Can the DABC become a 21st-century business? Here’s how Utah’s new liquor boss aims to do it.

Tiffany Clason talks about the future of the alcohol agency — including customer service, special ordering and employee pay.

Tiffany Clason’s first lessons about the retail world came as a youngster, accompanying her father, a senior executive of a Fortune 500 beverage company, on early-morning store visits before school.

While her dad was troubleshooting problems with employees and managers, young Tiffany would ride underneath the shopping cart with a doughnut or carton of chocolate milk in hand. Sometimes, she’d hang out in a warehouse and help the forklift operators move pallets.

While workplace safety experts would likely disapprove of these educational forays, they were a model for Clason — the new executive director of the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control — about how effective leaders work.

“They shouldn’t be afraid to get out of the C-suite, roll their sleeves up, and make sure they are connected with even the most ground-level operations and employees,” Clason told Utah senators during her confirmation hearing. “After all, that tends to be what impacts customers most.”

Those skills and more are what the Louisiana native will need to lead the state agency that generates half a billion dollars in annual revenue, operates nearly 50 retail stores, employs thousands of clerks and warehouse workers, and regulates Utah’s restaurants and bars.

Former U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the Louisiana Republican whom Clason worked for before coming to Utah, may have said it best during the confirmation hearing when he joked: “I’m here to help you answer a question which has no doubt crossed your mind. Do we really want to have a Louisianian in charge of alcohol policy in Utah?

“I’m here to reassure you, that if that person is Tiffany Clasen, you absolutely do,” he said. “She was equally at ease in a Fortune 500 setting and a small-business discussion, as [well as] talking to farmers.”

Clason said being selected by Gov. Spencer Cox to lead the DABC is a dream job, combining her public service, government and business experience with her passion for the food and beverage industry. Clason, who does drink alcoholic beverages, replaced Sal Petilos. He retired earlier this year.

While Clason was on Vitter’s staff, Louisiana was trying to recover from Hurricane Katrina and then later was dealt other economic blows with Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and a government shutdown.

“I developed thick skin,” she said, “and cut my teeth on crisis management.”

She will need those tough negotiation skills at the DABC as she navigates between consumers, many of whom believe the state should get out of the liquor business — or at least allow 21st-century conveniences like online ordering and pickup — and Utah lawmakers, most of whom, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, do not drink alcohol.

In addition, Clason concedes, many of their constituents view alcohol as a “vice,” making it difficult at times for DABC brass and employees.

Earlier in her career, Clason worked for La Brea Bakery in London, where she helped launch the company’s high-end artisan breads and helped it expand to more than 300 outlets across the United Kingdom.

When she moved to Utah more than seven years ago, she worked for Republican Gov. Gary Herbert’s office and then later for Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams.

On a recent episode of “Utah Booze News,” produced by The Salt Lake Tribune and FOX 13, Clason addressed various topics facing the DABC from customer service and special ordering to employee pay and legislative funding. Here’s a snapshot of the Q&A conversation, with comments edited for space and clarity.

On making the DABC business-friendly

We’re in the process of surveying a lot of our stakeholders in various industries to ask, “How can we better communicate with you and how can you communicate with us so that we better understand what your current obstacles are or what they might be?”

Outside of improving our communications, one of the things that I’ve noticed is we’re not paperless. If you’re a licensee or if you’re a community member or organization who’s applying for, let’s say, a single event permit for a festival — it’s a very paper-heavy process, and it requires a lot of labor. You’re getting on the computer, printing the form, filling it out. And then they’re getting that information back to us. And there’s no way to make a digital payment at all. So they’re sending in money or a check. That’s, internally, a ton of time and inefficiency on our end.

I guess what I’m trying to communicate is one of the easiest things that we can do is make investments in our information technology infrastructure so that we can digitize all these various applications to make it super easy for licensees to get on the computer, click a few buttons, apply for their licenses, pay for their licenses or renew their licenses. And that’s just one way where I think we could be more business-friendly, more business centric and quite frankly, just be in the 21st century.

On improving the special order process

Another place we can innovate, related to customer service, is with our special order program. Prior to this role, I attempted to make a special order and found it so unpleasant that I just gave up. You know, that’s a sad thing because, clearly, responsible people want their product and to enjoy it responsibly. It’s also a sad thing when I think about it from the state’s perspective. Because when we look at wanting to have a department that’s operating in a sound business manner and using sound business practices, we’re looking at profitability. That’s a missed opportunity and it’s a horrible customer service experience.

On curbside pickup at liquor stores

We’ve seen with the pandemic that everyone has definitely embraced shopping in that way. But the Legislature is also being very wise to look at the other control states that immediately went down this route. We have the benefit of being able to study and evaluate what worked well, and what didn’t work well. And should they decide that they’re comfortable with this moving forward, we’ll have the benefit of learning from their mistakes.

On funding from the Legislature

The sorts of programs that I’m looking at, most of them require funding. I do think, though, the support is there from the Legislature. One of the things that was great to experience this legislative session was even our legislators who are not consumers — and have never been in one of our retail stores— absolutely feel like they understand the benefits that the DABC brings in terms of the revenue it generates and, therefore, the programs that it’s able to fund.

On employee raises

What we are going to see this summer is the 3% cost-of-living adjustment that all state employees received. We will also have a little over $1.9 million that was in the governor’s original request because he was prioritizing state pay and specifically the DABC. So we will see that money put toward making those wage adjustments. We have analysts working on crunching these numbers now

The faster we get our retail and warehouse employees, that critical point delivery of service, up to those market median wages — where we can be truly competitive with our private-sector folks — is going to be really instrumental in addressing the culture, addressing our turnover and getting better service to our our customers.

Our employees need to be able to pay their bills. They need to be able to put food on the table and take care of all of their needs. However, if we want to retain our employees, we also have a responsibility to our culture.

How are we developing that workforce pipeline from the ground up? Are we helping people feel excited about our mission and what we do? Or do they just show up to work and they’re embarrassed about what they do? Because, you know, we sell a vice, and that’s embarrassing and no one likes us.

That’s a thing of the past. I want us to be excited about our mission. I want us to be proud of our mission. I want us to have an organizational pride. It will be a multiyear sort of approach, but I’m hoping that we’re going to see our retention numbers go up with each new thing that we deploy to address our work culture.