Betty Buck, at the time 28-years-old and a mother of three, was the only woman attending a training session at the Miller Brewing Co. headquarters in Milwaukee. A man whose assigned seat was next to Betty’s demanded to sit elsewhere. From his new position across the room he stood up and shouted, “She shouldn’t be here! She should be home, pregnant and in the kitchen!” That evening when Betty went back to her hotel room she found wall-to-wall roses courtesy of Miller. “I had never seen so many flowers in my life,” Buck recalls laughing. “I even went out and bought a camera to take a picture.”
Betty Buck in her office with daughter Erin. “My two daughters work for me full time and my two boys have no interest in the business,” says Buck. Erin and her sister Kelly started working for Buck after college, cleaning and repackaging broken bottles. Both have had numerous scars on their legs and arms to show for it. Erin just took on the Eastern Shore for Buck, even driving tractor-trailers.
There are many enterprises long considered boy’s businesses that can no longer be regarded as such. Beer is not one of those. But that is certainly not stopping Betty Buck, president and owner of Buck Distributing Co. and the first female chairman of the National Beer Wholesalers Association and the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. Founded in 1946 by her father Irwin, Buck distributes beer to Maryland’s five southern counties. “My father started with one beer truck in Upper Marlboro,” Buck tells us in their cavernous warehouse. They acquired beer giant Miller as a customer in 1952 and today represent 70 different breweries from all over the world. “Our market has changed so much with increased diversity in the communities. Now we import El Salvadorian beer, Mexican beer, other beer you have never heard of, and it’s flying off the shelves.”
Buck in the company’s warehouse with employee Benny Wilkins. Benny has been with Buck close to 30 years.
“When I was little I didn’t play with Barbies, I played warehouse.” Betty, who started helping out in the warehouse at the age of 5, once dreamed of being a Rockette, but at 5’3” that got ruled out pretty quickly. After a few years at the National Association of Manufacturers in DC, Betty came to Buck to help her father computerize the company. Two years shy of 30, she took over the well-established company. “I have an older brother,” says Buck, “but my dad decided that I had the heart and soul to do it.” Heart and soul was not good enough for Miller, which required Betty to participate in a 6-month training course. “The company had never approved a 28-year-old woman before. It was the first time it was mandatory for a distribution head to attend the course.” “Would a woman be required to do it today?” we ask Betty. “Absolutely not.” Though she can walk into a bar and single-handedly build an entire draft system thanks to that course.
One year after taking over the company, Betty lost her father. Three months later, in October of ’86, Betty was diagnosed with a rare form of uterine and cervical cancer. The doctors had discovered 18 tumors. “I had a total hysterectomy,” says Buck. “They took part of my liver, my stomach. If I didn’t need it to survive, they took it.” The doctors gave Betty six months to live. 20 years later, she continues to make waves at Buck when she is not burning rubber on the mean streets of Maryland.
Buck in front of one of her Harleys that sits in the company’s lobby. “I always tell people, “Do it now.” You don’t know how long you’ll have, so I live everyday like it’s the last.” The license plate of Betty’s other bike just says “beer.” Yes, she knows that the cops love that one.
“Being adopted, I always felt very lucky to be where I was when I was,” says Betty. Her parents adopted her and her brother when they were 45-years-old. When she was diagnosed with cancer the doctors asked if it was in the family and she had no knowledge of her medical history. When Betty decided to adopt a son, Timmy, she made sure to obtain his full family history. “I didn’t want him to go through what I did,” says Buck, with a remarkable joie de vivre.
Today 13 women run distributing companies for Miller out of the 515 around the country. If Betty’s daughters choose to run the business after she steps down, it will be the first daughter-to-daughter enterprise in the beer distribution world. Betty thinks there is a good chance it will happen, mentioning that daughter Kelly is still working 12-hour days despite being 7 months pregnant. In front of enough beer to have all of Maryland smiling, Betty jokes with one of her longtime employees. “It’s as my daughter Erin says, if you can’t have fun working in beer, you need to get a life.”