Willard Mercier, 82
December 10, 1931–July 17, 2014
The photograph tells you all you need to know. Taken sometime in the early fifties, it shows a young Lone Star Beer deliveryman in the uniform of the day: crisp khaki shirt and pants, peaked cap and black bowtie. He’s got a case of cans on his right shoulder and an expression on his face that suggests he knows precisely how happy his freight will make some lucky beer-drinker. His smile offers a preemptive “You’re welcome.” The deliveryman was Willard Mercier, or as he was known to San Antonians who saw that photo on billboards sixty years ago, “Mr. Lone Star.” And when he died in July, at the age of 82, he was still pushing the one brand of beer that ever mattered to him.
He began his career with the brewery in 1950, when he was nineteen, and his first job was as a route driver’s assistant, the guy who did the literal heavy lifting while the driver went over paperwork with store owners and bartenders. If Mercier had been motivated by money, he might have waited to get a route of his own. Back then drivers were paid by the load and made more money than most employees in the brewery’s front office. But Mercier needed a task that put him with people. Community suited him. He’d been a lineman for the Brackenridge High School football team that won the state championship in 1947 and seemed to know half of San Antonio. He spoke good Spanish. And he had that smile. Harry Jersig, the brewery president who ran every aspect of Lone Star’s business with a stiff neck and firm hand, recognized that Mercier’s charm was wasted behind a dolly. In 1956 Jersig handpicked Mercier to move into sales.
Initially he worked locally, building Lone Star’s San Antonio market share to more than 50 percent. When Jersig decided to expand Lone Star’s reach, he grew Mercier’s territory. Some of their efforts were more successful than others; moves into Oklahoma and Louisiana never quite took hold, but the distributorships Mercier worked with in tiny towns like Weimar and Hallettsville made Lone Star the number one beer south of San Antonio. In 1971, with Jersig’s blessing, Mercier resigned from the brewery and went to work managing its distributor in Houston, at that time Lone Star’s best-selling market.
His job was to negotiate with retailers, the big-chain grocers and convenience stores, for optimal placement of Lone Star on shelves and in advertising. He achieved that by striking up real friendships, not just with the corporate big wigs who made the decisions but also with every employee under them. He kept his black Suburban stocked with “dents,” the beerman’s term for beer that couldn’t be sold in stores because the packaging had been damaged. His first move during sales calls was always to find the secretaries and security guards and drop off a six-pack of dents. Or if they weren’t beer-drinkers, he’d give items he’d bartered dents to buy: flowers, kolaches and fresh fruit, pumpkins at Halloween and turkeys at Christmas. “He wasn’t buying people,” recalls his longtime colleague Jerry Retzloff, “he was being nice to them. They could tell the difference.”
Over the decades, the industry changed radically around him, most notably by ever-increasing consolidation. Jersig sold Lone Star to Olympia in 1976, beginning a succession of steadily larger owners, none of which were native to Texas. Each new corporate overseer brought its own people, and each time a few more old Lone Star lifers fell away. But never Mercier. The new owners needed his network.
Even as his Houston distributorship grew to take in other beers, Mercier kept his own emphasis on the beer he started out with. He called it “riding for the brand,” and that was his first commandment. After a Coors distributor bought his company in the late eighties, a sales manager named Mitch Jameson was sent to Houston to force Mercier to put his energy behind Coors. “They told me I needed to tame him,” recalls Jameson.” Our first meeting was with a chain steakhouse of some sort. He told me that if I’d sit down and shut up, he’d make me a hero.” Jameson decided to learn from Mercier rather than coach him. The next year, Jameson was named the company’s national account salesman of the year.
Mercier retired in 1996, but three weeks later he was back in San Antonio and working for Lone Star. That stint lasted until 2007, when, at the age of 76, he set up a consulting firm. He took on only one client, and from then until his death he never stopped working to get Lone Star as much eye-level shelf space as possible. The beer business looked nothing like the world he’d first entered, but that fact never did slow him down. “Just a couple months before Willard died, we had a meeting with our tech people,” recalls Mike Diezi, one of Mercier’s last protégés. “The IT guy was showing us how to tether our phones to our computers so we could work email on them. Willard was having a hard time with that because he didn’t use an iPhone. The IT guy said, ‘How can you sell beer without an iPhone?’ And Willard said, ‘Son, I’ve been in the beer business a long time, and I never saw a computer sell one case of beer.” –John Spong