Sam McQuade Jr. planned on teaching college English courses his entire career. But after his brother died in the mid-1970s, he was talked into moving back to Bismarck and joining his family’s beer distribution business.
It turned out to be a good financial move for the younger McQuade, but it also led to a decade-long struggle with his father over control of the company.
Now, only a few years after turning over McQuade Distributing Company to his daughter, Sam McQuade Jr. is using his literary skills once again to write a series of books to raise money for charity.
His first three books captured his perspective on growing up in North Dakota and his travels both at home and abroad. His fourth book, Hostile Takeover, which was published this year, gives an insightful and candid account of his father’s resistance to step away from the company he founded.
But no matter how many books he writes, Sam McQuade Jr. will always be most well-known in Bismarck-Mandan as the “Budman.”
I hear you just published your fourth book. When did you get the itch to become an author?
I went to St. John’s University and got a double major in English and French. And I spent my junior year in France and that’s where I met my wife, Maryvonne. And then I got a master’s in comparative literature from the University of Denver.
I was fortunate to find a teaching position that taught English and humanities in Littleton, Colo. All I ever wanted to be was a college English professor. I loved teaching and did that for three years. But I didn’t particularly care for starving to death, so I went to work for Xerox Corporation in Denver. I was a salesman.
How did you get into your family’s beer distribution business?
In February of 1975, my younger brother, Gerard, got killed in a car accident. He was the second of two brothers killed in separate car accidents. And he was being groomed by my dad to take over the business.
When I came home for his funeral, the district manager for Budweiser came up and asked me what I’m going to do about the family business. And told him I didn’t want any part of it. But then he told me, “Sam, you are working for a big corporation, just like I’m working for Anheuser-Busch, and you don’t want that the rest of your life if you’ve got a chance to be your own boss and grow your own business.”
I kind of blew it off, but a day or two later, dad put his arm around me and said he needed me to come back into the business. I asked him how that would work. And he asked what I meant by that. I said “If you think I’m going to give up everything in Denver and come back here to follow you around like a puppy dog, you got another thing coming because I’ve made it on my own.”
I told him first of all Maryvonne has to agree to this. And, number two, he and I needed to agree on a career path for me. He asked what I had in mind, and I told him to give me three years to learn the rest of the business, particularly the office procedures and how to order beer. And then name me president and retire.
Dad said, “Well, that’s exactly what I had in mind.”
And then we shook hands on it. But, here’s what you need to do, though: Get it in writing.
Prior to your brother’s death, did you have any intention of running the company?
No, I never wanted to be in the beer business. All I ever wanted to be was a professor of English at a college someplace.
But things change. There’s a chapter in my book that I’m pretty proud of. It’s called “On Being the Budman.” And there is nothing in life that I could think of that is more fun, lucrative and rewarding as being the Budman in Bismarck.
You mentioned that you should have gotten your dad to put your agreement in writing. What happened that makes you say that?
Well, after we moved back here, dad, true to his word, named me president after three years, although I kind of forced the date on him by reminding him that the three years were up. He told me that he and my mother would spend their winters in Arizona. But it ended up being three months, then two months, then one month. And then it was “What do I want to go to Arizona for?”
So we ended up with two-thirds of an Oedipus struggle. I wanted to kill him. He wanted to kill me. And I didn’t want to have sex with my mother.
That struggle over passing the torch in a family business is the central focus of your new book, right?
Yeah, it got to the point where dad just couldn’t face his own retirement. That was typical with his generation. These were the guys who started the businesses, and even after the business had kind of passed them by they couldn’t really pull themselves away from it.
With my dad, I didn’t take the keys away from him, but I really had to force his hand because he was hanging around and hanging around. And one of his key phrases was that he had nose trouble.
Is that another way of saying he was nosey.
Yes, he was nosey.
People who work here would be talking in the office, and he’d say “I’ve got nose trouble. What are you guys talking about?”
He even opened up my personal mail one time. I said, “What happened here?” And he said, “Yeah, I had nose trouble.” And I said, “The next time you get nose trouble that way, you’re going to have real nose trouble because I’m going to punch it.”
From what I understand, your father was an interesting person. How did he get the business going in the first place?
My dad was born in Virginia, and he attended a semester or two of college, but it was during the Depression and he needed to go to work. So, a sales representative of Grain Belt Brewery told my dad that the company needed someone to travel across the northwestern part of the country and convince wholesalers to take on Grain Belt.
Well, dad went down for an interview in Minneapolis, and he told me – I can’t substantiate this – that he wasn’t even 21 and he lied about his age and they hired him.
Several months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he joined the Marine Corps. So he was in the Pacific during World War II. When he came back, Grain Belt made him a district manager in Davenport, Iowa. But both my dad and mom hated that place.
