MBA Students Help Whiskey Distillery To Navigate Pandemic Challenges

Butler University’s Master of Business Administration program partnered earlier this year with a local whiskey distillery to learn about how a product makes its way from production to consumers — called the downstream supply chain.  The class published a case study on their findings from analyzing an Indiana-sourced whiskey’s journey to being sold in restaurants, tasting rooms and grocery stores.

“Instead of teaching from a textbook about what the challenges are in distribution, I wanted students to have a grasp of what a real company actually goes through,” Dr. Jane Siegler, Assistant Professor of Operations, said in a prepared statement. “When the pandemic hit, we didn’t just ignore that and focus on what would happen in normal circumstances. No — this is a small business that is trying to find it was in the market, with all the normal challenges that a small company faces, but now there is this global pandemic. What do you do?”

Bourbon barrels

There be whiskey in those barrels (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

Government-mandated shutdowns caused many restaurants to shutter, and other distribution outlets across the hospitality industry had to close their doors. 

The MBA students helped the distillery find new opportunities for getting its products to customers. 

“When we have all these smart minds working together in class,” Siegler said, “chances are that we will see things that the company may have missed. We are offering high-quality consulting projects at low or no cost to the companies. It’s a way to benefit the companies, the regional economy, and the students.”

The key recommendation for the distillery was to place more focus on direct-to-customer sales. Without having to pay distributors, these channels will be more profitable and help younger companies. 

The case study identified opportunities for the distillery to attract customers by highlighting stories about how its whiskey is sourced and produced entirely in Indiana. The company could also produce videos to profile local farmers, or showing the whole production process from seed, to grain, to glass.

Angie Bidlack, one of four MBA students involved with the case study, says the onset of COVID-19 added dimension to the study. 

“There are always unknowns in a case study,” Bidlack said. “But then we had this challenge of thinking through the immediate future during COVID, as well as the future post-COVID. We could compare how things changes before and after the pandemic.”

The class toured the distillery at the beginning of the semester, which itself had plans to take their brand national by partnering with some of the largest grocery retail outlets. The pandemic halted those plans but the class helped think through other ways the distillery could keep growing. 

“Even with the pandemic, the company was doing great things,” Bidlack said. “They found a way to make challenges into opportunities and didn’t continue going with their normal business plan. They were very agile, and they immediately pivoted to something that allowed them to thrive. And that is something I think everybody can take and apply to their career in some way.”