March 6, 2011

The Bottom Line: White Rock reaches a pinnacle

Distillery whips the competition with its cream-flavored vodka

By J. Hemmerdinger
Staff Writer

LEWISTON - A few years ago, you'd be hard pressed to find Pinnacle Vodka at your local bar.

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Anita Desrosiers loads bottles of Fire Water, a cinnamon-flavored schnapps, at White Rock Distilleries in Lewiston.

Photos by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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White Rock bottles and ships 16,000 cases of four varieties of Pinnacle Whipped vodka each week.

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HISTORY: White Rock, which has operated in Lewiston since 1937, was purchased by Ray Coulombe in 1971. The company once distilled Poland Spring vodka, but now is solely in the bottling and branding business. Ray's son Paul became CEO in 1995, and assumed complete ownership of the company a few years ago. Paul gifted two-thirds of the company to his daughter.

NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: 230. About 200 staffers work at the Lewiston plant. The company has roughly five marketing employees in Portland and salespeople throughout the country.

EXECUTIVES: CEO Paul Coulombe, CFO and COO John Suczynski and President Bill Dabbelt.

WORTH NOTING: White Rock doesn't distill liquor. The company buys spirits in bulk and bottles them under some 100 brands. White Rock formulated Three Olives Vodka from scratch. Coulombe sold the brand in 2007 and turned his attention to Pinnacle Vodka, which was named the fastest-growing spirit in the world in 2010 by industry publication Impact Newsletter.

FINANCIALS: Coulombe said White Rock earned $185 million in 2010. He expects 2011 sales to be between $215 million and $220 million

But belly up tonight, and there's a good change you'll see blue-tinted Pinnacle bottles, emblazed with the French flag, on the front shelf.

It's the latest brand top hit the big time for Lewiston-based White Rock Distilleries, a 74-year-old company that has successfully launched other spirits.

Since being launched in 2003, Pinnacle has gone from little-known spirit to a nationwide brand. White Rock executives attribute their success to word-of-mouth marketing and the popularity of Pinnacle's new whipped cream-flavored vodka.

"In the second half of last year the brand exploded," White Rock Chief Executive Officer Paul Coulombe said. "Orders kept flying in."

White Rock generates $185 million in revenue and owns and distributes roughly 100 brands of liquor. Pinnacle, a lower-priced value brand, is sold in 24 flavors, including apple, cotton candy, blueberry, banana, cherry and root beer. There's also traditional, unflavored Pinnacle vodka.

But one flavor, Pinnacle Whipped, trumps all the rest, said Coulombe.

Released last year, the whipped cream-flavored vodka can be used for such concoctions as a Vodka Cream Soda (add ginger ale) or even a Creamsicle (mix with orange juice)

Coulombe said Pinnacle grew in popularity thanks to online hype and Facebook postings.

"Everybody was talking about it. Everyone who tasted it would tell 100 of their (Facebook) friends," Coulombe said.

John Suczynski, White Rock's chief financial officer and chief operations officer, said homemade YouTube videos also spread the word.

"There are people doing commercials for us," he said.

Pinnacle's relatively inexpensive price -- roughly $22 for a 1.75-liter bottle -- has helped the brand gain market share during the recession.

White Rock now bottles and ships some 16,000 cases weekly of four Pinnacle Whipped varieties -- original, chocolate, orange and cherry.

That growth has benefited the entire brand, Suczynski said.

According to Impact Newsletter, a New York City-based publication covering the beer, wine and spirits industries, Pinnacle vodka was the fastest-growing premium spirit in the world in 2010, with annual growth of 38 percent based on cases shipped.

In the first two months of 2011, White Rock produced 304,000 cases of 9-liter Pinnacle bottles, including 125,000 cases of Pinnacle Whipped.

At that rate, White Rock will sell roughly 1.8 million Pinnacle cases by the end of 2011.

By comparison, Diageo, a White Rock competitor, sold 24.3 million cases of the Smirnoff brand in 2010, according to Diageo's annual report.

Other competitors include Bacardi, which sells Grey Goose vodka, Brown-Foreman, which owns Finlandia Vodka, and Beam Global Spirits & Wine.

White Rock was founded in 1937 in Lewiston and was purchased by Coulombe's father, Ray, in 1971.

Paul Coulombe, who was born in Maine, joined the company in 1975 as a salesman based in Columbus, Ohio. He moved to Connecticut, covering Northeast sales, in 1978, before heading back to Maine in 1983. He became CEO in 1995.

White Rock is not a liquor distiller. The company buys liquor in bulk from distillers in Europe, Scotland, Mexico, the Virgin Islands and the United States.

The spirits are blended and bottled at White Rock's Lewiston plant.

The company sells liquor under roughly 100 brands, including Barbarossa and Calico Jack rums, Jenkins Gin, Antigua Cruz tequila and Grand Macnish blended Scotch whisky.

Just five years ago, Coulombe bought all shares of the company from 24 of his relatives, a move he called well-timed.

Back then, White Rock owned Three Olives Vodka, a brand made from English vodka and marketed as a premium spirit.

Shortly after Coulombe bought White Rock, Three Olives sales skyrocketed with the introduction of grape and cherry vodka, said Coulombe.

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Additional Photos

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John Suczynski, White Rock’s COO and CFO, walks past a row of stainless steel pipes that transport alcohol to the bottling lines at the distillery in Lewiston.

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Cynthia Fisher checks labels and the fill levels of bottles of Pinnacle Vodka at White Rock Distilleries in Lewiston.


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