Tracy Neal (left) received the GSM Alumni Association's 2014 Distinguished Achievement Award. Pictured with Dean Steven Currall."I like to think sideways, using my creativity, leadership and visionary skill set to grow others, lead teams through walls, astound customers, and shred competitors!"

Tracy Neal MBA 01 Brews Success

Over the past two decades, Tracy Neal MBA 01 has “bounced back and forth between the beer industry and the tech industry. Some of my job changes have been impulsive, others reactive and some just out of my control,” he admits. But there has been a clear and successful path to these job changes, which have resulted in a varied and rewarding career—one that has earned Neal the GSM Alumni Association’s 2014 Distinguished Achievement Award.

Neal started his career at Intel but realized back in 1998 that it wasn’t the right fit. “This was a hard conclusion,” he remembers. “I was involved in some really cool projects, it was a great company to work for, and my stock options doubled every 18 months. A friend who was headed to Wharton recommended that I also get my MBA. “He said, ‘You’ll be the only employee to quit a full-time job at Intel this year for full-time school’, and I think he was correct. In any case, it was the right advice at the right time for me. I enrolled at the Graduate School of Management the following year.”

After earning his MBA, Neal accepted “a great job with Hewlett-Packard. But five weeks after starting, I was a member of the first ever layoff class at HP.” With the 9/11 tragedy less than two weeks later, the landscape changed further. “September 11 had a severe impact on everybody in many different ways,” says Neal. “But for those of us who were unemployed or self-employed, it created unique challenges.”

Over the next decade-plus, Neal both engaged in entrepreneurial ventures and grew his experience in the beer industry, including six years as general manager for MillerCoors in Northern California and Hawaii.

“The most impactful advice I’ve received in the last 24 months was from a friend who quoted Mr. Miagi, from the movie The Karate Kid. I was waffling on what to do next, how to pursue being an entrepreneur while raising a family of six, and keeping my focus on the corporate track of guaranteed compensation. Rich reminded me: ‘Walk on right side of road, good. Walk on left side of road, good. Walk in middle of road, get squashed like grape’.”

Neal made his decision and in 2013 founded CPG Data LLC. The El Dorado Hills, Calif.–based company draws on his 17 years as a manufacturer’s rep for Coors and other mega-breweries to develop software that helps beer, wine and spirits distributors track in-store displays and incentives.

How does it feel to receive the Distinguished Achievement Award?

“On one hand it feels really good to be recognized. On the other, I know that there are so many distinguished GSM alumni who are equally as deserving of this recognition. To those, I’ll say that I’m accepting this award on behalf of all GSM alums, and I toast your successes. Also, I recognize those with families and some with tough family situations. It’s one thing to be successful in your career; it’s another to have a successful career while balancing intentional leadership in your home and in your community.

What are you passionate about in your work?

I’m very passionate about developing people. I love being a manager, and one of my strengths is that I stay disciplined to know the difference between a manager and an individual contributor. I get the greatest reward in growing people who work for me by giving them the vision, the direction, the tools to be successful—and then giving them the space to use these. 

As founder, president and CEO of CPG Data, I’m very passionate about execution. Execution takes discipline: it is the cornerstone of any successful consumer package goods sales organization. I was trained in my early years by some of the grandfathers of execution in beer, so it is in my DNA. In the beverage distribution industry you only have to do two or three things right. But you have to do them every day and every week for every product. And no matter how well you did last week, this week you have to start at square zero and do it again. 

Where is your career headed?

I love learning and teaching. For now I’m all in on CPG Data, and this venture will keep me busy for the next four to six years. On the backside of CPG Data there may be another venture or two—I always have my eyes and ears open to opportunity. But if you asked me to script out my career, I’d say that I’d like to become the go-to expert on execution systems management, incentives and gamification models for the beverage industry. I’d love to be a guest professor teaching business classes and using the myriad beer brand stories that I have to entertain and develop students. And lastly, I’m going to buy a boat dealership on Lake Tahoe and spend my retirement summers selling and servicing boats on one of the greatest lakes in the world.

