As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Brittany Merrill-Yeng.
Spearheading the fastest market rollout in the history of the spirits industry, Brittany Merrill-Yeng, co-founder and managing partner of Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey, is a chemist, turned attorney, turned spirits brand owner. Merrill-Yeng was one to watch in 2019 as she took her small family-owned company and grew it into a Hollywood favorite and national sensation in just one short year. An industry disruptor and a woman making waves in a male dominated industry, she is a highly educated woman juggling parenting while running a leading spirits company, creating a brand that goes beyond just whiskey — Skrewball is a lifestyle that is welcoming to all manner of weirdo, maverick, and misfit that brings people together in a world of uncertainty. When Merrill-Yeng isn’t taking over the spirits industry one bottle at a time, she enjoys spending time with her daughters and getting off the grid while traveling to far remote places with her family.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
When I began my career, I did not set out to be here. I think I might have laughed if you had told me back then I’d own and manage a whiskey company. Yet, all of my experiences — personal and professional — led me here and I could not have planned a better path or a better end goal.
I began in chemistry, getting a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and a master’s degree in chemistry. While studying, I worked in education assisting students with disabilities at a high school and as a teaching assistant at the college to pay for my own education.
I took what seemed like a divergent path when I went to law school at the University of Chicago. From there, I combined my different areas of study and practiced for five years as a pharmaceutical patent litigator for one of the largest firms in the world.
While I was in college, my (now) husband and high school sweetheart started his dream of owning a restaurant and bar. The only way for us to spend time together was for me to help him on this project. So, when I wasn’t at school or working, I’d be volunteering my time helping him build the restaurant.
Playing around behind the bar, he had created a peanut butter whiskey cocktail that was amazing. It truly had no boundaries when it came to the type of people that were loving it — whiskey drinkers, people who hate whiskey, young, old, male, female, the list goes on and on — it was truly inclusive.
Ultimately, the one thing I knew from the beginning was that one day I’d like to venture off with my husband and create a business between the two of us. We are very different people but are both extremely driven and we balance each other out in an incredible way. With our daughter on the way, it was now or never and we jumped all in and created Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Our team is never lacking in comedic relief and will do anything to get the job done, even if that means driving a forklift at 5mph on a highway. Through this, I’ve learned a lot about managing big personalities with tons of ambition (traits I truly value) and allowing them the room to be themselves while giving guidelines to make sure it’s all safe and inclusive.
The mistakes that you learn the most valuable lessons from are hard and painful ones. These are the ones that you’re not sure you’ll make it through when you are going through them; the ones that you will not look back and laugh at. Know that in the end you will be thankful for those mistakes because you’ll learn from them and they will save you from making bigger ones in the future.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are so many people along the way that have done little things — often times without realizing it — that have changed me, helped me grow and enabled me to achieve what I have.
While I was in law school, I externed for a bankruptcy judge, Laura Taylor. She has so many students passing through that I wonder if she even remembers me (even though her chambers kindly still send me holiday cards each year). She gave me so many little nuggets that have really shaped me. For example, I remember a family coming in to her court room. As she finished her hearings, Judge Taylor called the little girl up to the podium. She complemented the girl for behaving so well during the long court hearing and asked if she would like to sit in her chair with the gavel. The little girl nervously approached the bench and then beamed as her parents took photos of her proudly sitting in the Judge’s chair. As I walked back in chambers, Judge Taylor looked at us and said that these are difficult times for families, these tiny little acts can change the way they remember the process. It cost her nothing — barely even time — but she walked away knowing the family will remember that she showed them humanity and treated them with dignity during this difficult and sometimes embarrassing time. At the same time, she showed me how to incorporate my values into my work.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
We started Skrewball hoping to do on a large scale what we had fostered in our own backyard — a community that celebrates your real self. When we started the company, people rolled their eyes when they heard “peanut butter whiskey,” asking us “what’s next?” assuming that we’re on the race to the bottom. My husband and I were not from the liquor industry and we definitely did not have the funds of the other players. We knew we were the outsiders. But we owned that and people gravitated to us because it is real. We created a product that seems wacky, but it brings people together with a familiar taste re-imagined with whiskey.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
It’s a running joke for us that we have incredible timing. We tried to ramp up production in the middle of the longest government shut down and now we are trying to build our national launch through a pandemic. For us the pandemic came at a notable time for us personally too — our second daughter was just born.
All the prep I had done so that I could try to take a little downtime to adjust to her birth was out the window. We had to throw out our original plans and start from scratch — all while nursing a newborn and having a toddler running around our house. At the same time, we’re looking around at all the uncertainty in the world and the tough decisions people are having to make about shutting down their businesses. The restaurants and bars — which make up a huge part of our business and mean a lot to us personally from our former lives as restaurateurs — were one of the first to be impacted.
