Jun 15, 2016

Interview with Jeffery Bartfield, Vice President National Accounts, and John Niekrash, Director of Sales, National Accounts, of Proximo Spirits


John (left) and Jeff at the HEE conference in Yosemite, Calif.

June 22, 2016   |   By Mike Raven

bannerApril 25, 2016:  Recorded live in Yosemite, California, at the Hospitality Executive Exchange West Conference

If you don’t know these two characters, understand one thing: They are classic opposites. John is from Connecticut with a New England way of talking, and is an outdoorsman and lobster fisherman. Jeff grew up in New York City and has the ultimate street smarts. When you talk to him, you feel like you’re in a Godfather movie. His accent is thick and original. Both are savvy and wise in their trades and very successful. The reason we picked a double cover interview is that we feel the need to recognize both of them as pioneers of the on-premise national accounts world. They were among the first to recognize the opportunity to specialize in the sales to multi-unit businesses that has become one of the most sought-after sectors of the alcohol beverage business today.

I met with John and Jeff at the Hospitality Executive Exchange (HEE) in Yosemite, California in April. I have known both of these gentlemen for many years. We have attended many functions together but I never realized how passionate they are towards their charities. Both are board members of CORE Gives, with John being one of the founders of the organization. CORE has assisted hundreds of families in the restaurant business in their time of need. John, or “Krash” as he is known to some, also founded Work Vessels for Vets out of his passion for supporting our nation’s veterans.

“Captain” John Niekrash

“Captain” John Niekrash

Mike: John, when did you start in the business and why?

John: My first job in the business was when I was 16 years old, in 1971, working in the bottling factory of Smirnoff Vodka and Black Velvet Whiskey. I was able to get a job there and I worked summers all the way through college. So after college, it was the natural thing to knock on their door and see if I could get a job in sales, which I did. I started working in sales around 1978.

Mike: What were your first responsibilities?

John: It was as a rep in Connecticut, selling Jose Cuervo and Smirnoff. I was selling to distributors and working key accounts, and so on.

Mike: Did you always work in Connecticut?

John: No, I worked in Omaha for a year to run three states out there. My oldest daughter was born there, actually. Then I left Heublein (parent company to Smirnoff) and went to work for the Sauza Tequila owners in Dallas for five years.

Mike: What year was that?

John: It was around the mid-1980s. Sauza was a nothing brand in those days so they put together a group of five guys or so to oversee the National Distillers Company, which had the contract to the brand but they weren’t selling anything. We had to get the brand up and running. Cuervo dominated Sauza at the time; you couldn’t find a bottle of Sauza. We were able to get the brand in play. After that, I worked for Paddington for a number of years and moved back to Connecticut.

Mike: Then where?

John: Skyy Spirits. At the beginning of Skyy Spirits, I was one of the first employees there. I worked there for 10 years, covering the whole country. Skyy had the contract for 1800 Tequila for the last five years I was there. From there, once the contract for 1800 was up with Skyy, Juan Domingo Beckman, son of 12th generation Don Juan Beckman, started Proximo. They set it up to handle the 1800 Tequila business as the eminent marque brand. From there they started adding brands such as Three Olives, then Hanger 1. I was the third employee hired here, so I was back working in the Tequila business again but with 1800 and later Cuervo.

Mike: How long have you been there?

John: It will be nine years this summer.

Mike: Jeff, you have an interesting story to your career start. Why don’t we start talking about that convoluted story?

Jeff Bartfield, circa 2000.

Jeff Bartfield, circa 2000.

Jeff: You know, when I was young, I was a wonder kid with baseball so I really didn’t go to school much. I mean I was in school – I had a full ride with Arizona State – but I screwed up my arm and couldn’t play anymore, so I left Arizona State and came back to New York. My father, who worked for 40 years for General Wine and Spirits, a division of Seagram’s, put me in a program at Seagram’s called ASH, a program for future manager candidates.

Mike: So that was kind of a natural progression?

Jeff: Yes, I came in as second generation. He started me the right way – he put me into trade research. I think I was the last class to graduate trade research. You didn’t have to be 21 because I wasn’t doing anything with spirits directly. It was surveying, learning the shelves and competitive pricing, that kind of thing.

Mike: The brass tacks part of the business. Right?

Jeff: That’s right, but I knew a lot about it anyway because I worked at Charmer as a young kid. I used to work during the holidays. I go back to when Charlie Merinoff was working; we were both kids in the warehouse. His father, Herman, was there working on the console loading trucks, and I worked on hilos and such. I did everything in the warehouse.

