New Stoli Group CEO’s Top Priorities: Get the People Right, Emphasize Speed

To understand a person, you need to understand where they come from.  Not only where they were born and grew up, but also their early work experience.

Damian McKinney is a farm boy who became a special forces operative.  Now he’s running Stoli Group.   We caught up with him on Zoom yesterday.

Born in South Africa, raised on a farm, he was trained as a commando with the Royal Marines.  That training and the 18 years he spent with Royal Marines Commando units governs his thinking about business today.  Why did he leave the Royal Marines for the quieter, more sedate world of business?  “I read too many Richard Branson books.” (Branson has been a prolific author, writing at least eight success books.)

McKinney may have left the Royal Marines, but the Commando spirit hasn’t left him.  He built a consulting business, sold it three years ago, was bored when  Yuri Shefler, the owner of Stoli Group came calling.

“In the early 2000s, the Stoli brand was an exciting business.  It launched the first flavors” among other innovations.  But, McKinney said, “it’s gone to sleep. Nobody was thinking about the future.”  McKinney intends to wake it up.

The former Royal Marine understands the value of mission.  It’s not merely a matter of how much money you can make.  Mission is about winning, about achieving a goal.  “I want to get Stoli back into the top tier, for it to come back and shock the world,” he told me.  “We’ve got vodka, tequila, gin . . . ”

He’s competing against some global giants.  But he’s not cowed.  “Scale isn’t everything,” he says.  “All the best projects I’ve ever done were built on adversity.  You run it like a team, as opposed to the old, managerial way of doing it.

“The best sales people don’t sell.  They are passionate brand ambassadors,” he says.  Already, “in Barbados our sales have gone up 700%.”  One secret to that drive is McKinney didn’t sit in an office, rather he went and “sat in the truck with the guys” as they called on customers.  “If you believe in what you do and you’re excited about it,” he says, you get others excited too.

“I’m moving really fast,” he told us.  “In one day, I took out three layers of management.  I want all my market leaders sitting side-by-side,” not in silos.  He’s “waking up distributors around the world, asking if they are really passionate about the Stoli brand.

Culture, he said, is key.  “I believe in diversity in all things, being really efficient in operations and have all hands in.”  There’s no place for slackers or doubters in his team.

McKinney harkens back to the Royal Marines.  At one point during the Gulf War he was given the task of caring for 240,000 refugees for 30 days in the mountains of Northern Afghanistan.  How was he going to do it?  He hadn’t been trained in rescue operations.  While he was standing on a hill, surveying what might be the site of a refugee camp, three large trucks loaded with beds rolled up next to him.

“What this?” he asked the sergeant in charge of the trucks.  “I heard we had a mission to house refugees and figured we might need beds,” the sergeant replied.  “So I went to the supply depot and drew these beds.”

The point is, McKinney said, “the solutions come from the people.”

That’s true, he believes, in the global alcohol business.  Success will not come from a remote corporate staff dreaming up new marketing concepts but from those on the ground, close to the sale.  What works in one place and one culture may not transfer nicely to another place and another culture.  “We have extraordinary horsepower,” he said.  “Why would we not use our brilliant people?”

The problem with business, he believes, is that business people are not trained the way Royal Marine Commandos are trained, which is to say a brief introduction to theory and then a lot of experiential learning.  Instead, it’s almost all classroom learning, theory and writing papers or case studies. “The way we trained was experiential, you practiced it and went through it.  You learn that way,” McKinney said.

Another problem, he says, is a fear of failure.  “Why is it no one in business ever war-games their plans?  They’re afraid of failure.  But in training it’s okay to fail.  It’s how you learn.”

McKinney told us he’s still selecting his people.  Special forces training is designed to weed out those who don’t want to be in the mud, he said, but in business the usual approach is a boss leaves and someone who has been a stellar performer is told he has to “step up.”   You have to “de-select,” he told us.  “You need people to worry about being deselected” to achieve maximum performance.

“I’ve made some pretty significant changes pretty quickly,” he said.  “There’s no bad people.  It’s a matter of understanding who we need” to accomplish the mission.  “I want to win, so I’ve said we have to set that standard.”

“I’m selling a dream” when it comes to dealing with staff.  “I need a vision.  I think too many companies sell pay packages” to potential staffers “instead of selling a dream and an opportunity.  Too many people think participating is enough.

“Humans are very simple:  Tell me where we’re going, here’s what we’re going to do next.  Create some wins, so people see (the leader) is serious.  Life is about wins.”

McKinney pauses for a moment.  “Inevitably there will be energy vampires.  Those are the ones you get rid of.”

While most of our discussion dealt with people, McKinney assured us that concurrently he’s “really focused on the brands.  What’s the real difference in our brand?  You’ll see a difference in our approach in the first quarter,” he said.  Would he share some details with us?  No, he replied, it’s too early.

Too often in business short-term thinking leads to simply patching things up.  The global pandemic created a crisis, and in responding many threw away the long-term stake to focus on two other stakes, the immediate and the short-term.

What’s the long-term benefit from the pandemic, we wondered.  “Technology is a force multiplier,” McKinney responded.  Give people the right technology and they can accomplish the mission.”

And with that, the interview ended.  Still, we left our Zoom session with the distinct feeling that the next few years at Stoli Group will be exciting.  McKinney gave us a five-year timeline, and said that by the end of those five years his successor should be set for at least another five years of multiplying success.

Will Stoli be back in the top five bev/al brands?  That’s for the future.  What’s not in doubt is that right now McKinney is laying the groundwork to achieve that mission.  For the next few years, at least, Stoli Group will be a place full of energy and excitement. It will be a great place to work for some workers, and a great supplier partner for bev/al wholesalers.

For additional insights into McKinney’s thinking, read “How CEOs Can Create Insurgent Organizations” from a 2019 issue of CEO Magazine and his book, Commando Entrepreneur.

Read more on Kane’s Beverage Daily News Article HERE.