Know Your ABCs

03 Jan 2018

Marnina Queen, CEO of New Hanover ABC Board, soars numbers with a focus on service and savviness 

By Teresa A. McLamb  Photo Kelly Starbuck Photography

When she took the reins of New Hanover County’s ABC Board (Alcohol and Beverage Control Board) in fall 2015, Marnina Queen set a stretch goal of $40,000,000 in annual sales. When the final numbers were tallied for fiscal 2016 (ending June 30, 2016), she and her staff learned they had blown away the goal. By June 30, 2017, the end of fiscal 2017, the sales number was up to $44,167,206, an increase of $5.6 million in less than two years.

“It’s fun for me because I’ve put so much energy and caring into my staff,” she said of the numbers. “I can bring in great products, but it takes a great staff to sell it.” Staff training includes an emphasis on customer service and product knowledge. Using a book Queen wrote five years ago about the basics of ABC (including what is a vodka? What makes a bourbon? Etc.), staff members study and test. Beginning with store managers, the study program includes full time and part time employees. She expects all new hires to complete the training.

After growing up in Sylva, North Carolina, Queen followed her grandfather, father and sister into the military. She served as a medic in the US Air Force and was the first female staff sergeant to run her own emergency room at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California. 

After twelve years, Queen left the military and completed her college education at Western Carolina University. She believed that going to school, as an adult, was beneficial. “You look more at an education when you’re paying to sit in the seat.” 

She credits the military with preparing her to work successfully in the civilian world. “The military training taught me how to be a good leader, how to understand people.” It also taught her to follow guidelines, something that’s critically important when dealing with alcohol regulations. 

Queen’s first job after graduation was with the NC ABC Commission in Raleigh, as an education specialist. She taught ABC laws and regulations throughout the state. “I taught at universities and grade schools. I did school prom presentations every year to try to get our youth to make better decisions.” Queen was also responsible for programs for bar and restaurant employees. She was on the road a lot. When the personnel director position in Greensboro came open, she applied. By the end of her six-year stint there, she had progressed to assistant general manager.

In the fall of 2015, the Wilmington position opened. After touring the area, Queen applied. Shortly after accepting the position, she said, “I can’t tell you how pleased I am to be here. I have an excellent staff from the store level up. They’re professionals. Hard working. They want to serve this community.”

That service includes careful scrutiny by the local board in order to maximize profits. One result is the annual distribution of profits to local governmental entities. For fiscal year 2017, the Board distributed $4,697,462. The breakdown goes as follows: New Hanover County $2,269,729; City of Wilmington $1,483,469; Wrightsville Beach $546,826; Carolina Beach $380,351; and Kure Beach $17,087.

Those numbers put the local board at third in the state for distributions according to the NC ABC Commission 2016 annual report, which Queen said was released mid-year 2017. “We were 2nd most profitable in the state,” she noted. “We were also 5th in the state for total sales.” Those numbers are particularly significant when you consider the size of New Hanover County and the number of stores compared with the large metropolitan areas of Mecklenburg, Wake and the Triad. “It’s a great story. We have better stores and wonderful staff, and we’re bringing that money back to the community.”

“We have worked hard this year to make improvements to better the overall system for our customers,” she said. “We have implemented modern ID checking technology at each store and new, updated uniforms for all staff.” 

“We have made appearance upgrades at all store locations, purchased energy efficient parking lot lighting, and installed state-of-the-art camera systems. We have also worked hard within the stores for better shelf management utilizing maximum space for displays and new items.”

Product selection has increased by 13% over the past two years with the introduction of 148 new items just this year. “We currently have 2,271 spirits available for purchase in our stores,” she said. Some of those follow the increasing popularity of high-end boutique items such as single barrel bourbons and some are simply brand new offerings. There’s an increasingly vital business in North Carolina for small batch distilleries.

Determining what to order sometimes involves a little investigation. “If a distillery or a rep comes to us with a new product that the state has approved, we ask how it’s doing in other states, and what the sales numbers are. If it’s a trend within our community, we’ll bring it in and at least try it,” Queen said. In addition, individuals and businesses can special order cases of products not available on the shelves. “A lot of our bars and restaurants do that. Improvement in liquor-by-the-drink numbers bode well for the state of the economy,” Queen said. Even with fewer tourists in the county, current restaurant LBD numbers are doing well. “Even if they buy from the restaurant, the money is still coming back to the community,” she said.

The Board continues to fund five ABC officers (through the New Hanover County Sheriff Department) who are out in the community doing compliance reviews at the stores and working with the downtown task force. “ABC statutes says we have to give five percent back to law enforcement,” Queen stated. “We give 10 percent back through the Sheriff Department.”

As far as a new goal, Queen says she is most concerned with continuing to give back the best distributions we can to the community. “I want to make the community proud of the stores and a staff that continues to embrace our goals, and to strive to be the best ABC Board in the state.” 

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