Harvey R. Chaplin, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Southern Wine and Spirits of America, was born in 1929 in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York. He attended grade school at P.S. 156, then junior high school at P.S. 252. By 1946, the year he graduated from Brooklyn's Boys High School, he had already begun his career in the wine and spirits industry, having landed a part-time position in the mailroom at Schenley Industries, whose offices were then located in Manhattan. (At that time Schenley was a leading distilled spirits marketer as well as the American importer of Dewar's White Label Scotch).
Mr. Chaplin quips that his "college education" was earned at Schenley, as he worked his way up from the mailroom to become assistant director of marketing at the company. Mr. Chaplin says that his "graduate school" degree came from his work as a distributor in upstate New York from 1961 to 1968, where he ran wholesale operations in Buffalo, Rochester, and Albany. In 1969, Mr. Chaplin joined Southern Wine and Spirits of America, along with other founding executives. Prior to becoming its Chairman and CEO in 1994, Mr. Chaplin served in numerous senior executive roles running day-to-day operations of the company from 1969 to 1993.
Mr. Chaplin recalls that his very first critical challenge at Southern Wine and Spirits was to "straighten out" the company's newly acquired Southern California distributorship. He remarks, "The most important thing I did was to change the corporate business philosophy there. It was not exactly profitable when I arrived, and it had to be fixed from the bottom up. I spent two months reorganizing it; we brought in brand new people and we focused on improving our relationships with suppliers. And once we straightened out Southern California, we were able to expand to the north, years later."
In particular, Mr. Chaplin is known for his laser-like focus on supplier concerns. He says, "My philosophy has been one of cooperation between the two tiers of our industry, because I believe we both need each other for our industry's progress."
Mr. Chaplin shares credit for the success Southern Wine and Spirits of America has become in the intervening decades. For example, Chaplin says the company's first comptroller, Herbert Joseph, played a critical role in the company's early success. Mr. Chaplin is equally unstinting in his praise of Jay Weiss, one of the Company’s founders who passed away in 2004, and Mel Dick, who is the Company’s Senior Vice President and President of the Wine Division. He says, "Jay and Mel are some of the most notable wine and spirits executives in the U.S.A, and their strength is with people."
Harvey Chaplin is also immensely proud of his son Wayne Chaplin and notes his business and civic accomplishments, "Wayne is the modern COO, a lawyer, an accounting major, he is computer literate, and I am just the opposite. He is the successor; he is it."
The importance of Mr. Chaplin's formative experience in California, his almost obsessive focus on pleasing both customers and suppliers, his obvious pride in his son, Wayne, and his relentless personal drive to expand the company's size and reach all turn out to be genuine Chaplin character traits. Of his strong competitive streak, Harvey Chaplin says, "Southern Wine and Spirits of America is always looking for expansion. Only when it makes sense will we look at a new market seriously."