Darrell Riekena – Republic National Distributing Company
Finding ways to operate as a wholesale distributor during a pandemic is something Republic National Distributing Company (RNDC) happens to be experienced with, having cut its teeth during the days of Prohibition.
Times have changed, and so too have the processes of delivering alcohol nationwide for one of the country’s largest distributors of wine and spirits. For more than three years, CIO and Executive Vice President Darrell Riekena and Tracy Ariail, senior vice president of digital transformation and business engagement, have worked together to bring about a digital transformation for RNDC—an important move to create business solutions during these challenging times.
They’re leading a company more than a century old through its largest e-commerce initiative by enabling new online capabilities—a transformation of business practices that was inevitable. “We are industry leaders not satisfied with the status quo,” Riekena says. “Our strength lies in developing people, processes and bringing ideas forward.”
Creation and evolution
Since 1898 RNDC has been a wholesale distributor of alcoholic beverages, with several mergers and acquisitions of family-owned businesses in its evolving history.
As Riekena explains, alcoholic beverage sales are heavily regulated and protocols vary by state. RNDC is the “glue” between suppliers and customers in the nation’s three-tiered distribution model. Distributors like RNDC represent the suppliers’ product portfolios of wine, spirits and beer to customers such as bars, restaurants and retail outlets. RNDC handles sales, marketing, product advocacy and logistics in order to provide the right products to the customer.
Groundwork for the e-commerce initiative began in 2017, resulting in the development of eRNDC, an online digital platform for suppliers, employees and customers. Through eRNDC, customers can explore product offerings, order online, collaborate with sales representatives and access account information.
To enhance the shopping experience, eRNDC also developed an advanced digital product catalog that enables suppliers to manage their brand stories, product information, and digital and marketing content. Suppliers can also access a centralized portal to reach all RNDC systems, to submit and review the status of new product requests, and communicate with their supporting RNDC teams.
“This is the first time suppliers have been able to do this online,” Riekena says. “It was important for us to create these experiences that stay true to our core values.”
Ariail agrees the timing was right to leverage technology to develop online capabilities that transform experiences for customers, suppliers, and employees alike. “Our industry is progressing towards e-commerce and B-to-B marketplaces,” she says. “We developed a strategy that delivers exciting new capabilities for all tiers of our business model.”
Getting to that point involved setting a strategy and sharing the vision across the company.
“This was a new concept not only for the company, but also for the industry as well,” Ariail says. This digital approach adds value to RNDC’s services by using data to provide more personalized experiences and market insights. “This digital model is rich with data that unlocks new business opportunities—now and in the future,” Riekena adds.
In order to accelerate the delivery of its digital platform, RNDC partnered with Silicon Valley startup LibDib to develop its online solution. “LibDib’s engineering capabilities combined with RNDC’s industry experience and leadership allowed us to roll out our platform quickly,” Riekena says. “Our combined resources and the power of eRNDC is a true testament to our partnership.”
Implementation started in Georgia in 2019, and the platform is being rolled out nationally. Currently eRNDC is available in 10 states. “We piloted with a select number of suppliers and customers to solicit feedback, validate features and provide guidance for future capabilities. Their feedback was critical to ensure the experience was designed for our intended audiences,” Ariail says.
The eRNDC project, however, gained a greater sense of urgency this spring with the pandemic. Both Riekena and Ariail saw it as a tool to protect RNDC’s customers and thousands of sales representatives.
The platform works in conjunction with the sales team to provide customers with an integrated experience that showcases what’s available in the market, current promotions and pricing. This summer, eRNDC will be available to more than 80 percent of its customer base.
“Before eRNDC our sales reps would visit their accounts to share product information and help develop drink and wine menus,” Riekena explains. “Now a restaurant can access product information safely online that our reps publish remotely.”
While the industry was moving in this direction, COVID-19 brought the need for online capabilities to the forefront and quickly became the way to conduct business. “COVID-19 accelerated our timeline and we went all-in, upping our activities and moving quickly,” he says.
Enabling new business capabilities through a digital platform was something Riekena knew needed focused attention and a collaborative approach in order to be successful.
Riekena has a strong background in technology. Prior to joining RNDC in 2016, he worked for several specialty and big box retailers where he led business and technology transformations that included e-commerce, supply chain, business intelligence and analytics initiatives.
“I was involved at the start of consumer e-commerce,” he says. “I could see the need in the wholesale distribution business.”
In 2017, shortly after Riekena arrived at RNDC, he hired Ariail. She came from “a strong transformation background” as well, leading initiatives like process automation, business and enterprise architecture, and business intelligence and analytics in industries such as global supply chain and telecommunications.
“It’s exciting to be a part of this story,” Ariail says. “COVID-19 changed and accelerated the business process, initially presenting huge challenges which turned into opportunities. When our sales force couldn’t get into locations, the only way to carry the business forward was with technology.”
Through the process, Riekena says, RNDC created a new line of business and a new way of going to market. “Our company is built on personal relationships,” he says. “We added a new chapter to our story. Technology now enables these relationships with new online capabilities.”
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