John: What was the first year you made a paycheck in this business?

Jeff: It was ‘74. I was a kid, nothing steady, but I showed up when I could and they put me to work.

John: Mine was ‘72, 44 years ago – that’s 88 years between the two of us.

Jeff Bartfield (left) and his future wife-to-be, Angelique Carayannis, circa 1985. She was the Managing Director of Metaxa at that time. She was also a high fashion model, held the title of Miss Greece, and was a runner-up in the Miss Universe pageant.

Jeff Bartfield (left) and his future wife-to-be, Angelique Carayannis, circa 1985. She was the Managing Director of Metaxa at that time. She was also a high fashion model, held the title of Miss Greece, and was a runner-up in the Miss Universe pageant.

Jeff: I was a good worker, at least ‘till I fell off the bull line one night. I went to pull the pallets forward and got my foot caught in the grid and fell right over, head first. My shin hit the oddball racks and broke my fall, or otherwise I would have been dead. What I did was mess up my back, slipped my disc. The doctor said it would get worse over the years, and it did. I don’t think there was a brand that was post-Prohibition that I didn’t touch with my hands.

Mike: There’re a lot of facets to this business.

Jeff: Yeah, but it’s clean and easy. But after a delivery truck I was working in got hijacked, my father said that’s enough.

Mike: What?? You got hijacked?

Jeff: Yeah. You want to hear about it?

Mike: Definitely!


Jeff Bartfield (left), circa 1986.

Jeff Bartfield (right), circa 1983.

Jeff Bartfield (right), circa 1983.

Jeff: We got hit during Easter week time. We went out with a full load, a little under 400 cases. It was our first stop coming out of Queens, Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn. We were just about to make a turn at a stoplight when this guy jumps on the running board of the truck on the driver’s side. He put a gun right in the driver’s belly and said, “Move over.” Then I look out my side and there was another guy on the sidewalk with a newspaper folded over with a gun in it. Now, I know were not running or fighting or anything. They both jumped in the truck – now they are on both sides of us and we’re in the middle. Remember, this is a two-seat truck!

The first guy says to us, “I want you to get out and get in that van over there.” So we listened and did as he said. As soon as we get in the van, the door closes. They handcuffed me and put tape around my eyes. I’m cursing the guy to loosen up the handcuffs. It was so tight I thought my hand was going to fall off. So we take off and I’m rolling around in the back of this cargo van with no floor, just those metal ridges – we were getting beat up. I didn’t know where we were going but I knew we went over the Williamsburg Bridge; I smelled the smells of the Lower East Side. It was a beautiful day that day, with remnants of snow on the ground. I’m still screaming to have the handcuffs loosened; my hand was going to fall off! Finally they pulled over, and the guy got in the back and loosened up the cuffs, and I thanked him.

Three and a half hours later, I felt us going down a hill, rolling over the leaves. I heard them cracking under the tires. I’m thinking, oh boy, what can happen now –
I had bad thoughts. Finally, they pulled over somewhere and they opened the door and said, “Get out.” So we got out and they took both our wallets. They walked us for a ways and told us to get on our knees and lay face down. Then they took off one cuff and said “Count to 90. If you move before that, we’re gonna shoot you.”

So as soon as the truck drove off, I ripped the tape from my eyes and I saw where we were. We were in Hastings, New York, on the Hudson River, north Westchester County. We were by an abandoned mansion overlooking the Hudson River. Beautiful spot, right? So we walked into the street looking for anyone, and someone told us where police headquarters were. We told the police what happened, and the FBI came and picked us up and brought us back to Brooklyn Police Headquarters. We looked through mug shots; they had an artist there to draw their faces from our composites – it was crazy, lots of people around.

Mike: Did they ever find the truck?

Jeff: Yeah, they did – empty. Four trucks got hit that day, all of them from Charmer. They found all the booze in a garage in Howard Beach. It was full, four trucks with full loads – it was basically a container of booze. My truck they found in the back of a Howard Johnson on Queens Boulevard the next day. They dusted it and everything but they never caught the guys. My father came down to the station with a billy club in his hand. “Where are those son-of-a-bitches? I’m gonna kill ‘em,” he said. “I told you not to go on the truck!” After that, he put me into trade research.

