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March is Women’s History Month, making it the perfect time to support and hear from some of the history-making women in the Michigan beverage community.

What to Drink This Month
While no list is comprehensive, here are a few suggestions for what to drink to celebrate Women’s History Month.

  • St. Julians is home to the first professional commercial female winemaker in Michigan, vice president-winemaking Nancie Oxley, as well as enologist Kristin Kohane. Toast women in the industry with a bottle of St Julian’s Sweet Nancie sparkling wine.   
  • Ethanology Distillation’s Geri Lefebre is Michigan’s first female head distiller and co-owner of the business. Visit their Spirit House in Elk Rapids to enjoy their vodka, gin, whiskey and Mel® honey.
  • Cousins Melanie Owen and Lauren Kniebes own Lazy Ballerina in St. Joseph and the Lazy Ballerina Bridgman Tasting Room, where you can sample a variety of wines as well as distilled spirits. 
  • Visit Schmohz Brewing Company, one of the oldest breweries in Grand Rapids, where Gabi Palmer is head brewer.
  • Check out Brewery Nyx, Michigan’s first dedicated gluten-free brewery and facility founded by owner Jessica Stricklen. 
  • As always, when picking up Michigan craft beer, wine, or spirits, support locally-owned markets that are serviced by a local beverage distributor. 

Women in the Industry Share Their Thoughts
This month we asked Kit Wanty-Lambert, president of O&W Distributors, and Leah Witkoske, production manager and brewer, Midland Brewing Company, and Joanie O’Sullivan-Butler, president and CEO of John P. O’Sullivan Distributing, to share their thoughts and experiences as women in the Michigan beverage industry.

Q: Tell us about your business. 

Kit Wanty-Lambert, president, O&W Distributors: O&W, Inc. is a fifth-generation family-owned business. Daily operations are run by four family members: myself, my sister Jamie, and my cousins Isabel and Cooper. We’ve been a licensed beverage distributor since 1933 and carry over 1,500 unique beer and nonalcoholic SKUs. We service 6.5 counties in southeast Michigan from our 135,000 sq foot warehouse in Ypsilanti. We also provide many essential functions that contribute to the industry’s economic and environmental efforts like collecting and processing empty kegs, cans, and bottles, and collecting taxes. 

Leah Witkoske, production manager and brewer, Midland Brewing Company: Our brewery first opened shortly after prohibition (in 1935), closed during the Great Depression and was reborn in 2010. We work to carry on the legacy of the original Midland Brewing Company, connecting our passion for brewing Michigan craft beer to Midland’s early history, defined by the lumber, railroad, and beer industries. 

Joanie O’Sullivan-Butler, John P. O’Sullivan Distributing: My parents started this business in 1976 when I was just a baby. They grew the business from a small distributorship with just a few brands by adding several new brands over the years. They also expanded the territory we covered through the acquisition of other local distributors whose owners were looking to exit the business for a variety of reasons. We have added new brands and have also expanded the territory we service through additional acquisitions over the past several years. We now service eleven counties in mid-Michigan and out into the Thumb and carry over 51 suppliers and over 1400 SKUs.   

Q: How long have you been in the industry and what is your current role? 

Kit Wanty-Lambert: As a kid, I would spend time with my family at the warehouse and specifically with my dad at retail and special events. I worked at O&W through high school and came back to work in 2000 in an entry-level sales position. For the past five years, my role focused on preparing our family for the retirement of my dad and uncle. I am the first female president of O&W. I have also been an active member of the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association for over 20 years, serving on several committees including the Women’s Advocacy Committee. 

Leah Witkoske: My interest in the beer industry first came from homebrewing with my dad, and I used to visit an English pub that showed me there is so much more to beer than what was commercially available in America at the time. After I had my sons, I wanted to go back to work and follow that passion I had already established in beer. My first industry job was cellar operator at a brewery in Dayton, Ohio. I absorbed as much as I could and worked my way up to brewing, cellaring, and packaging for a 20-BBL brewhouse. When the brewer position opened at Midland Brewing Company, in my hometown, I jumped on it. I’ve been here for over two years now. It’s been a wild ride dealing with COVID, but an incredible experience so far. My current title is production manager and brewer.

