It's Almost Never "Just Business" In the Alcohol Industry
What Michael Corleone has to teach us about the workings of the alcohol biz
Early on in the film The Godfather, Michael tells his young girlfriend, Kay, the story of how his father was able to force a band leader to dissolve the personal service contract he had with Johnny Fontaine, a young, talented singer who also happened to be Vito Corleone’s Godson. Michael explains to a blank-faced Kay that his father took the hulking Lucca Brazzi to his meeting with the band leader and Lucca held a gun to his head while Vito explains that either the band leader’s signature or brains will be on the dissolution of services contract.
Upon finishing the story, Michael immediately explains to Kay, “That’s my family. That’s not me.”
Kay’s look is one of disbelief. But in fact, we are given no reason to believe Michael isn’t telling the truth. Despite his coming dissent into the “family business”. At this moment Michael appears to have no intention of living a life of crime.
Yet, not long after this exchange, around Christmas time, Michael’s father is shot in an assassination attempt and Michael transforms almost immediately into the most ardent defender of the family with his first act being the murder of a police chief and a crime boss. It’s a miraculous turnaround that most students of the film attribute to Micheal’s innate belief in Family and the need to love and defend family first despite his absence from involvement in the Corleone’s particular brand of family business. I attribute it to the only significant problem with the plot of this brilliant film.
People generally don’t sell out their deepest principles without some strong form of motivation, which is absent from Michael’s character arc to this point in the film.
I’ve been thinking about this plot move in my favorite movie because here at the National Conference of State Liquor Administrators—attended by regulators, industry attorneys, industry lobbyists, and industry compliance professionals—I’ve had it explained to me or heard others declare on a variety of occasions that, “it’s not personal, it’s only business”; another famous quote from The Godfather.
What’s almost always being described as “only business” is an act of screwing someone or some group over for the sake of self or group aggrandizement. I understand this perspective. I’ve explained my own actions on occasion with this plea to not take what I’ve done personally.
But when I step back and engage in a bit of self-reflection I see clearly that some of the actions I’ve taken, while done in the service of business and clients, are also quite a personal assault and could properly be taken personally.
Part of this reality is explained in an earlier installment of this newsletter in which I admit I just “want to beat them”. But I’m also quite positive that my own ethical failures that lead me to take certain actions at least in part for personal reasons are not unusual. That is to say, I think those other folks that declare “it’s not personal, it’s only business” are often lying.
Because of the way this industry is naturally and legally split into separate tiers, so many of the actions taken by industry participants are in fact taken AGAINST people in the other tiers or in opposition to an entire tier. This is particularly true in the realm of the lawmaking and regulatory wrangling that occurs more often in the alcohol industry than in nearly any other industry and often includes hypocrisy and lies, both of which I understand as a form of personal assaults, not business.
The common explanation that “it’s just business, it’s not personal” is really nothing more than proof that one can always choose to act politely when they insert and twist a knife.
And this brings us back to Michael Corleone.
When I’m in no mood to analyze the film and its storytelling and merely want to, once again, let this piece of art flow over me, I attribute Michael’s unexpected change of heart about the Family Business to the fact that Michael simply lacks any deep well of principles or ethics or empathy. This fatal deficit in his personality is what allows him to change his view of the world seemingly on a dime. But it’s also what allows him to declare, against all evidence, that he only wants to protect his family. It’s just words and convenient explanations for his own lack of morals, ethics and self-reflection.
Today at lunch at the conference, while sitting between two brilliant attorneys who both dwarf me in the smarts department, I listened to a man across the table from me explain that he and his beer company would oppose brewer direct-to-consumers shipments not for the bogus reasons that it would endanger minors or jeopardized tax collection, but because his company didn’t want to be the only one NOT doing it if it were allowed in a state. He explained he would be much more comfortable if no brewer could ship beer directly to consumers over state lines, but rather be forced to sell their products to consumers via retailers like they do.
His was such a pristine and unvarnished presentation of self-service and contempt for anyone but himself and his company that I was at first taken aback and unsure how to respond. I’m just not accustomed in this business to seeing a case made for a strict three-tier system that doesn’t include lies and hypocrisy.
The smart attorney to my right flashed me a quick glance and tilted their head as if to say, “what’s left to say!”
It was a true example of something actually being just business and not personal. I liked this guy. Not only was he honest and truthful, but polite, too. However, he could never run a mob family and he is completely ilequipped to successfully oppose an effort to extend direct shipping privileges to brewers.