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Aug. 31, 2016
Story by Mark Hornickel, photography by Todd Weddle
This story appears in the fall 2016 edition of the Northwest Alumni Magazine. Click here to view an online version of the magazine.
On a rainy Tuesday morning in July, Mark Doll ’80 breezes through the door of the downtown Des Moines, fifth floor apartment where he and his wife, Julia, live. Having come from a business meeting, he greets her in the kitchen and quickly notices the supermarket ads lying on the countertop.
“What did we have?” he asks as he begins flipping through the pages of the ads.
Doll is the chief executive officer and president of Doll Distributing Inc., which has rapidly become one of the largest beer distributors in the Midwest. He is keenly interested in the ways products are displayed in the ads, which are key to the success of his business and the brands he represents.
He finds four of the brands he sells and steps away from the countertop, satisfied. “That’s good. Four out of five. That’s a win.”
|Mark Doll studies one of the beer brands Doll Distributing carries and ships from its Des Moines warehouse, where 1,400 different packages, 65 brands and 2½ weeks’ worth of beer is stored.|
Mark Doll grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa, the second oldest of five children – and the son of a beer distributor. Merlin and Edith Doll founded Doll Distributing in 1965 with the purchase of a Hastings, Nebraska, distributor. The deal came with 2,260 Budweiser cases, 33 Budweiser kegs, 355 Goetz cases, seven tap accounts, two trucks and a wood-paneled Ford Edsel station wagon.
By age 12, Mark was helping his dad deliver kegs of beer and unloading rail cars. But Mark also enjoyed football and wanted to continue his playing career after graduating from St. Albert’s High School in Council Bluffs. If he earned his college degree in business administration, Mark also knew he could return to the Doll family business and take a larger role.
The Bearcats’ head football coach Jim Redd ’66 gave Mark the shot he needed, allowing him on the team as a walk-on.
“I might not have had the best grades coming out of high school, but Northwest accepted me,” Mark said. “It gave me some structure. You get around the other guys who really are just trying to do the same thing – have fun playing a sport they love. The University was fantastic to me, helping me get an opportunity to get my degree.”
As a defensive linebacker, Mark lettered three times for the Bearcats between 1976 and 1979. Known to his coaches as an “aggressive, valuable performer,” he tallied 33 unassisted tackles and 73 assisted tackles during his career, along with a couple forced fumbles, blocked passes and an interception. He also was a senior member of the Bearcat football team that won an MIAA championship with Redd at the helm in 1979, one season after going 0-11.
“We had gone through a tough spot when I was a junior,” Mark said. “The players, we blamed ourselves for that, and we knew we had to get together.”
Mark and one of his teammates, Brad Boyer, came together all right. By hosting parties on Thursday nights.
It was no secret that Mark enjoyed a party. But as anyone who came of age during that era also knows, it was a different time when most states allowed alcohol consumption at 18 or 19 years old.
“Being in the beer business, it’s interesting because you have to get to know people. It’s a relationship business,” Mark said. “I remember my dad coming down to games, and he would bring a keg. We were in the beer business, right? So he’d bring a keg, and after the game I’d throw a party.”
The most important party Mark threw, though, might have been the one where he met Julia Scott.
Born and raised on a farm outside of Maryville, the daughter of Carroll and Shirley Scott, Julia already had a deep connection with Northwest. Her brother, Alan Scott ’78, and sister, Joan Scott Frampton, attended the University, and her grandfather, Ross A. Scott, was a member of the 1909 Bearcat football team, a connection she shares with Northwest head football coach Adam Dorrel ’98 ’00, who is her second cousin.
Yet, Julia, who was attending Northwest as a fashion merchandising major, worked weekends at Tober’s clothing store on Main Street in Maryville and rarely attended football games.
“I was always working on Saturdays, so I could only go to maybe a Homecoming game,” Julia said. “Mark had already completed his football career by the time I met him.”
The couple married in June of 1981 after about a year and a half of dating.
“To be very blunt, I was doing ok,” Mark said. “But until I met Julia as a senior – that’s kind of when I really buckled down.”
As the first in the Doll family to earn a college degree and newly married to Julia, Mark returned to Council Bluffs and became an account manager at the family’s beer distributorship, which remained small and covered just three counties in southwest Iowa.
