Harvey Allen and M.S. Walker, Inc., Embody Traditional Family Values Blended with Cutting-Edge Business
By Peter F. Stevens
Recently, Harvey Allen, CEO of M.S. Walker, Inc., sat down with Scene to discuss both the legacy of this unique company and its winning business formula of tradition, innovation, and family values.
In an era of faceless business behemoths, M.S. Walker, Inc., is an anomaly. For five generations, since 1933, this Massachusetts-based wholesale liquor distributor and manufacturer has literally done business the “family way.” Before anyone attempts to label that family way as “old fashioned,” however, a history lesson is in order. The Allens, the Walkers, the Shaws, the Brodys, and five generations of their employees have always blended family with forward-thinking business practices and creativity.
From Syrup to Spirits
In 1933, following the Repeal of Prohibition, Maurice Saul Walker saw an opportunity with Americans now able to drink liquor again legally. He transformed his South End pharmaceutical business into a liquor production and distribution company. Having already garnered experience with extracts, flavorings, and syrups since 1929 with the earlier business, Walker was well-poised to enter the burgeoning liquor market. His son-in-law Leo Allen soon joined him in the venture, working tirelessly and innovatively with Walker to grow the business.
For much of the 1930s and 1940s, the company claimed a spot in the evolving industry, cultivating a relationship with Cuban dictator Battista that kept rum, molasses, and sugar flowing to M.S. Walker even during the years of World War II rationing. The company would also unveil one of America’s first vodkas – Cossack.
When Walker – “a hands-on manager,” according to his grandson Harvey Allen – passed away in the late 1940s, Leo Allen and another brother-in-law took over the business. Walker had pulled back from the business in “semi-retirement” for a few years, but had still played a role in it. Now, his sons-in-law took the outfit into its next chapter. Harvey Allen recalls, “My father worked pretty much 24/7. They had this rundown warehouse in Somerville and pretty much made and bottled what people ordered. Gin? We made it. Flavored brandy? We made it. That’s an area where the experience with syrups and extracts really paid off.”
Harvey Allen, President and C.E.O. of M.S. Walker, Inc., is a third-generation family member in the operation. After graduating from Babson College in 1961, Harvey joined the family business in 1962 and has literally learned every aspect of the industry from the warehouse floor to the CEO’s office. He served as vice president of The Independent Whiskey Association for many years and is a member of the Presidents’ Forum of the Beverage Alcohol Industry.
Along with his passion for the industry, Harvey– as well as his family, the Shaws, and the Brody – have devoted much of their time, talents, and energy to many community projects and charitable efforts. Harvey was a chairman of the Beverage Division of the C.J.P., Boston Chairman of the Israel Bond Drive, and one of the original founders of Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland. A recipient of the Ben Gurion Award from Ben Gurion University, Harvey is a Hillside School, Marlboro, trustee and a member of the Somerville Chamber of Commerce, as well as a former president of the Cobble Hill Industrial Park Association of Somerville.
A former scratch golfer, Harvey said that one of his proudest achievements was his selection to play in the Seventh Maccabiah Games, known as the Jewish Olympics, in 1965. Golf made its debut at the games that year at the new course in Caesarea, and Harvey was front and center in Bud Collins’s Boston Globe column about the milestone.
Under the combined leadership of Harvey and family and team members such as Doug Shaw, Vice President, Treasurer, and Wine Director; Gary Shaw, Vice President and director of Out-of-State Sales; Michael Brody, Vice President, Sales and Marketing Director; and Scott Allen, Vice President and General Manager. Also lending their talents and creativity to M.S. Walker are Michael Allen, Russell Allen, Brett Allen, Dana Brody, Jeff Allen, and Craig Brody.
At the onset of the 1960s’ “wine boom,” Harvey Allen and his team opened a lucrative niche against the giant wine distributors by introducing the company’s own brands of wines – smaller estates producing great wines at modest prices. Today, M.S. Walker’s wine portfolio ranks as one of the most innovative, comprehensive, and popular in the United States. The company’s success with its wine list helped spur its building of a 100,000 square foot distribution facility in Somerville in 1981.
Identifying customer demand and marketplace openings that large companies such as Seagram’s either ignore or miss, has long been M.S. Walker’s proverbial stock in trade. “Going back to the days of my father and my grandfather,” Harvey Allen recalls, “we had to look for products to make that others weren’t making. Specialty items with broad appeal. We’re still doing that today. Just look at the history of our flavored brandies, and it shows how well the approach works – then and now.”
Right after World War II, M.S. Walker’s “Allen’s Flavored Brandy” brought the company into the wholesale business in a notable way. Allen’s Ginger Flavored Brandy was a catalyst for products to come. Allen’s Coffee Brandy is the top-selling spirit in Maine, nicknamed the “Champagne of Maine.”
Today, M.S. Walker is among the three largest distributors in the state, with wholesale businesses in Rhode Island and New Hampshire, and brokerage businesses throughout New England. Harvey Allen asserted, “Some believe that the more you spend, the better the product – liquor, watch, car, etc. – must be. So often, that is simply not true, in business and in life. Our products are much better in quality than many higher-priced ones from other companies. We offer value, variety, and most importantly, quality.”
