Opinion: Cheers to women breaking glass ceilings

Joanie O’Sullivan-Butler

From women courageously stepping forward to run for elected office to women breaking glass ceilings in the workplace, 2018 is shaping up to be the “Year of the Woman.”

Today breweries and retailers large and small are owned and run by women, the author writes.

It has been building for years as women take on critical management roles: we’re entrepreneurs, CEOs and CFOs as well as mothers, grandmothers, daughters and sisters. Yet we still have a lot of work to do. In fact, a recent Forbes article found that there are only 24 women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in the nation, down from 32 just a year ago.

The world of beer is beginning to look much different than it did decades ago too. For years, the people who owned the brewery, brewed the beer, sold the beer and delivered the beer were predominately male. Advertising on TV, radio and in publications was geared towards men too.

But all of that is beginning to change.

Today breweries and retailers large and small are owned and run by women. There are female head brewers. And women are even climbing the ranks of Michigan’s family owned, independent beer distributors.

I grew up in the business of beer. My family owns J.P. O’Sullivan Distributing. I started working for J.P. O’Sullivan Distributing in Flint when I was in high school as a merchandiser. I stocked shelves, rotated out old product and replaced it with fresh beer and ensured every six pack, 12 pack and case was priced correctly. It wasn’t the most glamorous first job, but it taught me a lot about the importance of product placement and freshness, and gave me an inside look at my family’s business.

Following high school I went to college and then law school, but I always wanted to come back to Flint and work for my family’s business. Upon returning, I helped with legal matters for the company and slowly worked my way through the ranks. My father mentored me along the way, before his health began deteriorating.

A combination of hard work and guidance from my father helped me rise to vice president of the company. Currently, I am president and CEO of a distributor that moves more than 2 million cases of beer annually to retailers across seven counties.

Several years ago, I was one of just a handful of women who had risen through the ranks of Michigan’s beer distributors. Since then, things have improved significantly. There are more female beer reps and more women are going into management. Women aren’t just breaking through barriers on the executive level at beer distributors; they’re also doing so in the warehouse, on delivery trucks and sales routes.

Many distributors are family run businesses. Because of that, the distribution end of the three tier system has been a male dominated industry for decades. Fathers pass the company down to sons, whether they had daughters or not. But now, more women are stepping into leadership roles. 

And given the changing landscape of who beer and other products are marketed to, and how they are marketed, it makes a great deal of sense.

Half of beer drinkers are women. And the cider and hard seltzer segments are growing a strong female following as well. Who better to help market these new products to one of the fast growing segments of beer, cider and hard seltzer drinkers, than another woman?

I am proud to be part of an industry creating jobs, and helping small businesses like craft breweries, local wineries and local retailers, compete, grow and thrive on a level playing field.

I have seen firsthand the strides women have made in the beer industry over the last several years, and there are more to come. While the beer industry still has work to do, I’m proud to have broken through the glass ceiling and hope my hard work, and that of women at beer distributors across the state, lays a foundation for future generations of women to find work in this exciting and rewarding industry.

Joanie O’Sullivan-Butler is the president and CEO of John P. O’Sullivan Distributing in Flint.