That was it. I missed the money (from working in the warehouse). I was making Teamster wages and every week I’d have 500 bucks in my pocket. You know what else?
They mailed back my wallet with everything in it. Right to the house, after I went for a new license and all. They were there for the goods; they weren’t going to hurt us unless we did something stupid. They knew it was going to be a full load, being Easter week and all. The cheapest thing we had on the truck was Bolla wine. It was all high-end stuff, Johnnie Walker and the likes. So that’s my hijack story.

Mike: Wow, quite a story. Then what?

Jeff: So, my father got me a job in trade research. I remember my first check: I got $106.00 net. What am I going to do with $106.00 net? But I’m working for Seagram’s. That was a night out in the bar for me. I was a kid, 16 years old, but I used to go to the bars ‘cause I looked older. Of course, beers were 15 cents. I got pizza for 15 cents a slice.

Mike: What year are you talking about? I never got a beer for 15 cents.

Jeff: 1974. I used to go to a Jewish deli and get two hot dogs, French fries and a root beer soda for 90 cents and I’d leave them a dime tip.

John: Yeah, we used to drink for a quarter a beer, I remember. Gas was 29 cents a gallon when I first started driving.

Jeff: I always worked, since I was 13 years old. My uncle who owned a gas station gave me job. Yeah, I worked in a few gas stations, landscaping, catering, lots of things.

Mike: Okay, what’s next? I’m almost afraid to ask.

Jeff: I was depressed because I was making $106 a week and I was going through the money before Saturday night ended. So, in steps one of my father’s good friends – everyone loved my father; he was a good-looking guy, big personality around New York. When he was a fighter, he would sell out Madison Square Garden.

Mike: What was your father’s name?

John Niekrash with Clint Eastwood at a presentation.

John Niekrash with Clint Eastwood at a presentation.

Jeff: Danny Bartfield. He had 47 fights. The only fights he lost were when he broke both hands and couldn’t continue. He was never knocked down. He was the lightweight champion of the Army, and he was the lightweight champion of the Diamond Belts before it was the Golden Gloves. Then he turned pro. He would fight every two weeks. He would break his hand, and they would junk it up and he would go in the ring with a broken hand.

Anyway, back to the question. There was an event in New York called the Cork and Bottle. My father was there, tuxedo and everything, and he asks his good friend who was the CEO of Standard Brands Beverage Group, “You got a job for my kid? He’s working for Seagram’s and they’re laying people off.” Sure enough, he set me up with an interview with a guy named Joe Tye, a big 6-foot-8-inch, red-haired Irishman. He was four hours late to our meeting; he was stuck in traffic. When he came into Peerless Importers, where the meeting was, he was hot and frustrated from his bad day and asked me, “Are you Jeff Bartfield?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “You’re hired.” Just like that! After all, the Chairman sent me to him; what was he going to say?

So I got a job with Fleishmann, it was a part of the Standard Brands group. I stayed at Fleishmann’s Distillers for about eight years, from 1978 to 1986. It was my first sales job. After a few months, they started giving me manager’s jobs. I ended up being at a desk most of the time but I couldn’t stand that – I had to be moving. Soon I came up with an idea (because my father always told me that everything was going to be a chain, multi-unit, multi-state and multi-country). I pitched Fleishmann on selling to chains. I told them I would bring them business, and sure enough, I did. Back in ‘78, there was Red Lobster, Steak & Ale and Bennigan’s. They were just starting out.

Mike: What was next?

Jeff: After that, I wound up at Guinness (Wellington Imports) for about a year and a half. I then went to work for Vintners International. Everyone wanted this job because it was the highest paying in the business (in 1987). I was only there four years. They were rumored to be going out of business and eventually sold the company to Canandaigua Wine.

Mike: Okay, what’s next? I knew this was going to happen (laughter).

Jeff: After that, I worked for Gallo for a short while but that didn’t work out too well and I wanted a move. Then a headhunter called me and suggested I go work for Canandaigua Wine Company. “You’re going to love it there, “ he said. I ended up going there for seven+ years. (This brings Jeff’s history up to the year 2000).

Mike: So then where did you go? We’re running out of ink!

Jeff: William Grant & Sons offered me the position of Vice President of Global Accounts. I took the job and I built up a team. I was there almost 12 years. All the people that started Proximo came from there, except John – they pulled him out of Skyy Spirits. He did a great job for Skyy; he built that Vodka into THE on-premise Vodka brand.

Mike: John, were you at Proximo Spirits already when Jeff came over?