M.S. Walker’s innovation, customer relationships, and love of their craft have propelled the company growth both regionally and nationally. Five generations and going strong, the company’s family approach is a proven winner.
All in the Family
Harvey Allen told Scene: “It’s all about family. It started with my mother’s father, Maurice Walker. He stared with an extract business in the South End and saw an opportunity right after Prohibition was ended. Through that connection with Battista in Cuba, Maurice not only got rum during World War II, but also whiskey that they labeled ‘Swanee Pride,’ a copy of Southern Comfort.”
“After Maurice retired to Florida, my dad, Leo Allen, worked day and night with my uncle to not only keep the business going, but to make it bigger and better. It was really tough, a seven days a week thing.”
Across the Generations
“I’m so proud of what my grandfather started,” Harvey said. “There are 17 members of my family in the business today – five generations. That’s simply not the usual today in business. I know I’m biased about my family, but it is true that all of them in the business are talented. Even more importantly, each one has found their own niche.
“My oldest son, Scott, now runs much of the company.”
Harvey added, “The family part of the business is what it’s all about. Of my six kids, three of my sons came into the business. One left to
become a veterinarian. Scott and Brett, who runs our operation in Rhode Island, had to earn their way up the company ladder.
Even though they were the boss’s sons, they had to prove themselves.
“They’re all good guys, work hard, and make me look good.”
Finding the Right Niche
“My approach is that managers can lose games – players win them,” Harvey stated. “If a manager puts someone in a position where they try but fail to do the job, it’s the manager’s fault.
I put people in a position where they can succeed – blend personalities with the right job. You have to know people’s strengths.
“I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by self-motivated people here. That goes both for my family members and everyone else who works here.”
“We Really Listen to Our Customers”
Harvey emphasized, “We have to run on a fair and commonsense approach. We provide a service and are good at it, and we’ve done that from the start.
“Being a family business,” he continued, “we really listen to our customers’ input and needs. We came out on top in a recent survey in our markets. Our philosophy has been passed down through our family’s generations. We’re not tied to the biggest distillers, which has allowed us to have success by specializing in the industry.
“We got into the fine-wine business at a time when our competitors were selling really inexpensive bulk wines. We went for smaller brands. For example, today we still are number one in white dinner wine in Massachusetts.
“We create brands, do things other suppliers don’t. Again,
I can’t stress enough that we are not beholding to any one supplier. No one is controlling our business and our decisions except us.
In Massachusetts, if you have a franchise brand, the supplier can’t just take it away from you.
He notes: “There are perhaps 21 distillers in Massachusetts these days. They make good products, and we are one of the largest distributors for them. They know to come to us because they will be cared for. That is one of our niches. It’s fun for us to help them grow.
“It’s also fun when certain products take off and really take hold. One of our strengths is how we bring in distilled goods and make them for our private label. A case in point is Allen’s Coffee-Flavored Brandy. It’s nicknamed “the Champagne of Maine” and hugely successful there. In Maine, as elsewhere, we’re very involved with the community, such as our sponsorship of the Maine Iditarod.”
Truly Old-Style Business for the Modern Age
Harvey stressed that no matter how much business changes, there is a place for family and old-school relationships with customers. “I’m 77,” he said, “and still at the company because I love the business and the people in it. I pride myself on our relationships with restaurants and other customers. It’s truly old-style business that still works today if you have the right niche. We distribute to suppliers who really appreciate what we do and the ethical, family way in which we do it.”
Sometimes Father Really Does Know Best
Harvey remembered that entering the family business was not always his highest priority. “As a kid and a young man, I was a very good pitcher,” he said. “I was offered a professional contract – to play for the Red Sox Louisville farm team. I needed my Dad to sign, but he wouldn’t. He knew that an injury can end even a promising baseball career in an instant and that a college degree and career in business are for keeps. His refusal to sign turned out to be the best thing for me, for my future, and for my family.”
Back to the Future
“Starting in September,” Harvey said, “we’ll have a new manufacturing site in Hyde Park. The state has taken our current spot by eminent domain for the MBTA’s Green Line expansion. Although we were initially disappointed to have to move, the state has been good to us, and we’re really excited about our new location, which will be a key part of the exciting commercial rebirth of the area.
“With the coming move to our new building, in Hyde Park, we’ll not only be bringing the same blend of innovation and tradition that is M.S. Walker, but will be embarking on a whole new level. It’s challenging but exciting. I have no doubt whatsoever that it is something we will all be proud of.
“We want to bring the Hyde Park neighborhood along with us. We succeed if the neighborhood succeeds, and this is a great location, off 128 and near Milton. The area has so much commercial and residential promise. It will be a special place.
The Past Is Prologue
“Long before I came to work for the company, my grandfather and father built the business on relationships. That is what really matters. That has been our niche from the earliest years and has allowed us to become a major player in the marketplace.†