In 1985, Mark became the general manager for sales. He and his siblings, all of whom grew up working for the company, were applying the lessons they learned from their father and college and laying the groundwork for their own professional careers at the company.
Then, in 1987, Merlin Doll approached his children with a proposal. He told them he wanted to sell and would help finance the deal. He would watch the business but wanted no involvement.
“It was a pretty big step for us,” Mark said. “We were young, really didn’t know what we were doing sometimes. He was very good, sold us the company, and he didn’t have to. He did something right then – he put us in debt. It makes you work hard.”
Mark and his siblings committed to growing the business and took over the Red Oak, Iowa, territory, expanding Doll’s distribution area to 11 counties. Meanwhile, Mark began working to meet as many distributors as he could. He joined the National Beer Wholesalers Association, for which he later served as chairman. That helped him become one of 10 from around the country selected to the join the Anheuser-Busch Wholesaler Panel. He developed a relationship with Anheuser-Busch senior management and currently is chairman of the Constellation Brands Distributor Board, a wholesaler panel representing Corona Beer.
Julia also brought to the company a business and marketing acumen she developed in her coursework at Northwest and through her years working retail. The Dolls worked side-by-side every day.
Early on though, Mark overlooked some important pieces of the business and made some mistakes by not understanding the needs of his financiers.
“It really was an eye-opener for me because Julia and I were trying to get a family going, and I didn’t know much about banking relationships and I had to wake up to that,” Mark said. “My brothers and sister and I all work hard. We were all in, but we wanted to grow, too.”
When he bit on an opportunity to purchase a Des Moines distributor but didn’t have the necessary financing, Anheuser-Busch helped the small distributor appeal to a larger bank and secure the deal. It worked, and overnight Doll went from delivering 1 million cases per year to 5 million.
Remembering Merlin Doll’s words, “You’re going to be in debt, you’re going to work hard,” the Dolls pressed on. “We were concerned every day we went to work, thinking, ‘We need to drive efficiency and sales to get the debt ratios correct and hit the bank covenants that we agreed to,” Mark said.
As the Great Recession was bubbling in 2007, Doll began a rapid expansion. The family purchased three more beverage companies to reach northern Iowa and become the largest beer wholesaler in the state. Last year, the company stretched further north, purchasing a distributor in Worthington, Minnesota.
Today, Doll Distributing is stable and mature, delivering 9.4 million cases per year and owning 63 percent of the market share with one of the most prized portfolios in the industry. With 298 full-time employees, the company delivers to 44 of Iowa’s 99 counties and nine in Minnesota. It serves about 3,800 bars, restaurants, convenience stores, grocers and casinos.
“What we do is represent breweries in the local market,” Mark said. “What I do every day is take their brands, tell a story about their brands, go to market, walk into the grocery stores, the liquor stores, the bars and taverns, tell the story about their brand and be sure to use our maximum efforts to promote it.”
To drive down its debt and increase efficiencies, Doll began investing heavily in technology and tracking – something Mark credits his brother, Jay Doll, who also attended Northwest, for bringing to the company. Nearly all operations at Doll are software-based or automated, down to the energy-saving sensors on lighting systems. The storage facilities are temperature-controlled to ensure product reliability, and the company’s software provides customers with the industry’s highest in-stock rate and shipping accuracy.
Spreadsheets and charts – not flashy product posters – cover the walls of the company’s business office, and the investment has produced positive results. Mark is most proud of a reduction in warehouse expenses to 13 percent of the company’s operating expenses. Additionally, a recent customer survey, conducted by Anheuser-Busch, ranked Doll employees at 9.2 on a 10-point scale. “Blew the competition away,” Mark says.
|During a lunch stop at Tursi’s Latin King, an Italian restaurant in Des Moines, the Dolls converse with restaurant owner and client, Bob Tursi.|
Action is constant in Doll’s Des Moines warehouse, where 1,400 different packages, 65 brands and 2½ weeks’ worth of beer is stored.
Doll packs 38 delivery trucks a day there, while the company’s Council Bluffs and Spencer locations move out half as much. When the delivery trucks return to the warehouse in the afternoon, team members begin loading them again so the next shipments are ready to leave the next morning. By the end of the night, they will have loaded 30,000 cases of beer.
