After nearly 70 years, LeVecke Corp. has become a “builder of brands” in its industry, President Joe LeVecke says. “When you look at our company, we bring in about 100 new brands to market every year,” he says, noting that this includes private-label brands, brands it co-manufactures for owners, and even its own that it manufactures at its own micro-distillery in Hawaii.
Based in Mira Loma, Calif., the company as it stands today, is a manufacturer of distilled spirits. But it was not always that way. LeVecke notes that his great-grandfather and great-uncle started the company in 1949 as a beer distributor.
“The myth goes that they bought their first tanker of beer and it took them six months to sell their first case,” the younger LeVecke explains. “At that point, they continued to build good relationships with small regional retailers in the area.”
In 1955, LeVecke Corp. moved into wines at the encouragement of its customers, and then into the manufacture of distilled spirits under the leadership of LeVecke’s grandfather, J. Neil LeVecke, and his father, Tim LeVecke. The company grew across state lines and eventually became a national manufacturer of private label distilled spirits for the country’s largest grocery retailers.
In the early 1990s, Joe LeVecke’s uncle, Neil LeVecke, joined the family business and grew it to become the largest privately owned distilled spirits manufacturer west of the Mississippi. Today, Joe LeVecke says, the company still retains its passion for the business.
“We love being a manufacturer and seeing bottles run down the line,” he says. “There’s nothing like being able to make a product from start to finish.
“To date, our private label side of the business has released 15 new brands this year for Kroger alone,” LeVecke says. “That allows them to compete against the Absoluts and Smirnoff Vodkas of the world. That’s really our competitive advantage in our ability to build brands.”
In the Background
When it comes to its private-label work, LeVecke Corp. takes more of a background role, LeVecke asserts. “We like to … do what’s right for our customers,” he says. The company focuses on keeping costs down so that its clients can reap the rewards of increased margins.
LeVecke Corp. does that from a manufacturing standpoint by continuing to invest in new equipment, automation and people. “[It] keeps us competitive for our customers,” he says.
Thanks to LeVecke Corp’s size, “We have dedicated account managers that are focused on building brands for companies like Kroger,” he says.
Cost and Quality
LeVecke Corp. encounters many challenges in its market, but the largest is to remain competitive from a pricing standpoint. “The private-label business runs on the fact that it’s going to be priced under the national brands,” LeVecke says.
“But the national brands are continually finding ways to better their costs,” he continues. “So we have to better our costs above and beyond what they’re doing. That’s really been a big focus of ours as the industry plays the pricing war.”
LeVecke Corp. also concentrates on getting customers to focus more on quality because the demand for craft and handmade brands has increased. Some of its customers, such as Kroger and Costco, have grown by “leaps and bounds” by doing so, LeVecke says.
The company helps its clients do that through its account managers who offer the latest innovations and keep them informed on new trends. “The retailers rely on us to keep them educated on where the industry is going,” he says.
A New World
LeVecke Corp.’s success also allowed Neil and Tim LeVecke to pursue a long time goal. In 2005, Joe LeVecke says, the brothers built a business model of developing their own micro-distillery on the Hawaiian island of Maui.
“LeVecke Corp. has had a strong relationship with the Hawaiian Islands for over 30 years, building brands like Hana Bay Rum and Whalers Rum,” he explains. “However, it was always a dream to have brick and mortar on the island of Maui.”
To begin developing the micro-distillery, Tim and Neil LeVecke searched the industry and found Mark Nigbur, a master distiller based in Colorado who had his own facility. “He had designed his own glass stills and used methods my father and uncle had never seen before in their lives,” Joe LeVecke recalls.
“Once they got to know Mark, it was a marriage made in heaven,” he continues, noting that Nigbur and his family moved to Maui, Hawaii, to open the company’s distillery in 2006. Four years later, Hali’imaile Distilling Co. was born and became LeVecke Corp.’s first micro-distillery.
Today, the company operates the facility in Makawao, Hawaii. “That’s what we’ve been doing on Maui ever since – distilling our own truly authentic Hawaiian spirits,” Joe LeVecke says.
The Makawao distillery produces several brands, including its Maui Moon Hawaiian Island-inspired flavored vodkas, its Paniolo line of blended whiskeys and Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum, which was developed with rocker Sammy Hagar. “We partnered up with [him] a few years back,” LeVecke recalls.
The company’s flagship product is Pau Maui Vodka, which is distilled using Hawaiian pineapples. “’Pau’ in Hawaiian means ‘finished’ or ‘done,’” he says. “It’s the only pineapple-based vodka in the world.”
The hard work has paid off for LeVecke Corp. and Hali’imaile Distilling Co. “We put it into the International Beverage Tasting Panel and it got 92 points and a gold medal,” LeVecke recalls. “It was also deemed Best Hawaiian Vodka.”
LeVecke Corp. copes with the challenge of educating consumers about its own brands. “How do we get the word out about what we’re doing so consumers pick our product off the shelf?” LeVecke asks. “The way we’ve been doing it is by focusing on specific markets.”
For its Pau Maui Vodka, the company focused primarily on Hawaii. “We want Pau Maui Vodka to be in every restaurant and retailer in Hawaii,” he says, adding that it has supported Young’s Market Co. in Hawaii through promotional dollars, incentives and branding. “That’s helped sales tremendously in that state.”
The company is now expanding Pau Maui’s reach in California. “We’re focusing on Young’s Market in northern and southern California,” he says. “We’re supporting the distributor and they’re doing very well.”
LeVecke Corp. also has taken a distinct market focus for its new Uncle Bob’s root beer-flavored whisky. “The consumer’s gone from flavored vodka to flavored whisky,” he says. “Flavored whiskies are huge in this industry.”
The company decided to launch Uncle Bob’s in Madison, Wis., and College Station, Texas. “They’re two intellectual hubs with a lot of life,” he says. “It performed very well in both and is continuing to grow.
“Now, by the end of the year, we’ll be in 15 new markets with Uncle Bob’s,” he predicts. “We have to go through specific markets and build it organically through a grass roots effort.”
LeVecke Inc.’s success also is due to its vendors, which include Labeltronix Inc., a label provider based in Anaheim, Calif. “They’ve been a great new vendor,” LeVecke says.
The company’s work is helpful to LeVecke Corp. when it comes to educating customers about its brand. “Labeltronix can make high-end-looking products with all sorts of paper, designs and embossings,” he says. “They’ve been a great partner as we, as a company, move towards higher quality.”
Another is MDM Packaging & Supplies based in Fontana, Calif. “They build a vast majority of our cases,” LeVecke says. “When you are focusing on developing craft brands, your box is a part of your marketing platform.”
On the Same Page
LeVecke joined his family’s business six years ago. “When I came out of college, I made the decision to not go in the family business,” he recalls, noting that he pursued work in telecommunications and real estate.
But LeVecke changed his mind when his uncle and father asked for his help in growing the business. “When my uncle approached me with that opportunity, it was a no-brainer,” the younger LeVecke admits. “The opportunity to work with your father and uncle is not one you want to miss out on.”
LeVecke Corp. is facing an increasingly crowded market. “Five years ago, there were 50 distilled spirits producers in this entire industry,” he says. “There’s going to be 1,000 distilleries in this industry by the end of the year.”
But LeVecke Corp.’s branded items will help it. “That’s a huge focus for right now,” he says. “That’s where the future of the company is going to be.”
The company also will follow the direction of the consumer. “We’ve reinvented ourselves several times, starting out from a beer distributor to a wine distributor, and eventually getting into spirits in this high-craft innovation time,” he says.