That’s the Spirit
Oct 05, 2017 09:52AM ● Published by Dia
“What’ll it be?” Merilee Kick asked the Southlake Style team as we gathered around the well-stocked bar at her company’s headquarters in Carrollton. The North Texas entrepreneur and mom of two isn’t one for conventional meetings—or for following a conventional career path.
Kick has been a news anchor, a magazine editor and a teacher. She has managed a house-cleaning service, done voice-overs for radio and TV, and managed nonprofits. Along the way, she earned degrees in finance, economics and computer science, including an MBA to top it all off.
Now, she’s president of Southern Champion/BuzzBallz, a $20 million brand of pre-mixed cocktails and premium spirits. Kick founded the business in 2009 with a goal to revolutionize the world of mixed drinks. It’s not easy to kick through the glass ceiling of the male-dominated beverage industry, but the multitalented entrepreneur has succeeded—and she continues to blaze new trails in the global beverage market.
Southlake Style recruited Kick to be the keynote speaker at its second-annual women’s luncheon, “Flourishing in the Face of Failure,” October 13 at The Marq. During the summer, members of the Southlake Style team toured the Southern Champion/BuzzBallz distillery and warehouse, and chatted with Kick (over a few cocktails, of course) about success, setbacks and the power of perseverance.
An Intoxicating Idea
Kick has never been afraid to mix things up. One afternoon, while grading papers and sipping a cocktail by the pool, the former Plano West teacher and MBA student was distracted—not by the work, but by the glass. It seemed as if her libation could tumble into the pool or tip over at any moment.
That’s what sparked Kick’s idea for BuzzBallz. What if there was a way to serve ready-to-drink cocktails in unbreakable, floatable plastic containers? It would let people enjoy their favorite beverages anywhere—the pool, beach, campground. Kick explored the BuzzBallz concept in her MBA thesis project, and after graduation, she decided to go for it: She wanted to bring her idea to life.
“I remember one night making the decision I had to build this business for myself, and I couldn’t let it fail,” says Kick. “I was going to work myself to the bone to make it work, no matter what.”
To get her business off the ground, Kick needed about $300,000 in funding. She applied for Small Business Administration loans and tried credit unions all over the Metroplex, but she was repeatedly turned down. Nobody had confidence that a woman could succeed in the male-dominated beverage industry.
Kick’s luck changed when she met two individuals at Green Bank in Richardson. “I attribute [some of my success] to Fredda Morgan and Dave Thomas at Green Bank who took a chance and gave me my first SBA loan to get started,” Kick says.
With funding in place, Kick purchased equipment and transformed an old printing facility into a distillery and warehouse. As for the cocktails? Kick knew they had to be strong and good, like drinks she’d make at home.
Each colorful BuzzBallz sphere contains 100-percent juices and either rum, vodka or tequila. With names such as Strawberry Rum Job, Choc Tease and Stiff Lemonade that’s “stiffer than ever,” you might blush when popping the top on one. And that’s okay with Kick; BuzzBallz basks in boldness. (If you haven’t tried one yet, they’re available in about a dozen nearby stores including Scooter’s Superstore at Kimball and Highway 114, and Grapevine Beer and Wine.)
To bring BuzzBallz to market, Kick mailed thousands of letters to convenience stores and went store to store with a prototype. The first order shipped in 2010, and before long, sales were pouring in. Her first big celebratory moment was landing a Glazer’s distribution deal. “My first sale to Glazer’s for $75,000 was more than I made in a year as a teacher,” she says.
As BuzzBallz expanded beyond Texas (the brand is now sold in 40 states and in China), Kick quit teaching to focus on building the business. Some thought a woman wouldn’t make it in the beverage business, but Kick was having a ball with her success.
In Good Spirits
To Kick, it’s a great feeling to arrive at her company’s headquarters and see her team—which includes her two sons, Alex and Andrew—already at work. “I like seeing all the cars in the parking lot and knowing that I’m responsible for them. I like giving them the protection, insurance, free lunch and comforts they need to like their jobs,” she says. “It’s so much fun, too! I get to drink on the job and wear jeans every day. I get to work with my kids and good people, and that is really rewarding.”