John: Yes, I was there about five years already. I had known the Beckman family for years. I also knew Mark Teasdale; we worked together at Paddington. It was a great opportunity to get with a start-up company with great talent and be on the ground floor.

Mike: When you (John) brought Jeff on board, how many people were at Proximo?

John: At the time, we were up to about 100.

Mike: One hundred?! Didn’t you start with about five people?

John: Yes, I was the third one in. It was Mark Teasdale, Ed Manning and myself.

Mike: So, you two were always amicable competitors?

Jeff: John and I were the only guys doing national account spirits back in the day. Us and Ben May. A lot of people remember Ben May. He was untouchable in the wine business. We pioneered the arena. We paved the way for companies to recognize this was an area of opportunity (national accounts).

Mike: What’s it like, working for Proximo Spirits?

Jeff: Proximo is the greatest job I’ve ever had in my 38 years in the business. They had confidence that I was going to do the job they hired me to do, and they leave me alone to do it. We have great products, great brands, we’re on top of our game. The family that owns us has been around forever – 13 generations, what can I say. Now we’re getting into the Whiskey business big time along with Tequila, Gin and Vodkas. We’re going with the trends and doing what we have to do to grow these brands. Proximo has a great history of innovation in brand introduction from the man who sits at the top of the company, Mark Teasdale.

John: Mark (Teasdale) has developed a lot of brands including Hendrick’s Gin, Sailor Jerry, Goldschlager and more. A great example is Kraken Rum: only four years old and it has sales of over 500,000 cases. He’s still a young man so there will certainly be many more breakthrough brands to come. He is one of the most innovative guys I’ve ever been around.

Mike: How did CORE get started?

John: It was an evening in Chicago after the National Restaurant Show, 12 years ago. Larry McGinn, Paul Laconte and Stan Novack and I were having a final-final drink at the bar. We were standing in the corner of the bar and I remember saying we should come up with a way to give back to the kids of people we call on. Everyone agreed, so we tried to come up with a name for this. We wanted to involve the children of restaurant employees. Larry wrote it down on a napkin – “Children of Restaurant Employees” – along with all the notes from the conversation. The next day, we had breakfast and expanded on the idea of this thing and that’s how it all started. Larry still has that napkin.

“Captain” John Niekrash

“Captain” John Niekrash

Mike: How did you get involved with CORE, Jeff?

Jeff: There was an open seat on the board and they asked me to come on. I was recruiting nice money from the industry every year and getting people to contribute – you know, I’m good at that. I was taken aback by the offer. I said I’d be honored to come on the board.
Brian Yost was President at the time.

John: Brian, at the time, was running Marriott’s Gold Standard Program. We wanted to get some restaurant people involved and Brian was the first person to step up. He felt strongly about it and still does to this day.

Mike: Yes, definitely. You could tell by the way he spoke about it to the group at the breakfast meeting today (at HEE West). Today, Joe Smith of Monin is the acting CORE President.

John: Really, that was the impetus of CORE. A lot of us were competitors when CORE was started. Paul (Laconte) was with Diageo. We were all friends and respected each other, and the beauty of CORE is that these competitors all joined forces to help the families. Everyone drops their competitive side to change the way of life for the families we touch.

John Niekrash (right) at his very first Work Vessels for Vets presentation, the donation of his lobster boat, Krasher III, to veteran Richard Giguere (left) and his wife. Also in attendance was Senator Joseph Lieberman.

John Niekrash (right) at his very first Work Vessels for Vets presentation, the donation of his lobster boat, Krasher III, to veteran Richard Giguere (left) and his wife. Also in attendance was Senator Joseph Lieberman.

Richard Giguere and his wife christening their new boat, with Senator Joe Lieberman looking on.

Richard Giguere and his wife christening their new boat, with Senator Joe Lieberman looking on.

Mike: When was the first time you changed a family’s life?

John: In the early years, we probably did two or three families a year because no one knew anything about us. As the years have gone by, with one person telling another person, we now do quite a few. We did 60 last year.

Jeff: At the last Marriott meeting, we took in $120,000 in 10 minutes. The word is out and we have an advisory board with people that are known in the business and are out there pushing. We have operators now that help us. It’s all about getting the word out. We have a full-time Executive Director, Lauren LaViola, and her assistant Emily Kilduff – two women with MBAs in fundraising.

Mike: It seems you need to expand the group of contributors. The national account beverage sales group is the bulk of the donations now, but they can only do so much. Who are you looking to bring into the fold?

