Vintage Andy

Andrew S. Brandt doesn't look a bit like Napoleon Bonaparte. And during his just-ended stint as chair and CEO of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, he never rampaged through its Toronto headquarters on a fiery steed.

Andrew S. Brandt doesn’t look a bit like Napoleon Bonaparte. And during his just-ended stint as chair and CEO of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, he never rampaged through its Toronto headquarters on a fiery steed.

Yet everyone who understands what happened at the LCBO during his 15-year tenure insists that what Brandt spearheaded was nothing short of a revolution.

And now, as the LCBO closes in on its 80th anniversary, by all key criteria it is in spectacularly better shape than the lumbering behemoth that faced Brandt in 1991. That’s when he was drafted by then-Ontario premier Bob Rae.

Today, NDP-to-the-bone Rae still believes he couldn’t have made a better choice ‘to be a change agent at the LCBO’ than his longtime legislative colleague, even though Brandt was a die-hard Conservative.

‘Andy ended up doing a tremendous job for all the reasons I thought he would back then,’ says Rae. ‘He understands private enterprise but he also has a great sense of public service. He’s a great salesman. And he has just a tremendous personality and sense of humour. Those are all the qualities I thought it would take to really make things happen at the LCBO.’

Rae’s judgment was literally right on the money, according to Brandt’s most recent boss. Says David Caplan, Ontario minister of public infrastructure renewal, ‘Under Andy’s leadership, the LCBO’s dividend to the province over the past decade [alone] was close to $9 billion, which is astounding.’

That achievement occurred ‘because Andy was determined to give Ontario consumers the calibre of shopping experience they were accustomed to getting at other upscale retailers,’ explains Paul Beggan, president of Toronto-based Bacardi Canada.

Similar sentiments were expressed by other members of Brandt’s unofficial fan club. (See sidebar.) A summary was offered by Donald Ziraldo, president of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.-based Inniskillin Wines and one of Ontario’s pioneering vintners: ‘Andy has to be credited with a good part of the transition from a rather stodgy old LCBO to the high-end, more user-friendly environment we see today in its stores.

‘But for the wine industry specifically, his major contribution was helping us get access to European markets,’ he explains. ‘Andy was never shy about standing up to them and saying: ‘Look, we buy a lot of French wine, so you guys better start buying Ontario wine.’ And they did.’

By this and other accounts, Brandt was a hard man to say ‘non’ to even before he occupied the top spot at the LCBO. So it’s an interesting exercise to trace how he unknowingly prepared himself to revolutionize the organization when the opportunity arose.

An Ontarian by birth and by choice, Brandt was born and raised in London. As a teenager, he was an aspiring musician, playing keyboards with a band that backed up such touring stars as the Everly Brothers and a very young Paul Anka.

Brandt later gave up on being a professional musician, although music remains a favourite hobby. (He was frequently coaxed to perform at LCBO-related events, when the always-entertaining chairman could calm the qualms of queasy bureaucrats, enliven store openings, or clinch deals with foreign buyers or suppliers by tickling the ivories.)

It was back in the ’60s and into the mid-’70s that Brandt began gaining the business experience that would stand him in good stead at the LCBO decades later. He owned and ran a company in Sarnia that imported and exported musical instruments, later selling a majority chunk of it to a company headquartered in Winnipeg.

But before then, Brandt had been interested in politics. He served two terms on Sarnia’s city council and was its mayor from 1975 to 1980. He spent the following decade as an Ontario MLA, landing two cabinet posts before becoming interim leader of the PC Party.

En route, Brandt’s popularity and recognition factor grew sufficiently that, during his last elective campaign, his placards and banners displayed only his nickname. ‘There was no surname, no party, no slogan,’ he recalls. ‘It was just ‘Andy.”

When ‘just Andy’ decided he’d had his fill of politics in 1990, he says he received phone calls from not only Rae but also then-prime minister Brian Mulroney offering him ‘a number of positions.’ Why did he choose the LCBO post? ‘I thought that opportunity offered the greatest challenge and the best potential for really making a difference.’

So if anyone assumed that this particular political appointee would be a mere figurehead, they had another thing coming. Brandt’s simple moniker may have matched his affable, egalitarian persona, but it was also a disarming disguise for a strategic thinker who, by then, had acquired the unique skill set it would take to win the master-level, multi-billion-dollar-stakes game the LCBO was about to play.

Today, the Board’s official tagline is: ‘LCBO: Discover the World.’ But back in what’s frequently been described as ‘the Dark Ages,’ it might as well have been ‘LCBO: Enter if You Dare, Buy What You Must, Then Get Out of Our Face.’

Actually, that surly ambience was beginning to change by 1991, says Larry Flynn, former SVP of merchandising for the LCBO. Yet the fact that his department didn’t even exist – nor had the sophisticated advertising campaigns we see today – puts the challenge faced by Brandt into stark perspective.

Flynn says his new boss was more than up to the task. ‘Andy hit the ground running and he never stopped during his 15 years with us.

‘He took the quarterback role at our planning sessions, and was great at identifying what tactics it would take to implement changes inside and outside the organization.’

Long before customer experience management became a buzzword in marketing, says Nancy Cardinal, LCBO’s marketing VP, Brandt understood the only way to drag the outmoded operation forward would be to transform all elements that ultimately culminate in the in-store experience.

‘More than anything else, Andy was our champion of change,’ Cardinal explains. ‘Together with Larry Gee, who was EVP through most of that time, he worked toward the goal of turning the LCBO into not just a best-in-class retailer but actually the best retailer of beverage alcohol in the world.’

The major changes Brandt – and the team he praises as ‘very loyal, dedicated and capable’ – pulled off includes the glossy Food & Drink magazine, which launched in 1993, among other things. (See ‘Brandt’s Legacy,’ page 60.) But paving the way for them by mollifying the doubts of stakeholders fell to the guy at the top. And Cardinal says that was another challenge Brandt excelled at thanks to his ‘superb ability’ to calm fears, rev up expectations and inspire excellence.

The result, says retail analyst John Torella, senior consultant with Toronto’s J.C. Williams Group, is an organization that is finally achieving its potential.

‘From a simple distribution channel, the brand positioning strategy became that the LCBO should be a source for entertaining ideas. That was the fundamental transformation.’

But it’s simply not Brandt’s style to crow about his own contribution to what was achieved on his watch. Nor will he say whether he expects to miss the wheeling and dealing that earned him kudos as grand as a speech in the Ontario legislature by Premier Dalton McGuinty.

From ‘just Andy’ comes only a quiet mention that he’ll finally be able to redeem the vacation days he racked up during an unprecedented five terms as head of the LCBO. ‘Oh,’ he muses, ‘I’ll probably just golf with my buddies in Sarnia a little more often now.’