The two-story BuzzBallz headquarters is top-of-the-line in every respect, from the state-of-the-art robotics equipment to a bar and mezzanine area that overlooks the whole operation. And, much like Kick, the space bubbles over with personality. Walls are vibrantly hued and windows are playfully set askew. The place almost has a Willy Wonka feel—only it churns out booze instead of candy.
“When you walk into our distillery, most people expect a dumpy little warehouse. Some people are surprised because they think just because I’m a woman I must be batching BuzzBallz in my kitchen at home,” says Kick. “It’s a world-class operation.”
BuzzBallz is just one line of Kick’s business—Southern Champion also produces BuzzBallz Chillers (a wine-based line), BuzzBallz Shooterz (ready-to-shoot drinks that include a shot glass with the bottle), plus a line of premium spirits.
The buzz just keeps building. Southern Champion has racked up a multitude of awards over the years, including six new medals at the International Wine & Spirits Competition over the summer. The recognition that stands out as particularly meaningful to Kick, though, is when BuzzBallz won at the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) convention in Las Vegas shortly after Kick launched the company.
“There was our little BuzzBall on display in a case as a Double Gold winner—something rarely won,” says Kick. “We also won in a blind taste test with all 50 judges saying we were number one. I screamed I was so shocked.”
At WSWA, Kick landed 15 state contracts. “It was then I knew we were going to make it,” she says. “My son Alex and I went to dinner that night to celebrate. I had goosebumps.”
Last year, the spotlight shone on Kick herself as a female entrepreneur—she was named one of Ernst & Young’s “Winning Women.” The national program recognizes dynamic women entrepreneurs with high-growth businesses.
So what did it take to grow BuzzBallz into a $20 million enterprise? There hasn’t been one path to profitability. “Great people who can do their job is the first part of the equation, but knowing what you want and knowing how to market and sell is the second part,” Kick says. “Communicating that vision regularly to customers is the third part.”
Kick also drew upon her life experiences to build the brand. The daughter of two schoolteachers, Kick had a modest upbringing and admits fear was a key motivator in growing the business. She knew what it was like to be poor, and she didn’t want to struggle again.
“My problem at first was believing in myself enough to do what I wanted to do. I was afraid I would go broke,” admits Kick. “I was afraid my husband would leave me and I’d be homeless. I was afraid I’d be poor and living under a bridge.”
But deep down, Kick knew she wouldn’t allow herself to fail. She’s too strong for that. “I’m from a long line of strong women. I like strong women,” she says. “I like women who have gotten over the fear of their husbands and who have the willpower to make success on their own. They will make friends and alliances. They will make money happen. They will make success happen.”
Kick recognizes that success is different for everybody. For her, success means living debt-free and taking care of her family by working at a job she finds challenging, fun and creatively stimulating. And, when she really thinks about, success also means having the freedom to spend time in the mountains, watch sunsets and sip wine with friends.
“When I started the business, I had no idea it could be this successful,” Kick says. “My long-term vision is to build a worldwide conglomerate beverage business.”
It takes a strong woman to take on the world, but Kick has just the spirit to succeed.
Southern Champion/BuzzBallz also produces a line of handcrafted spirits (XIII Kings vodka, Andrew John’s premium gin, Pelican Harbor rum and Crooked Fox blended bourbon) and a high-quality white wine, Closet Freak. When Merrilee Kick is sitting down to enjoy a cocktail (“This happens a lot,” she says), here’s what she’s drinking:
Andrew John’s gin and tonic with lime
XIII Kings vodka with cranberry or huckleberry
Crooked Fox bourbon with ginger ale (Fox on the Rocks)
Crooked Fox bourbon with cranberry (CranDaddy)
Meet Merrilee Kick at Southlake Style’s second-annual women’s luncheon, “Flourishing in the Face of Failure,” October 13 at The Marq. To get your ticket click here.