Joanie O’Sullivan-Butler, John P. O’Sullivan Distributing: I have been in the beer industry my whole life. I entered the company full-time overseeing day-to-day operations after I completed law school in 2005.  I had the opportunity to work side by side with my parents for a number of years and now I am the President and CEO of the company.  My husband Sean and I work hard every day to follow the path my parents set for the company.  We’d expanded the company by getting into the distribution of non-alcohol brands like water, energy drinks, juices, and even coffee.

Q: What hurdles have you experienced as a woman in the industry?

Kit Wanty-Lambert: I think the hurdles facing women in many industries stem from a baby boomer mentality, where men did ‘men things’ and women did ‘women things.’ People in my generation (Gen X) and younger have grown up with traditional roles blurred, where both men and women have opportunities to achieve anything they want. 

Still, too often I have found that managers would rather not burden a new mom and will give a male counterpart the opportunity to grow. This sidelines women in a way that takes years to catch up. Hopefully, this will change and a women’s career will be viewed as just as important as a man’s, and flexibility in the workplace for both genders will prevail. 

Leah Witkoske: I have had to deal with being paid less than I should, but I was willing to walk away from that situation. I’ve been quite lucky to have been at companies that see how much passion and knowledge I bring to the table. The biggest hurdles come from being a single mom. Again, I’m lucky to be in a great place where ‘Family First’ is our motto. We take care of each other and work together so that we can all have the work-life balance we all need.

Joanie O’Sullivan-Butler, John P. O’Sullivan Distributing: The beer industry is a predominantly male industry, so there are always hurdles being a woman in leadership in this industry.  One of the biggest obstacles, when I started, was finding a group of my peers, a network of fellow women in the beer business, that I could rely on for support—people who I could rely upon for advice, or even just to be a sounding board for ideas. Now, thanks to groups like we have at Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association, and a similar one with National Beer Wholesalers Association, anytime I find myself needing that connection, I know immediately who I can call. 

It’s also important to make sure there is a culture within your organization that supports diversity and actively encourages it. I think one of the things that has been absolutely critical to our success is that everyone in our organization understands that everyone here is playing on an equal field. I find myself now concentrating on the positive growth and reinvestment in the organization in a way that pays forward the opportunities I was given by this industry.  

Q: What advice would you give other women?

Kit Wanty-Lambert: Keep working hard. Women work just as hard, and sometimes even outwork men, but we aren’t good at tooting our own horns. Set goals, hold yourself accountable, recap your success, and schedule meetings with your boss to discuss your accomplishments. Ask for a raise! Don’t be afraid to ask to learn something new, especially if it isn’t in your wheelhouse. Be a good teammate. Learn how to communicate so you can collaborate and learn something from others. This may mean changing your communication style since men are oftentimes more analytical. Get your facts together, get to the point, and give them time to think and answer the question. Believe in yourself! And don’t let people refer to you as the “girls in the office.” That is so ‘Mad Men.’

Leah Witkoske: Don’t hesitate to join this industry if you have the passion and drive. It is hard work, but incredibly fulfilling. Find a place that sees your benefit to the team and make sure they pay you your worth! We all deserve it! Be bold and ask for what you should be paid and don’t settle for a dime less.

Joanie O’Sullivan-Butler, John P. O’Sullivan Distributing: I would advise other women in this field to be confident in their abilities, to be passionate about their beliefs, and to always be bold and decisive. They also need to be willing to be innovative, adaptive, and stay current with the ever-changing times. Take time to find a healthy work-life balance to be poised for success; this isn’t something that is unique to women in this industry, of course—we all need to find a healthy work/life balance if we want to be successful in the long term.    

Resources for Women in the Industry
The Michigan Beer & Wine Wholesalers Association’s Women’s Advocacy Committee is led by female executives from family-owned beer, wine, and spirits distributors in Michigan. The committee champions, nurtures, and highlights female leaders and key job opportunities in what was once a male-dominated industry. Fermenta is an organization designed to connect women (and their supporters) in the Michigan fermented beverage and food industries. 

Cheers from the Michigan Beverage Collective
Cheers to all the women in the Michigan beverage industry who provide us with exceptional beverage choices year-round! However you choose to spend the month of March, we hope it will include a selection of Michigan craft beverages.

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