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April 2003

The Vukelic Family -
75 Years of Steady Growth

by Joseph H. RADDER

Seventy-five years ago, Stephen L. Vukelic decided that prohibition-weary Western New Yorkers needed a better legal way to quench their thirst, and so he started bottling soft drinks in his native Lackawanna. At age 28, he selected the catchy name Try-It Bottling Works, a name that has meant quality and good service ever since.

Today, Try-It Distributing is a huge beverage firm—exclusive Western New York distributors of Budweiser beer and related Anheuser-Busch products since 1946 and a major distributor for Labatt of Canada since 1949. Try-It’s headquarters is a massive 140,000 square foot building on Walden Avenue in Lancaster housing the company’s warehouse and offices.

Gene Vukelic is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Company. His five sons are like a strong offensive line for the veteran “quarterback”. Paul is President and Chief Operating Officer, Jeff is Executive Vice President, Tim is Vice President of Sales and Support Systems, Peter is Vice President Premium and High End Products, and Matthew, the youngest member of the family, is a Service Supervisor.

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Top row, left to right: Paul, Tim, Gene and Jeff.
Bottom row, left to right: Matt, Gene’s wife Carole and Peter.

It doesn’t take long for the visitor to sense that this is a firm built on family values. It all started with Gene’s grandparents who operated a boarding house for Bethlehem Steel workers, then a grocery store and eventually a tavern on Simon Avenue in Lackawanna. “We grew up over the tavern”, Gene says, reminding us of the play with that title.

“My grandparents were Croatian,” he said. “They came to the United States when my father, Stephen, was six years old.” He’s proud to say “We grew up in the shadow of Our Lady of Victory Basilica.” Gene was seven years old when the Basilica’s famous founder, Father Baker, died.

“My Dad worked wherever he could, at the steel plant and other jobs. But he was an entrepreneur at heart. So eventually he opened the Try-It Bottling Works in a small building in Lackawanna with one truck. He also had a restaurant nearby called The Mohawk Grille. My father only finished the sixth grade,” Gene says, “but he loved to study words and eventually became a wordsmith. When you’d sit and talk to him you’d think you were talking to a Philadelphia lawyer.” The senior Vukelic then became active in politics, twice campaigning for Mayor of Lackawanna and he was a Republican state committeeman for many years. Later he was appointed Executive Secretary of the Erie County Water Authority and eventually became its Chairman. When prohibition was repealed in 1933 he expanded Try-It into the beer business and became the distributor for Phoenix Beer, Schreiber’s Manru and other minor brands. This, of course was the beginning of Try-It Distributing as it exists today. They were appointed a Budweiser distributor for Western New York in 1946, and that’s when Try-It’s rapid growth began.

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Left to right: Stephen Vukelic and August Busch, Jr.
from Anheuser-Busch.

Gene Vukelic went to elementary school in Lackawanna, and then to Canisius High School. He then attended LeMoyne College in Syracuse.

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Stephen Vukelic (on the left) and Gene’s mother Katherine (lady on the left).

During summer vacations he would work for Try-It, then in its embryo stages.

Gene has two brothers and a sister. Both of his brothers, Steve and Jack, had equity in Try-It Distributing but sold their interest to Gene when they retired. His sister, Paula Storey, is a Guidance Counselor at Nardin Academy. Dave Storey, Paula’s husband, is a Member of Try-It’s management team.

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From top to bottom: Gene Vukelic, his brother Jack,
Howard Oliver and Gene’s father Stephen.

Indeed Try-It Distributing, huge though it may be, is still a family business. “I have three nephews working here,” Gene is proud to say, “along with five sons in the business.” Indeed the Canisius College Center for Entrepreneurship selected Try-It recently for a Family Business of the Year award.

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Gene at Try-It Distributing riding on the Budweiser Clydesdale Wagon.

Paul, President and Chief Operating Officer, is married to Amy Vossen. They have four children and live in Buffalo. Tim, VP Sales Support Systems, is married to Shelby Deck. They have one child and live in East Aurora. Jeff, Executive Vice President, is married to Elaine Bruno. They have two children and live in Williamsville. Peter, Vice President Premium and High End products, was recently voted as Buffalo’s #1 bachelor on Channel 7. He lives in Buffalo. Matt, Service Supervisor, is married to Heather Daley. They live in Hamburg and are expecting their first child.

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Paul Vukelic and family.
Top row, left to right: wife Amy, son Gregory, and Paul.
Bottom row, left to right: children Christopher, Emma and Erin.

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Tim Vukelic and family.
From left to right: wife Shelby Deck, son Maytham and Tim.
Jeff Vukelic and family.
From left to right: wife Elaine, daughter Olivia, Jeff and son Jeffrey.

Gene Vukelic and Carole Rose were married in 1958. In addition to the five sons they also have two daughters. Mary Ellen Sullivan lives in Cincinnati with her husband Jim and four children. Suzanne Mahoney lives in Buffalo with her husband, Dr. Tim Mahoney, and their five children.

Gene had gone to work for General Motors after being honorably discharged from the Marine Corps, where he served as an instructor with the 3rd Marine Division. . He then worked for Cottrell Bus Service and Sales. “Joe Cottrell was probably one of the biggest influences in my life”, Gene remembers. “He is a wonderful man and was a great mentor. He was the only CEO who started every meeting with a prayer.”

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Peter Vukelic - voted Buffalo’s #1 Bachelor.

When he was working for Cottrell, Gene’s dad asked him to come in and take over the business. It was still small, with only ten to twelve employees, compared to over 200 today. “We went through a lot of adversity—but adversity is a great teacher.”

Since 1960 the Company has made seven acquisitions and “we continue to be on the acquisition trail” Vukelic is pleased to say.

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Matt and his wife Heather are expecting their first child.

The Try-It philosophy considers all employees to be stakeholders—and community service is fundamental to the Vukelic family. The company advances education about responsible consumption of alcohol with programs in area schools and participation in media messages of moderation. Try-It is a major supporter of organizations and charities benefiting children. Gene and several other Try-It executives serve on numerous community boards and committees.

The Company is also a proud sponsor of numerous community events such as The Taste of Buffalo, Thursdays in the Square and the Erie County Fair.

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Mary Ellen Sullivan’s (Vukelic) family.
Left to right: husband Jim, children Laura, Brian, Caroline,
Andrew and Mary Ellen.

Gene is convinced there are two requirements for success “One, you have to work hard, that’s a given—and two, you have to pay attention to the details. If you do those two things right, they will really get you where you want to go. Also, the old adage applies, being in the right place at the right time. But you have to know you’re there.”

Surprisingly, Gene Vukelic does find time for recreation, especially golf and fishing. He loves to go fishing with his sons. His favorite fish story is about his son, Peter, who caught a fifty-two pound lake trout in western Canada, breaking a twenty-seven year record.

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Suzanne Mahoney’s (Vukelic) family.
Top row, left to right: daughter Molly, husband Tim and Suzanne.
Bottom row, left to right: children Matthew, Timmy, Colleen
and Bridget

Future plans? Gene is bullish about expansion of the business in Erie and Niagara counties and continuing to be a good corporate citizen. From where we sit, future success for the Vukelic family and Try-It Distributing are assured primarily because they care about people.

Joseph H. Radder is a freelance writer.


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