John: We are looking at other suppliers of restaurants, beyond the beverage business. Chairs, tables, bread, food – there’s a lot of them. They may not even know about CORE. That’s why we are trying to get the word out.

Mike: Let’s talk a bit about your charity for the veterans, Work Vessels for Vets.

John (“Krash”) Niekrash at a Work Vessels for Vets presentation.

John (“Krash”) Niekrash at a Work Vessels for Vets presentation.

“Captain” John Niekrash

“Captain” John Niekrash

John: Well, I’ve been a commercial lobster fisherman on the side for 30 years. About eight years ago, I was having a new boat built. In the meantime, I attended a memorial golf event for a friend of mine’s dad. They had invited a marine that had been severely wounded in Iraq. He talked about duty and honor, and did not want sorrow or pity.
He did it for his country and fellow marines. There was not a dry eye in the group.

So I’m driving home, and I say to myself I’ve got to get involved with this somehow. Then I thought of my old boat – why sell it? I’ll give it to a vet who wants to fish for a living. So the next day, I put an ad in the local commercial magazine a lot of lobstermen read and it said, “The first vet that comes home from the service and wants to fish for a living and shows me a plan to be a commercial lobsterman, you get a free boat.” It was a valuable boat, probably worth around $25,000. Within weeks, a marine returning from Iraq to Massachusetts got ahold of me. So I interviewed him and he fit the criteria. I presented the boat to him in a ceremony at the boatyard where I keep the vessel.

Unbeknownst to me, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman heard about it and wanted to be there. So he shows up, and him being a national figure, every TV channel and newsperson around shows up to cover the event. So the story went out nationally – AP picked it up; there was just incredible unasked-for press!

Shortly after, people that were moved by the story started calling me up to see if I could find a vet for their donations of tractors, cars, laptops – all kinds of quality items. The original intent was to donate one boat per year. It turned into all kinds of items, whatever can help a returning vet. Now, eight years later, we’ve helped over 1,500 vets with over $2,000,000 worth of vessels with either money we raise or items that are donated.

Mike: Tell us a success story about a vet that was helped through the program.

John: We have a bunch of them. We always recommend businesses hire vets to work for them if they have employees, which they all want to do. There’s one guy who set up a commercial cleaning business in St. Louis called Patriot Commercial Cleaning. He now employs 55 people, ALL vets! And we have a lot of stories like this; we impacted tens of thousands of vets. Last month alone we bought eight tractors to help vets. Tractors can do a lot for these vets.

Mike: So, this just started with a thought to do one vet good with your boat and it turned into a major charity.

John: That’s right. You never know what can happen. It makes me happy to support these men and women. These are not handouts, these are hands up. They have to have a business plan and if they don’t know how to do that, we get people to help them make a plan. Americans want to help, most just don’t know how to do it. This is one avenue to help.

Mike: We, and I am referring to you two guys also, are not getting any younger (laughs). What do you have in mind for the next generation of leaders to take your work into the future?

John: We have met as a board to discuss this. We want to get some younger people on the board and involved, certainly on the advisory board. We are all about the same age and won’t work forever. We want to have a sustainment plan in place to carry forward. Members that retire or become inactive will always be emeriti. We’re cognizant that we need some younger folks to be involved.

Jeff: We have a group of younger women and men getting involved in an advisory capacity. It’s coming along. They’re passionate. They get judged for what they do and what they bring to the party. It’s not just being on the advisory board – if they don’t do anything, they won’t be there long. We’re serious and passionate about this – I’m in this for the long haul.

John: Personally, I’ll be involved until the final-final.

Left to right: Jeff Bartfield, Proximo Spirits; Don Billings, Publisher of in the Mix; Tylor Field lll, Divisional VP of Wine and Spirits, Landry’s Inc and John Niekrash, Proximo Spirits. Shot at Morton’s The Steakhouse in downtown Atlanta.

Left to right: Jeff Bartfield, Proximo Spirits; Don Billings, Publisher of in the Mix;
Tylor Field lll, Divisional VP of Wine and Spirits, Landry’s Inc and John Niekrash,
Proximo Spirits. Shot at Morton’s The Steakhouse in downtown Atlanta.

Jeff and John both wanted to make sure to thank all the people they work with and everyone that supports their charities – especially Larry McGinn for his work and his endless support for CORE, and Jen Robinson for her unsurpassed and relentless support and fundraising. She helped raise over $70,500 for CORE Gives at this HEE West event alone in Yosemite, where this interview took place.