We decided to take a leap of faith and hope that others would be inspired to do the same. As a start-up, funding is tight, but — without knowing whether our production would be the next thing to shut down — we decided to essentially empty our bank account to help those who were already impacted. We built this company with the hope of fostering a community and how could we do that if the local watering holes and the people that run them aren’t able to come back from this? We immediately went to work on our Skrew COVID-19 program to help impacted restaurant service industry members. We set up a social media component to raise awareness — that received nearly 250K shares. We had our team shift from selling to putting together care packages as the grocery stores had been emptied. We had our production shift to making hand sanitizer for hospitals and front liners. We were able to donate roughly $500K, but more importantly we inspired many more donations (big and small) to this cause — and to coming together as a community.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I had some sleepless nights wondering what this meant for my family and the business we had built. Ultimately, however, we believe that when you do the right thing by people, it will come back tenfold. If you solely look at the bottom line and what you need, you will shut yourself (and your business) off to the community that can help propel you.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
During challenging times, the critical role of a leader is to keep your team’s confidence. Your team looks to you not just for direction on what to do, but in many ways how to feel. Should they be worried? Do they need to find another job? How will this impact their family? You’re going to start challenging them to do things they’ve never done before. They’ll wonder if they are up for the challenge and if it will all be worth it. You have to be honest and frank while maintaining the calm that will pull everyone through the tough times.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Reassure the team that we have the skills to overcome the obstacles and give them tools to rise to the challenge. Our brand ambassadors are great at commanding a crowd and interacting with people — all things that are tricky in a pandemic. It was hard for them to know what to do as they were not allowed to work the way they normally would. As part of the Skrew COVID-19 program, we assured our team that we were not making cut backs on their salaries and asked that they devote their time to helping the community. They understood they still had purpose and value for the company and were able to run with it — and that’s the best outcome you could wish for in these times.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
When there is difficult news, it is best to convey it with transparency. People are more understanding when they know why things are changing. It also eases their anxiety because they can more readily predict how things will change in the future.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Even when things are unpredictable, there are some human truths that remain the same. Use those as your guiding lights. While it seems like everything around us has changed — and much has — if you look closely, you’ll notice there are many things that have remained true. Right at the beginning of the pandemic, we were in the middle of making holiday plans. Not knowing what the world would look like in December, we focused on what we knew people would be doing. They may not be having big holiday parties, but they will likely be spending time with family and sharing gifts with close friends. We used that as the basis to craft a campaign that worked — pandemic or no pandemic.
Knowing there will be uncertainty allows you to work it into the plan to allow for flexibility. Early on, we reached out to all our partners and reiterated our goal to remain open to change and adapt with our customers to the changing world. We put holds on spending that allowed us to redirect it to immediate efforts that make more sense.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Stay true to your core. Tough times come and go, but your company needs to have a core purpose and competency that will whether any transient storm.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
During turbulent times, there is a tight rope you need to walk between adapting without changing who you are as a company. The two biggest mistakes are on opposites sides of this spectrum: (1) not changing your business to align with the new realities and (2) changing so much you are trying to be something you are not. Instead, it is about looking at your capabilities and amplifying the parts that may not have been used or valued as much before but are crucial in these times.
Another big mistake I see businesses make is waiting around to see what others are doing. In turbulent times, there is often an advantage to being a first mover and waiting may give you time to weigh the options, but many opportunities may pass you by in the meantime.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
During turbulent times, the focus should be on maintaining your relevance, not your sales. Maybe people cannot afford or do not need to buy your product due to economic downturns, but maintaining your product on the list of options keeps your business in the running for when times turn. When we set up Skrew COVID-19, we knew that it would not generate sales because none of the bars and bartenders would be purchasing alcohol like they used to, but we reminded them that we are there when they need us most.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Do not make long term fixes for short term problems. Many people urged us to make steep discounts to allow people to buy the product as the bars re-opened. While this is noble in some ways, our quality ingredients drive the price of our product and slashing the price could make people devalue the product long term. Instead, we believed that the quality ingredients and customer loyalty we have fostered will generate confidence in the ability to sell our product. Ultimately, what they really needed from us was not a cheap product, but our work in enabling them to sell it.
- Don’t just handle what is in front of you — still look to the future. In turbulent times, it’s hard enough to handle all the new issues that are arising. But if you do not take the time to look up toward the future, you’ll just be reacting. It would be easy to scrap all the plans and wait it out, but we kept forging ahead making holiday plans and looking at 2021. It was tough, but we’d still be waiting it out and would have missed the boat on many options had we waited.
- Tap into your hidden talents. Changing times are a time to show off some skills that are often unnecessary. The fact that we came from the restaurant industry allowed us to uniquely connect with them and support them through these crazy times, which is why I believe our Skrew COVID-19 program was so impactful.
- Don’t be afraid to take action. When the pandemic hit, many people were looking around — almost stalling — trying to figure out what to do. Our team needed clarity and direction now not a couple weeks from now, so we pivoted to allow them to provide immediate value while we figured out the next steps.
- Be transparent. Glossing over issues when everyone knows they exist creates anxiety from the unknown. Instead, be frank that there are challenges, but reassure your team that you will collectively figure it out. As news spread, we brought our team home and assured them that we would not be cutting people or salaries. We did not yet have a plan to get them working — and we were honest about that. We asked that they use this as an opportunity to catch up on things they’ve been neglecting at home while we figure out a plan.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I was joking with my dad about things in the past with my mom, when he got very serious, looked at meand sighed, “For most things, you only get one chance to do the right thing. You get caught up in life and think ‘it’s fine, I’ll make it up next time,’ but next time never comes — and, unfortunately, the time you failed to act will be what people remember of you.” It’s simple advice we’ve all heard in one form or fashion, but for me, thinking about my “one chance” gives me the right balance of fear and hope to kick myself into action — in both big and small ways.
I remember one night being exhausted from work knowing I’d be up at the crack of dawn to do it again. As I finally laid down for a few quick hours of sleep, I received a text from my husband as he sat beside his dad in the hospital (as he had been for over a week). When no one responded to his text, I had these words in my head. I got dressed and drove to be by his side. I stayed with him until the dark hours of the morning and drove straight from the hospital to work. I don’t remember what work was keeping me up all night and probably would have forgot the exhaustion had I just stayed in bed, but he remembers that I was there for him when he needed me most. It didn’t feel like it at the time, but that really small act, made all the difference.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Check out @skrewballwhiskey on most social media channels and our website skrewballwhiskey.com.