As high schoolers prepared for this year’s State B basketball tournament, Ted Rusnak sent a letter to the owners of the Spokane Arena’s 14 luxury box suites, asking them to ban alcoholic beverages during the four-day event.
Some heeded Rusnak’s plea; others partied on. But everyone gave the unusual letter some consideration because, after all, it came from Spokane’s king of beers.
Rusnak, who currently is finishing his second term as chairman of the Spokane Regional Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, is president and co-owner of B&B Distributors Inc., the largest hawker of beers in the county.
Bringing Budweiser, Coors, Michelob and several other brands to hundreds of restaurants, taverns and supermarkets, B&B dominates beer sales in the county, with an estimated 70 percent share of the market. Rusnak says the company exceeds $30 million in annual sales.
But Rusnak, the father of two grown children, is careful to walk the line of responsibility, or at least make the attempt. When State B officials asked the CVB’s help to keep the high school tourney alcohol-free, Rusnak took the lead by removing a keg from B&B’s posh arena suite before asking others to follow suit.
“Of course he wants people to buy his products, but he also plays the other side: making sure there’s a designated driver, drinking responsibly,” said longtime friend Frank O’Neill, a Spokane insurance executive.
On one hand, B&B distributes a variety of beverages for non-drinkers and youth, including Tree Top juice, Talking Rain mineral water, RC Cola and Snapple. On the other, Rusnak makes it clear that as a businessman, he’s targeting the legal drinking-age consumer for profit.
“Whether it’s the Fox Network, football or Friends (TV sitcom), Anheuser-Busch has a presence at every point where there are legal-age customers,” Rusnak says. “If they’re there, we’re there.”
Sex, sports and suds have always been associated with beer and Canadian-born Rusnak isn’t afraid to capitalize on that.
The company owns more than 100 vehicles painted with the red Anheuser-Busch eagle insignia and B&B name to advertise products on the road. The back doors of some delivery trucks display a buxom “Lady Luck” in a black dress.
Next to his office, Rusnak keeps a bar big enough for 50 people, with a big-screen TV and beer taps. Nearby is a workout room, with stationary bicycles and a clam-shell tanning booth for the 150 employees who operate B&B around-the-clock.
The company has strong ties to sports teams, sponsoring and promoting various events. Steve Stockton, B&B’s sales manager, is the brother of Utah Jazz basketball star John Stockton.
Rusnak is a snappily dressed 50-something with an MBA from Columbia University in New York. Whether in an Italian suit driving his Mercedes convertible, or relaxed in bluejeans on the way to his Priest Lake cabin, Rusnak loves to call on customers.
“He’s in the hospitality business, and he’s very hospitable,” O’Neill says. “From the bartender in Hillyard to Patsy Clark’s, he’s with them all, knows them all.”
Hartly Kruger, president and general manager of the CVB, says Rusnak’s leadership has greatly benefited the 630-member organization. Under chairman Rusnak, the CVB formed a joint marketing agreement with Coeur d’Alene, targeted out-of-town golfers and began construction of a new visitor’s information center downtown.
Raised in Edmonton, Rusnak rose through the ranks of one of Canada’s premier brewers, becoming president of Labatts Importers Inc.
An agreement for Labatts to sell Anheuser-Busch products boosted Rusnak’s reputation and opened the way for him to acquire B&B 16 years ago. Rusnak owns half the company with partner Don O’Sullivan, a Hawaiian businessman.
In 1994, Rusnak bought the Coors distributorship, becoming one of the few Anheuser-Busch dealers to also handle a competing brand.
But not everything has gone Rusnak’s way. In February, Busch abruptly dropped its Eagle Snacks line, costing Rusnak 10 employees and $2.5 million in annual sales.
“We had our experience with salty snack foods, enough for a lifetime,” Rusnak says.
From its 78,000-square-foot headquarters just north of Interstate 90 and Broadway, B&B competes in Spokane against Joey August Distributors and its Miller beers.
Rusnak said he would like to acquire other distributors outside Spokane County to increase sales at a time when per capita consumption of beer is waning and microbreweries have gained favor. He declined to say which companies he’s eyeing.
“By the late 1990s, we’ll begin to see an increase in 21-year-olds,” Rusnak says, adding that “we promote proper consumption.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
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