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BuzzBallz Founder Reflects On Success Of Her Business

Merrilee Kick

Reflecting on BuzzBallz, LLC/Southern Champion’s rise to one of the country’s leading ready-to-drink cocktail brands, CEO/founder Merrilee Kick said she learned that “you had to build it yourself.”

Thirteen years after building a company from “nothing to something,” Kick is being honored as one of Shelby Publishing’s 2023 Southwest Women of Influence.

Kick left her career as a high school teacher to learn about the alcohol manufacturing process. Her company opened the next year, selling its signature ready-to-drink cocktails, BuzzBallz. What was once a small, family-owned-and-operated business has since grown to an internationally recognized brand, sold in all 50 states and 24 countries.

Jan Meade with The Shelby Report of the Southwest recently caught up with Kick to get insight on being a female leader in the grocery industry, learning about her brand’s accomplishments and how women can continue to further each other in the business world.

Kick began selling BuzzBallz through Southern Glazer’s Wholesale Distributors and found that it was up to her to get her product on the store shelves.

“It’s been such a wild ride. Growing from 2010, which was our first sale in one state, Texas…and not having one single store to sell to yet, I learned that you had to build it yourself. Even though you have a retailer that’s interested in it, it has to have a distributor. And even though you have a distributor that has your product, you have to go sell it to the retailer,” Kick said.

The brand has come a long way since then. In the past year, BuzzBallz received two Pr%f Awards from Food and Beverage Magazine, two silver medals at this year’s Bartender Spirits Awards and silver and bronze medals in the London Spirits Competition. 

In addition, both BuzzBallz Cocktails and Chillers garnered Hottest Growth Brands Awards from the Beverage Information Group, with BuzzBallz Biggies receiving the same award in the Rising Star category. The company also set a record for itself in 2019 by selling more than one million cases of RTD cocktails in a single year. Projections are 6.5 million cases this year.

Kick’s distillery/winery/brewery comprises 650 employees, boasts seven total brands and is vertically integrated. Southern Champion LLC has moved into distilling bourbon whiskey, gin rum and vodka, as well as rolling out its Uptown Wine Cocktails and agave wine-based Sip Sip Hooray cocktails. The company has 500,000 square feet of space for its production facilities.

“It’s phenomenal, most alcoholic beverage brands don’t manufacture their own product,” Kick said. “And being vertically integrated, we can control that whole supply chain. That’s really important to me.”

Kick believes that creating a successful business requires more than a hands-on role in the product’s supply chain. It’s about relationships.

“I think as a leader, you’ve got to build it yourself. Don’t rely on somebody else and just get mad if they don’t do it. You have to go do it,” she said. “You have to build those relationships along the way. And you have to be benevolent, you have to be good to your people.”

According to Kick, this benevolence is a special set of skills that women possess. Her ability to help care for the people she works with brings the best out of them. She recalled a time during the COVID-19 pandemic when the company turned a conference room into a “makeshift school” for children of employees.

“We called it ‘The Nest’ and we had PCs set up around the room with headphones, and we had a Texas Education and Administration-certified teacher and teacher’s aide that were there to help these kids get logged on to their individual schools, wherever their school was,” she said. “They were able to help them with their homework, give them lunch and make sure that they were well taken care of.”

This past year, the company held a Thanksgiving food giveaway for all of its employees.

“They all have families – you might not even know that these people are hungry or that they need help,” Kick said. “We backed up three Sysco food trucks filled with hams and turkey and boxes of food.”

The remaining food was donated to a local women’s shelter.

The company also holds a Giving Day, where clothes are distributed. In addition, employees receive their birthdays off and Kick personally holds what’s called “Bottom’s Up Lunch” every Wednesday.

“Our employees get to sign up and have lunch with the CEO, and they get to pick whatever lunch they want. We just talk about whatever they want to talk about,” she said.

She hopes to provide a good environment for her employees which, in turn, will provide her with good results. It doesn’t stop at taking care of them, Kick strives to be an effective leader. That includes proper communication and asking for help.

Being in a male-dominated field, the right kind of communication becomes important. Kick said one of the largest challenges in the male field comes from finding connections that otherwise come easily between men. However, communicating openly and directly has gotten her far.

“I don’t play golf. I don’t speak sport. I don’t know who the best basketball team is or things like that. I’m not good at those levels of communication,” she explained. “But what I am clear on is my expectations with my distributor and how to drive my team.

“I think that women and men are a little bit different from each other. Men know how to party, men know how to network, men know how to golf and speak the right language. But women have a special set of skills like being benevolent and caring for their employees, as well as driving and getting the details and the follow up.”

Kick added that networking and communicating your intentions are key for young female professionals.

“Networking is key in this industry. It’s the No. 1 thing,” she said. “Communication is even the way you carry yourself, the way you show up, how you’re dressed. You can have years in the industry, but it doesn’t matter if your message is flat, monotone, unemotional.

“You have to be able to tell a story, show who you are. You have to be able to nonverbally communicate with people…and communication is more than just words – it’s the whole delivery.”

Kick’s second piece of advice for those getting into the industry is to “know your job better than anybody else.”

“You better be the best,” she said. “Once you’re the expert, people will start coming to you. You will be a value to the company that you work for or to the value of the company that you own.”

Her final piece of advice is confidence.

“Build relationships. Some people are introverted, and it’s very difficult for them to be in a big setting with a lot of people they don’t know,” she said. “I just encourage them to go shake a few hands, even if it’s uncomfortable.

“Ask the questions that they need to ask to get to know somebody, and they’ll be surprised what intel they get. I think it’s important to put yourself out there even though it gives you butterflies. It builds your confidence the more you do it.”

For more information about BuzzBallz, visit buzzballz.com.

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Featured Photo PLMA Annual Private Label Trade Show
Donald E. Stephens Convention Center
Chicago, Illinois
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