult for sure … Most have 90 to 120 days (until they expire) … We go out and pick up all the out-of-date codes out there on a constant basis.

How much liquor do you destroy a year? Solid six figures – dollars. Probably about 30,000 gallons of beer.

Where do you see the business going from here? It’s going to continue become more and more local. Unfortunately, I think there will be a time when people are going to start realizing not all locals are quality, and some people will go out of business.

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