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In Good Spirits

Eldien leading 300-year old distillery that produces Ketel One Vodka

Bill Eldien

From The Ichabod - Spring 2020

Running a 300-year-old business is no easy feat. It takes passion, commitment and creativity – and for Bill Eldien, b ed ’71, personal enjoyment of the product he’s selling. As CEO and president of Nolet Spirits USA, a family-owned distillery founded in Holland in 1691, Eldien still remembers the time he tried Nolet’s Ketel One Vodka on a whim in 1992. It was love at first sip.

“I found Ketel One in a store in Northern California,” Eldien said. “I went home and tasted it, and I said, ‘This is the best-tasting vodka I’ve ever had. It’s so smooth.’ I convinced the family to let us sell the brand at the distributor I was running, and that’s how I developed a relationship with the family.”

Despite being an education major, Eldien has spent his entire career in sales. He worked at a Topeka men’s clothing store in high school and college, and one of his regular customers offered him a job as a sales representative at Carnation Foods. After working his way up to become the company’s youngest regional manager, he moved on to the wine and spirits industry, and in 1986, he accepted a position at Young’s Market Company, a wholesale distributor of wines, liquors and other beverages.

Eldien was senior vice president at Young’s, supervising all sales and marketing operations in California and Hawaii, when he took that first fortuitous sip of Ketel One. By 1996, he was working for Nolet, and as he got to know the 10th generation of the Nolet family, he realized he appreciated their refined approach to marketing and sales as much as their superior product.

“Most people with brands want to sell as much as they can as fast as they can,” Eldien said. “(Distillery owner Carolus Nolet) had a different approach. He said something that stuck with me: ‘I treat my Ketel One like it’s one of my children.’ He said children take time to build and grow. They’re in diapers, and then they start to walk and they start to develop a personality. He said his family has been in business for 300 years, and he is in no hurry. So, I came up with the idea to sell Ketel One like a fine wine.”

By focusing their efforts on upscale bars and restaurants, Eldien and his team were able to build a solid following for Ketel One largely through word of mouth. They conducted staff trainings and did taste tests, encouraging bartenders and servers to recommend their product for martinis and other mixed drinks.

“I didn’t worry about what other brands were doing,” Eldien said. “We just did what we thought was best, keeping the philosophy that this was a child. We would let it grow up. We didn’t have to sell 100,000 cases tomorrow. It was about maintaining an image – image was everything.”

The approach has worked. The Nolet distillery in Holland now produces more than 3 million cases of spirits each year. During his 24-year tenure as CEO and president, Eldien has also seen consumers’ drinking habits change in line with health-conscious trends. Because Nolet saw great success with its gin – which is flavored with peaches, raspberries and Turkish rose petals – the company decided to make a line of vodkas with similar flavors. Launched in 2018, Ketel One Botanicals are low in calories, contain less alcohol than traditional spirits and have no sugar, gluten or GMOs.

“We’re seeing a change in people’s habits – what they drink, why they drink,” Eldien said. “To stay in business for another hundred years we have to consider what the consumer is looking for. The family is not one that sets back on their laurels. They’re constantly challenging themselves and looking for what they can do better.”

In addition to the Nolet family, Eldien cites mentors in many organizations who have contributed to his success, starting with his time at Washburn. Eldien’s longtime friend Marsha Oliver, bba ’74, said she was not surprised by the evolution of his career.

“He is a natural salesman,” said Oliver, who attended an event Eldien hosted for Washburn alumni in Southern California last year. “He is friendly and kind, and his personality lends itself to success in that profession.”

While Eldien was at Washburn, he also saw the community come together in an impressive way following the 1966 tornado that destroyed a lot of the campus. Witnessing the University’s resilience, he said, set a positive stage for his college experience and paved the way for a career where he believes other people are his most valuable asset.

“I saw the people of the campus rally around each other to keep us in school that year,” he said. “To see the devastation of that tornado and the rally of people to build back up a great University was pretty amazing.”

Spring 2020 Alumni Mag

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. Read the 2019-20 spring edition online and look for it in mailboxes in May.

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