Raise a Glass: Stokes

Long gone are the days when Stokes Distributing was working out of an an old house behind Economy Supply in Downtown Hattiesburg. During that time Stokes was distributing about 60 different packages from five suppliers. Today, their inventory consists of approximately 1,000 different brands and packages from 60 different suppliers.

Stokes also has other locations in Laurel, Natchez and McComb.

But it was July 1, 2012, the day the law passed raising the state’s alcohol by volume percentage that the floodgates opened for new brands to enter the state and they did, said Sparkman  Walker, general manager for Stokes Distributing.

“There was a surge in new start-up breweries opening basically overnight in the state and it put Mississippi on the radar with the remaining top craft breweries in the country, who began launching or making plans to enter the state,” he said.

Walker said Stokes was already distributing some of the top craft breweries in the country prior to the law change – Abita, Sierra Nevada, Rogue, Boston Beer, Gambrinus (Shiner Bock), Anchor Brewing, Yazoo and the only Mississippi brewery at the time, Lazy Magnolia.

“We were handcuffed in the fact that we couldn’t offer some of their bestselling brands until WE changed the law,” he said. “That’s why none of the other top breweries in the country entered the state.”

He said it also vastly limited the selection of craft being offered in the state.

“The reason I said WE is because the Raise Your Pints Movement gets all of the credit for getting the law changed and rightfully so,” Walker said. “The group was out in front on the issue and their grassroots marketing opened the eyes to a lot of people that Mississippi was missing out on a huge economical boost for the state and most importantly, some great beer.”

It was the Mississippi Malt Beverage Association (Mississippi beer distributors) that partnered with Raise your Pints on the law change and played a big role in getting the law passed as well, according to Walker.

Soon after, the breweries started launching in the state and that’s when Stokes was awarded distribution rights for National Breweries’ products –  New Belgium, Lagunitas, Sweetwater, Oscar Blues and Bell; Regional Breweries – Nola, Wise Acre and Straight to Ale and Mississippi Breweries – Lucky Town, Yalobusha and Biloxi.

Walker said during his short time in the beer business, “the craft explosion was the most change in the industry that I had seen from top to bottom.”

“Distributors had to evaluate the way they went to work every day. They had to create new roles, train and educate our sales force on brewing processes, styles, ingredients and higher quality standards. I think overall Stokes did a good job of handling all the changes and positioning ourselves for the future.”

 At Stokes, their craft beer portfolio consists of a majority of the largest craft breweries in the country, along with some of the best regional and local breweries as well, but it still only represents a small percentage of Stokes’ total volume. Their website lists approximately 101 crafts including a variety of Blue Moon, Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada and Shiner.

“Out of the 19 counties we cover, 78 percent of our craft sales come from Lamar and Forrest counties,” he said. “The point is that Mississippi still is undeveloped and has a lot of room to grow. It also shows you that Hattiesburg has a very healthy and pretty sophisticated beer culture for a city our size and especially when comparing it to the rest of the state.”

In addition to a wide selection of beers, they also stock an extensive selection of wines (Lost Vineyards, Biagio, Malborough) and wine coolers (Bartles & Jaymes, Seagrams), ciders (Woodchuck, Hornsby) and energy drinks (Red Bull).


How they got where they are today

After World War II, Dick Stokes began looking for something new in his life. In 1947, he decided to buy a distributing company based in Hattiesburg and created Stokes Distributing Company, Inc. In the beginning, he started with three trucks in a small warehouse in downtown Hattiesburg to cover Forrest and Perry counties, along with the city limits of Laurel, to deliver its beer. It was his dedication to excellent customer service, providing quality of life for his employees, and his generosity to the community that has shaped Stokes Distributing Company today.

The company now employs more than 75 people, has three different locations and delivers products from the Alabama line to the Louisiana line, covering 19 counties with 16 route trucks.

Walker got involved in the business through his family.

Walker’s father accepted a job working for Pabst Brewing Company as a sales manager for Mississippi and would later be promoted to divisional manager of Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana and Alabama.

“The job required him and my Mother to move to Jackson, where my sister and I were both born,” Walker said. The family then moved to Memphis when his father accepted an offer and promotion with Coors Brewing Co. as the assistant divisional manager.

“About the time we were getting settled in, Dick Stokes approached my Father with a new opportunity – the opportunity to partner with him in his business,” said Walker. “My father had worked with Mr. Stokes as his Pabst representative for 13 years, so he was very familiar with the distributorship and territory. He accepted of course, so we made our second move in just about a year. The move to Hattiesburg in 1984 would be our last.”

Walker started working alongside his dad during the summers after eighth grade until he graduated from Hattiesburg High School.

His Stokes’ career took about an eight-year break while he got a bachelor’s degree in finance and business at the University of Mississippi.

Because his father thought it was important for him to gain experience in another industry outside of the beer business, Walker took his first job with Yellow Book USA selling Yellow Page ads before landing a sales position with a pharmaceutical company – Andrx Pharmaceuticals – where he worked for two years before returning to the family beer business, where he currently serves as general manager.

Stokes began expanding its doors and distribution in 1997 with the purchase of Central Beverage in McComb, a Miller distributor. The expansion continued west with the purchase of Hilltop in Natchez. As their footprint began to grow, they reached agreements with Mississippi Beverage in Hattiesburg and Austin Distributing in McComb. This move brought the Coors Brewing Company on board along with several big-time breweries that proved critical to the success the company has today.

A new facility in McComb handled all the new growth. In 2003, Stokes acquired another brand with the purchase of Hattiesburg Beverage and the Pabst family.

The territory was completed several years later with the purchase of the Coors Brands in Stone County from FEB Distributing and the Coors Distributorship in Natchez from Bluff City.

“It wasn’t long after that we stepped into a new-age beverage category by teaming up with Red Bull, the world’s number 1 energy drink and most profitable item in C-stores today,” said Walker.

“We take great pride in our diverse portfolio of quality beers and consider it an honor to partner with these great brewers we represent.”

According to Walker, Stokes continues to look for potential growth opportunities, so they can continue to expand their portfolio and provide their customers the best quality beers available on the market.

“You can be assured that if you get a beer out of the Stokes portfolio that it will be one you will want to drink again and again,” Walker said.