Interview on the History of IMI, with Don Billings

An in the Mix Feature Interview by Mike Raven

October 20, 2019

Foreword by Jonathan Arias

Nobody could have predicted that just a few months after the release of in the Mix’s Fall Issue, celebrating IMI’s 30th anniversary, we and the rest of the world would be in the throes of COVID-19 and dealing with the fraught consequences unleashed by the extraordinary event. Don’s Publisher Letter in the Summer of 2019, Mixing It Up and Looking Back, includes an adage that has become a collective mantra, especially in the face of supply chain disruptions, worker shortages, and variants that won’t stop materializing: “[T]he only constant in life is change itself,” and change has perhaps not been imposed upon so many with such haste in decades. IMI and in the Mix were not spared from having to develop strategies to help clients pivot and new internal mechanisms for working and innovating together, but we weathered the worst of the storm as best we could and are now excited to start the new chapter of IMI’s media business. Below, you’ll find the original article from the Anniversary Issue and a new afterword, written by Don Billings himself as he reflects on what he and IMI as an organization have learned in the past two years of tumultuous uncertainty. Read on to hear what’s next for the fiduciary agency that has helped grow beverage business to new summits for clients of all sorts.

Don Billings

CEO, IMI Agency

Publisher, in the Mix Media

Mike Raven: Don, it’s been 30 years — are you ready to talk about the journey?

Don Billings: Yes, but I am encouraged to imbibe in a drink or two as I recall the good, the bad and the “I don’t want to talk about it” of my past. Because as everyone knows, no great story ever started with someone eating a salad!

MR: What did you do in the years before starting IMI?

DB: I departed college with no real plan for the future. So, the first thing of interest that came along was to be an international auditor for Bank of America. I liked to travel so that seemed interesting. They send you to different branches and departments to learn the compliance and regulator lending practices. However, it was tedious analytical work.

Travel and hospitality continued to play into my future. I eventually moved over to the airline business. I ended up going to work at Continental Airlines for five years and had many great positions and experiences. I then switched over to a cruise ship line for the next five years and then to Maritz Motivation Company for 10 years. During that 10-year period, I traveled all over the world, which included working on some great beverage brand company accounts, specifically Anheuser-Busch and Bacardi, all between 1978 and 1988.

MR: When did you start IMI?

DB: IMI was born in November 1989 in Irvine, California and started as Incentive Marketing, LLC with two friends, Bob Eissfeldt and Robb Capielo. Both had multimedia backgrounds and we did a lot of business theater sales conferences for companies like Southern Wine & Spirits, Canadian Club and Shell Oil.

Years later, we would go different ways and Incentive Marketing, Inc. would become the parent company to what many of you know as IMI Agency today. Our first client was Maidstone Wine & Spirits and our first account was Kahlua. My first real industry mentor was Jim Flaherty, a stand-up guy. His wisdom helped me navigate the early years for our company.

For the first few years we worked exclusively on Maidstone Wine and Spirits brands like Kahlua. But like all things, change is just a question of time. As the winds blew, Maidstone was brought under Hiram Walker’s umbrella. This required IMI to relocate from sunny Southern California to Southfield, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, to be close to Windsor, Canada and the Hiram Walker HQ. After a couple years, they were brought under the Allied-Lyons house and they eventually merged with Domecq and became Allied Domecq. That’s the short version — it was a roller coaster ride but exciting.

MR: Where did that roller coaster end up?

DB: Around 1994, IMI entered a new era — our first big wind change. We were asked to help Marriott International develop the first corporate hotel-based beverage program to be called “The Gold Standard Brands Program.” An initial group of 12 beverage suppliers came together to support the effort.

By 1996, IMI was a free agent and was once again on the move, this time to Atlanta, Georgia to help out with the Olympics and it was a personal opportunity to get back to the Sunbelt. By now our services were expanding and programs were getting more technical.

Celeste Dinos was my first new hire in Atlanta in 1998 and I threw her to the wolves. Her first assignment was the Canadian Club Society and President’s Club for top-producing distributor salesman, and the venue was in Charleston, South Carolina. She survived but not without a few tears being shed. The best part was she decided to stay and do it all over again the next year — that turned into 21 years and counting. She is now a Vice President and business partner.

MR: So where does Larry come into the picture?

DB: So by 2000, I was looking for help. And there on a white horse was Larry McGinn. Larry had been one of the original supplier contributors to the Gold Standard Brands Program and he was looking for a new challenge. By 2002, he had taken over sales responsibilities at IMI and we started growing our relationships with new operators and expanded supplier contacts. Larry’s background on the supplier side was invaluable as we grew the company and he became a business partner. In 2012 he took over as President to steer the ship for future growth.

MR: And Sherry King?

Don: Also around 2000, it was apparent that we needed a full-time accountant and Sherry King, who had been doing our tax accounting, took on the task and would eventually become our CFO and business partner.

MR: Sounds like you had a solid group started. What was your plan of attack?

DB: We were now on a very steady growth curve. Some of our new customers were demanding fresh solutions to some of their most immediate needs. Technology and data management skills had to be developed. Not only was there need for statistical information but also new software programs for the first menu management systems, online training programs and data analysis to use in future sales and marketing decisions.

2002 was a banner year — we moved into our new Atlanta office building and opened our new Chicago office. The bad news was it was right after 9/11 and the industry, along with the rest of the economy, took a time-out for a while. Although there was a lull, we were still able to continue to grow and move forward.