Doll Distributing: A Legacy of Success in the Heart of Iowa

Jan 29, 2024

Doll Distributing: A Legacy of Success in the Heart of Iowa

By Katie Kreis-Voigt


For over half a century, Doll Distributing has been an integral part of Iowa's business landscape. As the company prepares to travel to Ames for the Iowa Family Business Conference on Nov. 2, it's an excellent time to reflect on their remarkable journey and enduring legacy.

Merlin and Edith Doll started Doll Distributing after a series of unfortunate events. When Merlin was let go from his job at a brewery on Christmas Eve of 1965, they sold their family home to buy a beer distributorship. A couple of years later, the family purchased a second in Council Bluffs, staking their claim in Iowa.

As the business expanded, the Doll family knew it was important to preserve their family legacy throughout the years.  They understood that succession planning was critical to ensure that the company, now headquartered in Des Moines, continues to maintain growth and stability. Doll Distributing is in the process of transitioning from the second-generation to the third-generation

“When my dad sold the business, he just walked out,” said Mark, a member of the second generation. “It was abrupt and we had to learn a lot on our own. With Lauren and the rest of our third generation–Andrew, Gus and George–it’s been different. They’re all interacting well, communicating, and running the business together.”

Over the years, Doll Distributing evolved into a leading distributor of beer, wine, alcohol and non-alcoholic beverages in the Midwest, growing to 95 suppliers and covering over 2,000 accounts. However, the company's success extends beyond its impressive portfolio. It's rooted in their core mission: Building Brands. Building Relationships.

This commitment to continuity and innovation is a central theme at the Iowa Family Business Conference. There, family businesses gather to share their experiences, learn from experts, and network with peers.

The third annual conference, hosted at Ag Leader Technology by the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) Family Business Center, offers a unique opportunity for Doll Distributing and other family-owned businesses to connect, learn, and grow together. The conference offers discussions on succession planning, leadership development, and governance.

One of the key features of the conference is the sharing of real-life experiences. The keynote presentation will be a prime example, featuring Jane Blain Gilbertson, the CEO and sole owner of Blain’s Farm & Fleet. Blain's is a multigenerational family business out of Janesville, Wisconsin. Jane will speak alongside her daughter, Sarah Gilbertson, who serves as Customer Relationship Marketing Specialist at Blain’s.

“You learn from what other people experience,” said Lauren, one of four third-generation family members involved in the business. “The more we learn from other families can only help us make ourselves better.”

Participants will also have the chance to tour host site Ag Leader Technology, a family business that manufactures precision ag equipment. Al Myers, founder and CEO, and his son Mike Myers, Vice President, will lead tours and share their family’s story.

“You’re the place we go to find what’s happening in the industry,” said Mark of the UNI Family Business Center. “It’s shocking how open your speakers are about their experiences. It is immeasurable to a family business like ours to have that access.”

A family's involvement in the Iowa Family Business Conference benefits their business and contributes to the prosperity of the larger family business community in the Midwest.

“Iowa is largely made up of family-owned businesses,” said Katie Kreis-Voigt, communications and marketing coordinator at the UNI Family Business Center. “The conference is part of our unique programming that offers peer learning, education and resources focused on the family side of family business.”

Participating in the Iowa Family Business Conference shows a family's commitment to learning, growth, and the preservation of their legacy. As they continue to navigate the challenges and opportunities of the family business landscape, Doll Distributing is an inspiration to family businesses everywhere.

This article was originally published in the October 13, 2023 edition of the Business Record.