As a fixture in New York City’s East Village — and Greenwich Village, previously — Astor Wines & Spirits has served up premium bottles to customers since 1946. Current president Andy Fisher has led the business his late father bought in 1968 for some five decades. Along with chief operating officer and brother Rob Fisher, the siblings’ vision for Astor grew from a retail store into an online platform and highly successful New York icon.
Astor enters a new era this year as ownership passes from the Fisher family. In a social media post last week, the store announced that the company had been sold through an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP).
Per the terms of the ESOP, the company’s 75 or so employees will receive ownership of the company and profits according to their salary level. Profits from those stocks will contribute to their retirement plan at no additional cost to the employee.
In a recent interview with VinePair, Fisher shared insight into the September sale and looked back on the highlights of his time at the family business.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
1. What first sparked conversations about an ESOP sale?
My brother and I — I’m 73 and he’s 68. He said to me, “We don’t have a succession plan,” and that seemed to us to be pretty irresponsible. We looked at a number of possibilities [but] there generally are two: You find a buyer, or you do an ESOP. We did a feasibility study on an ESOP, and got to know it better. There were things about it that really resonated with us.
We had three goals: One was, when you’re selling a business, you want to be paid for the business that you’re exiting. The second is the preservation of Astor. I’ve been at this for 50 years, and I’m proud of it and the people within the business. The third thing we wanted to accomplish is making sure the people who have been so instrumental in building the business were rewarded for that.
2. What might this look like for employees?
That’s a very good question. An ESOP is a retirement plan, and it’s overseen by the Department of Labor. Think of it like a 401(k). The Department of Labor has an interest in making sure everything is done to make the retirement plan successful. There are requirements and guide rails in place to ensure that.
Each year, every employee is issued stock. There’s a formula for how many and the value of shares that are distributed to everybody. It’s proportional to their salary and compensation. So a person who earns a little bit more gets a bit more shares. There’s also caps here — it’s, of course, about fairness.
3. Have you been able to chat with those employees about how the sale might impact them?
We worked with a team of about a half a dozen people before the deal was completed. The transition of management of the business is part of the ESOP. It’s not required, but Rob and I felt the sooner we got started, the better.
We’d been having meetings for several months, prior to the deal being finalized. When it was finalized, we announced it to our department heads last Friday. From there, we went around the store and did a series of stand-up meetings so we had a chance to speak with everybody about the high points. And the high points were: “We sold the business, and we’ve sold it to you.”
4. Contributing to a 401(k) retirement plan, especially in this economy, can be stressful for employees. The ESOP contributions to retirement must be a bit of a relief?
It doesn’t change the 401(k), either! The 401(k) will still be in place, and there will be employee matches for their contributions. The stock in the ESOP comes at no cost to them, and it can be substantial.
5. Looking back on Astor Wines’ growth and the legacy you’d like to leave, what moment are you most proud of?
I’m proudest of our relationship with our associates. It’s not just the people at the top who made it happen. It’s the people throughout who make it happen, and you build relationships with these people. I’m really proud of Astor’s culture — people respect each other and work well together.