How many people can say their career has spanned studying at West Point to creating a Bob Marley inspired, cannabis-infused beverage brand?
It’s safe to say Brent Willis, CEO of New Age Beverages, is in rare company in this regard. But it was military mindset that got him on the fast track to where he is today. “What they try to teach you at West Point is there is no excuse for not doing what you say you’re going to do and there’s no excuse for not accomplishing the mission.”
After the end of his military career and the completion of his MBA at the University of Chicago, Willis’ career had prominent stops at Kraft Heinz (launching their products in China), Coca-Cola Company (as the youngest President in company history), InBev (as Chief Commercial Officer) and as CEO of Cott Beverages. When the latter ended in 2008, Willis settled into a life of private equity investment.
He stayed there until 2015 when he was called to run a small beer company. He wasn’t interested initially but told the founders to buy the Búcha Live Kombucha brand and focus on the healthy beverages space. The next year they combined Búcha Live Kombucha, Xing Tea, Aspen Pure and a distribution center in Colorado to form New Age Beverages. Willis was soon brought board as CEO. Marley beverages was brought on in 2017.
“At the time, we were $2 million in revenue, losing $4 million per year. That was 2.5 years ago. Since that time, we’ve executed our strategy, done what we said we were going to do and persevered,” says Willis, echoing the West Point mentality. The publicly traded organic and natural beverage company has just north of $300 million in revenue and has seen an astounding 15,000% revenue growth since he began. “Believe it or not, we’re the fastest growing beverage company in the world.
CBD is next
To get the company on this growth track, Willis did the math. He saw that consumers were fundamentally gravitating towards health and wellness, retailers were shifting away from carbonated beverages, and the legacy giants in the industry like Coke and Pepsi were being forced to defend their historical portfolios.
“There was a real opportunity to create a company that is purpose driven. And when I say purpose, I don’t mean it as window dressing. I mean it’s really purpose driven to make a difference for the planet and inspire people to live healthy, which is what the company is all about.”
The next chapter for New Age Beverages is in the CBD space, a market in drinks alone that will pull in $1.4 billion by 2024. Willis calls the whole CBD market—not just the beverage element—a land grab in many areas of the world New Age Beverages just launched CBD oil and cream products in Asia under its ‘NHanced brand (under New Age’s Health Sciences division). In Japan, Willis says retailers are hungry to get in the market first.
In America, many of these products are shelved—for now. FDA regulations on cannabis-infused product are still stringent. But in other countries they can go full throttle.
Regulations are not the only thing though that may challenge the company’s CBD push. Many larger companies, whether they are in the traditional soft drink space, are a beer giant or a pharma company, are getting into the space as well. Make no mistake about it, Willis knows those larger competitors have the scale and resources to make an impact. But he says. “we are swimming with the tide because retailers are taking positions away from these major companies [and they must] diversify their portfolio [since] 80% of their traditional categories are declining.”
Willis also says the company’s direct-to-consumer ecommerce infrastructure will help. Even though it just announced a major national deal with Walmart, New Age Beverage’s revenue primary comes from direct-to-consumer channels. It’s the largest ecommerce beverage company in the world.
“We’re lucky because we’ve got this infrastructure in 60 countries around the world [so] we are in a position to be first globally amongst any major company,” Willis says. “And also when you think about millennials, they don’t want to buy products at a grocery store anymore. They don’t want to watch advertisements, which are the strengths of these competitors. They want it delivered to their homes.”
Still learning the West Point way
Willis is still learning from his alma mater. Not unlike New Age Beverage’s upward trajectory, the West Point football team went from a laughingstock to an 11-2 nationally ranked team in a few years. What did the two organizations have in common? They played their own game.
“If you’re West Point football, you run the wishbone offense, you execute it flawlessly and you do it better than anyone else. You lead the nation in rushing. If you really want to win in business, you need to go where you go where you can develop real strengths.”
Like through ecommerce. Like with healthy beverages. Like in CBD.