Dad had known about Bismarck because his dad had worked for French’s Mustard, and the company used to bring them up here. Dad said they used to camp under the Memorial Bridge when my grandfather made his rounds.
I think dad could see that long-term it would be better to be a wholesaler than to work for a brewery. He borrowed money, and he and a partner bought out a company called Capital Sales in 1947. Two years later he bought out the partner and called it McQuade Distributing Company. Then, in 1955, he was granted the right to sell Budweiser.
How did things turn out with you and your dad?
When I was 42 years old – it was the early 1980s – I told my dad we need to sit down and talk about ownership of the company. I told him he’s still the majority stockholder and I’m paying him $65,000 a year to run a softball tournament. He wasn’t doing anything else in here. I told him rather than paying him a salary, I could buy shares of his stock.
He threw down his cigarette and says “Nobody is putting me out to (expletive) pasture.”
So, I started buying shares of stock until I had 50 percent plus one share, and then I went into his office and said, “Well, dad, where are you and mom going to spend the winter?”
You turned the company over to your daughter, Shannon, a few years ago. Did you handle the transition differently than your dad?
With Shannon, when I was interviewing her, I knew she wanted to be on the other side of the desk where I was sitting. And she said, “How’s this going to work because I don’t want to be the boss’ daughter.”
I told her we’re going to work out a three-year career path. The first year, she had to go on the trucks, deliver beer and get to know the customers. The second year, she had to learn the warehouse procedures and how to drive a forklift. Then there was the administration part of it.
She did all that and documented it, and that’s how she got approved by Anheuser-Busch. And she can do it. She can go out and pick up one of the salesmen’s computers and sell beer, probably better than they can.
So, Shannon did well. How did you handle it?
We were working with a consultant who came into my office one afternoon and said, “Do you have time to go to dinner with me? I need to talk to you.” So, we went to dinner someplace and she said, “You know, your people are scared to death of you, especially your managers. You’re autocratic, and it’s been your way or the highway.”
I almost broke down and started crying because I realized I had become like my old man. And I said, “I don’t want to be like that. What can we do about it?” And she told me to confront the senior managers the next morning.
So, we had a meeting and I asked them “How can we fix this?” And so what we did was establish a steering team. This way, we get input from everybody and a vote is taken on equipment purchases, the direction of the company and that sort of thing. We were too big for just one guy to run the company.
I believe it was three years ago this past June, I went to the steering team and said, “I want to tell you people that you are doing a hell of a job, keep up the good work, good luck to you. There’s only one rule going forward: Don’t bounce any of my checks.”
So you extricated yourself peacefully?
Once you have made the transition to the next generation and that’s working and successful, you need to leave.
So far, I’ve gotten off of the steering team, I gave Shannon my big office and I’m now occupying the small office she used to have. And, of course, I’m gone nearly half of the year.
I don’t know. I could see now how it kind of affected my dad. It’s sort of fun to hang around a little bit because we’ve got a hospitality room and allow our employees to have a beer at the end of the day. And I enjoy that. It’s sort of how I keep track of what’s going on in the business, without having nose trouble.
Does Shannon think you have nose trouble?
Well, Shannon is kind of funny. She overhead me talking with another guy at a convention a few years ago, and the guy asked me what I do with my time now that I’m retired. And I said, “When solicited, I proffer wisdom and advice, which is usually ignored.”
Shannon overheard me and said “What’s this ‘when solicited’ (expletive)?”
What is your involvement with the company now?
We’ve got a big expansion project going on. And since I already built two warehouses, Shannon asked me to be in charge of that.
We’re expanding the building west of here. It’s going to be warehouse space, a loading facility and a small office complex. They started digging this summer. It should be done by February.
When did you start doing the microbrews?
I was sitting in my office three years ago last month, and Shannon came in, closed the door and said, “Dad, you and I need to talk. When you and the steering team decided to sell off non-Anheuser-Busch brands to a competitor, you made that decision for a number of reasons that turned out to be good. But I hate to tell you this, but we have to pop our cherry.”
And I looked at her and said “Craft beers?” and she said “Yes.” And she’s really done a heck of a job bringing in some of the top craft beers in the country – New Belgium, Deschutes, Alaskan – so part of our expansion is growth in that market.
Now that you’ve been the Budman, are you happy about how your career worked out?
Looking back, now having written this book, I can fade into the sunset like an old soldier and be proud of what I’ve accomplished and maybe even more proud of what Shannon is doing.
Plus, now you get to use your background in English to write books.
I’d like to keep writing. These books have been fairly easy for me because they are non-fiction, it’s from my life.
I’ve started two other books. One is my observation on America and Americans. I don’t know where that one is going to go.
I also started a novel after I wrote my first book. But I found it’s easier for me to write my own form of the truth than it is to make stuff up.
Are you going to stop after the next two books?
I don’t know. I’m kind of running out of ideas.