How are you a game changer? Or—how are you making a positive impact in the world?

I’ve been called one of the youngest guys of the “old guy regime” from the original beer distributor industry. What that means is that I was hired and trained by the original beer guys in the early 90s. Back then business was conducted largely as it was in the preceding decades. Obviously innovation, process improvement and the long tail of brands are inevitable improvements to the industry. But when I was trained it was only about execution, execution and execution. We didn’t have time for fancy brands, new SKUs, special promotions with sports teams or crazy compensation packages. Being a beer guy back then was simple. One of the advantages I have over several others in the industry today is that I know what it means to be solely focused on execution. That separates me and CPG Data from others—the mindset and discipline towards the simple. I’m the “oldest” beer guy you’ll ever meet in his 40s, with a flare for innovation and technology.

How has your UC Davis MBA experience helped shape your success?

The MBA program taught me how to learn. I had very poor study habits as an undergraduate, and I was fairly content cruising through classes without investing in textbooks and getting Cs. The GSM, along with my five years of previous corporate experience, was the perfect combination for molding me into a “student.” The experiences in group collaboration, my relationships with the professors and the small community that encouraged risk taking helped me grow my passion for lifelong learning.

What is the most significant thing that’s happened to you since graduating?

The San Francisco Giants 2010 run to the World Championship was a pivotal point in my career. I was the general manager at MillerCoors for Northern California and Hawaii at the time, working with an amazing group of professionals at the Giants organization, led by Jason Pearl. I negotiated and executed a corporate partnership with the Giants in February 2010 that placed Coors Light on the scoreboard in center field. We continued to leverage the branding by designing and building the “Coors Light Silver Bullpen” seats and deck. We were way over budget, so before we began construction, I told the Giants and asked them if they just wanted the cash value of the project instead of having the “party deck” built. They said absolutely not, and from that point forward we were locked in and committed as partners in bringing a greater baseball experience to Giants fans. We attended the All-Star game together in 2010, celebrated the playoffs and World Series together, and even rode in the parade together. It was a very special relationship that I still cherish.

And I’m very proud of the Coors Light Silver Bullpen. It was my vision: I drew it up on a napkin, and now it’s there forever. My favorite thing to do at AT&T Park is to walk up to people sitting in those special seats, tap them on the shoulder and say: “How did you get these seats?” They turn around with a huge smile and say, “You’ll never believe it. I just went online and there they were, priced like every other seat! Isn’t this the best seat in the ballpark?” And I smile…. Who would have ever thought we could make baseball fans say that the best seat in any ballpark was in center field!

Your favorite GSM memory?

Access to the professors in a social setting. We had one professor who played soccer with us on an intramural team. Another hosted poker night. Yet another would join us for beers downtown. When you’re an undergrad, the professors are adults and you’re still kind of a kid. But what was really empowering and motivating about the GSM was when the professors took off their professor hats and interacted with us as members of the School’s community. To this day I still keep in touch with a few of my favorite professors.

How do you support and participate in the GSM now? Why is it important to support graduate business education?

It’s important to support the GSM because there are students there now—every year—who have made their commitment to the GSM based on our collective progress. They may not know you by name but there are there because of you. You’re connected and will always be connected to the GSM. I believe all the School’s graduates should be willing and eager to give back in service and financial support. I’m so proud of the growth and recognition that the School has received in recent years. Dean Currall has done a tremendous job building up the GSM as a world class business school!

Anything else you’d like to share?

Shelly and I have four wonderful boys, ages 12, 10, 7 and 3. Since I graduated in 2001 we’ve lived in Hawaii and now we’re back in El Dorado Hills. I’d love to attend more GSM events than I do, but with our days are filled with Little League, swim team, soccer, theater, basketball and, of course, school activities.