On June 28, the team set a record by delivering 58,000 cases of beer in preparation for the July Fourth holiday, which is Doll’s Super Bowl. It was the largest one-day total in company history.
The racks of beer are stacked from floor to ceiling, the packaging coming in all colors of the rainbow. Cases hold all classes, flavors and pedigrees – from Schell Brewing Co., the country’s second-oldest family-owned brewery, to Schlafly, which lays claim to being Missouri’s largest locally owned independent brewery.
“There’s just so much, and so many extensions of brands,” Mark says as he walks the warehouse aisles, pointing to packaging and making a sales pitch for nearly every case he passes.
With craft beers altering the dynamics of the industry drastically in the last decade, the warehouse stocks acclaimed beers from all over the world.
“Julia and I will just drive and go and find people. We’ll go up to the brewery and start talking to them,” Mark says.
Mark’s pride and passion for the company and his people are evident as he walks the warehouse, picking up scraps of packaging to place in trash cans and patting the shoulders of employees as they pass on forklifts. His attitude is emblematic of the company’s mission: “Building brands, building relationships.” It’s a mentality he learned from watching his father as well as through the experiences he had at Northwest.
|Mark’s parents, Merlin and Edith Doll, founded Doll Distributing in 1965, and the family has maintained its mission of “Building brands, building relationships” for more than 50 years.|
“The bottom line is it is about building relationships – in whatever business you’re in,” Mark said. “You have to get to know people and the better you know them, the better they relate to you. I’ve got 3,800 customers across Iowa and Minnesota, but I try to be out as much as I can and meeting with them. My people are very important to me. My customers are important. My suppliers are important. Bankers are important. Julia and I do political events a lot, because that’s important to our business. You just have to get out and go.”
Now, Mark and Julia are passing their lessons to their children, who are becoming more involved in the family business. Andrew, 28, works with Doll’s senior management team on tracking and measuring, and Lauren, 26, works in human resources. Like their father, they grew up driving forklifts and moving beer.
“To take it to this, it’s just been phenomenal, and all of this has happened in the last 10 years,” Julia said. “To follow (Mark) through his career with all the boards, with Anheuser-Busch and the beer wholesalers, it’s been a great experience for me and the kids. Because we’ve followed along, and the kids were learning constantly from his experience, now they’re into some of the organizations that he started with, so it’s been really fulfilling to watch that.”
In 2007, Mark Doll’s tenure as chair of the National Beer Wholesalers Association was ending when Jim Blackford ’72, Mike Faust ’74 and Ron Taylor ’79 traveled to Council Bluffs, Iowa, to ask him to join the Northwest Foundation Board of Directors.
“I was on the road a lot, so I said, ‘I really want to do this, but if I do it I really want to commit,’” Mark said. “Julia and I don’t ever get involved with something that we’re not going to give it our all.”
Mark figured he’d serve a three-year term and walk away. But in 2014, he succeeded Holly Murphy-Barstow ’81 – a classmate of Julia’s from kindergarten through their days as Northwest students – as president of the Foundation Board. In August, he passed the gavel to Arne Johnson ’77.
Mark speaks with pride of the positive changes the Foundation made during his presidency to enhance its financial policies while praising the skills of the University’s Advancement staff and new members joining the Board.
“Not to take anything away from any other Foundation Board members, because we’ve had some fantastic people, but go through that list today and look at the talent,” he says. “We’ve got some of the highest in their careers and personal lives. The Foundation is primed for success.”
He also relishes the thrill he feels each time he returns to the campus.
“It really gave me the basis to have the confidence to do what I’m doing today,” he says. “It’s special, too, that Julia and I met there. We fell in love there. I got my degree. It’s amazing, and so it holds a lot to me.”
With that in mind, the Dolls give generously to Northwest as members of the 1905 Society and have committed a gift in support of the University’s agricultural sciences, athletics facilities and scholarship offerings.
“It was always a part of my background, growing up, knowing the University was there,” Julia said. “It was an important part of our community, and I want it to always be a part of the community.”
Mark added, “Northwest gave so much to me. The people I met, the guys I played ball with. I got my degree there, and I owe it.”
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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