Holding BC’s Liquor

How CFO Roger Bissoondatt steers the British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch through regulatory hurdles while maintaining balance between the province’s $3 billion public and private alcohol industry

“When my wife initially saw an ad in the newspaper in 1990 for a finance position at the British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch [BCLDB], I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into the public sector. But British Columbia’s liquor distribution was interesting to me because it wasn’t a typical government role—it’s a retail and distribution business environment. I applied for the position and was brought into the branch as the chief auditor to revamp the department and help it refresh and change direction. I have been helping the branch navigate change now for the last 20 years.

British Columbia is the only province that has a public- and private-sector model for liquor distribution. Most of the provinces operate completely government-run liquor distribution services, and Alberta is all privatized. BC is split between private and public, so we always have to be balanced and take into consideration how any policy will affect both sectors. It is a big responsibility, considering that 10 percent of government employees work in this branch of government and we operate 197 stores of the more than 1,500 in the province.

There have been discussions between the private and public arms of the liquor business, and at times, the government has considered privatizing the industry. The government was very close to privatizing distribution of beverage alcohol a few years ago; however, the direction was altered at the 11th hour, after they struck a deal with the unions. Now the focus is working towards finding a balance so that the public and private sectors can coexist.

Recently, changes were made to smooth the playing field by creating one price for all alcohol sold to retailers. That means that whether the purchaser is a government-run store or private retail outlet, they all buy alcohol at a common wholesale price. This is a huge change. It came about after private outlets voiced concerns that the BCLDB’s stores had an unfair advantage, and in addition, the recent changes that allow government-run stores to have refrigeration and stay open on Sundays would have an adverse impact on their business. However, with the new pricing system, there’s more opportunity to compete fairly, and it removes the inconsistency in product pricing that caused disquiet in the industry.

OUTSIDE THE OFFICE

Roger Bissoondatt likes to get involved in community work, especially working with youth. “You see so much promise, initiative, and drive, even in the most disadvantaged young people,” he says. “I like figuring out what to do to help them pursue their dreams and make it a reality. It’s very rewarding when I can see people progress.”

I’ve managed to deal with the constant flux of regulations by being cognizant [of the fact] that if we’re going to do something, we have to look at the impact to the whole industry, not just our arm of government. Government takes an active role in overseeing alcohol beverage sales, and it affects so much more than the government’s portion of the industry each time a strategic move is considered. With most of my decisions, I have to take into consideration public policy, social responsibility, and the economic health of the industry.

I coach my direct reports to take the broad view of the industry and become problem-solvers themselves. I notice that employees often come to me asking, ‘How should we handle this situation?’ I push it back on them and ask them to bring forward options and recommendations. I talk them through a problem so they can get a different perspective and see the impact of each decision on the various stakeholders. I really want to help my employees succeed in their career and reach their maximum potential. When I hire someone, I don’t just look for an individual qualified for the position we’re looking to fill, but someone who can move on to the next level.

I find that people who have travelled quite a bit are much more adaptable than those who have not, because they have been exposed to different cultures and environments. I think my growing up in a very different culture, in the Caribbean, helps me view problems from a unique perspective. I joke with people about being in the alcohol beverage business. The family business my parents owned in Trinidad included a bar, and during university, when I was working in a bar, a client encouraged me to go into accounting. So all those experiences do add up, even if they seem unrelated. Now I’m working with alcohol again. It’s all come full circle.”