Ford Reiche, president of Dirigo Spirit, sees the state liquor contract as broken but fixable.

As co-founder and former president of Maine’s largest logistics company, Reiche is used to solving problems and handling details.

His new company, Dirigo Spirit, aims to bid on the new liquor contract against the incumbent Maine Beverage Co., which has held the 10-year state liquor contract since 2004, and other potential bidders who have yet to emerge publicly.

“There’s something that’s really broken here,” said Reiche, 58. “I have the experience and resources to help Maine solve the problem.”

The Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations is looking for a way to increase the amount of money the state collects from liquor sales, while lowering retail prices by $2 to $7 per bottle in an effort to make Maine more competitive with New Hampshire’s state-run liquor stores. The state also wants to pay higher commissions to state agency stores, according to Gerry Reid, the bureau’s director.

Reiche thinks Dirigo Spirit can be leaner, more efficient and cost the state less than Maine Beverage. He’s spent the past year surrounding himself with a team of 15 advisers and consultants to develop Dirigo and its plan for bidding on the liquor contract, prompted by discussions in the Legislature last year about the contract as a revenue source.

The state awarded the existing wholesale liquor contract at a time of fiscal crisis, when it needed help closing a $1.2 billion budget deficit. In 2004, Maine leased the 10-year contract to Maine Beverage Co. for $125 million. The fair market value of the contract was pegged at $378 million in a 2009 study done by Deloitte & Touche.

Maine Beverage has said it is interested in pursuing a renewal of the contract. The company’s president and chief executive, Dean Williams, declined to comment on the details of a possible extension, but said “under our stewardship we have made many operational improvements to this business and have significantly increased the value of the state’s asset by growing sales appreciably.”

Reid, the liquor bureau official, said he has been advised that another interested party will approach the state soon about the contract. Other prospective bidders have said they would like to be notified when the selection process gets underway, he said.

The state hopes to save time by bypassing the standard request-for-proposals process and negotiating directly with qualified bidders. There are about a half dozen firms in Maine with the ability to provide the needed services, Reid has said, so it’s clear Reiche will have competitors.

Reiche thinks his expertise in logistics — getting the right product to the right place at the right time — is a natural fit for the state liquor contract, which involves warehousing and distributing about 2,600 different products to 364 retail outlets around the state.

In 1989, Reiche co-founded Auburn-based Safe Handling, a rail-to-truck transportation logistics company that shipped and warehoused a billion pounds of products a year to customers like Country Kitchen and Poland Spring. When the company was sold to Salt Lake City-based Savage Services Corp. in 2009, Reiche insisted that terms of the contract preserve the employment of Safe Handling’s 100 employees.

“He worked very hard to pick the next owners,” said Peter Worrell, managing director and chief executive of The Bigelo Co. in Portsmouth, a mergers and acquisitions firm which advised on the sale of Safe Handling. “He’s really a thinker – not someone who makes decisions from a gut response. He agonizes over these things.”

Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said the liquor contract fits with Reiche’s background in transportation, distribution and logistics. “If the private sector can make a buck and the state still benefits – that’s Ford.”

Reiche said Safe Handling to improve the efficiency of product deliveries in Maine by integrating rail and truck transportation services.

He sees similarities in the inception of Dirigo Spirit.

“We know an awful lot about the contract and how to do this efficiently,” Reiche said. “We know how little money we can make and be profitable and stay in business.”

That approach differs from the current contract.

Maine Beverage, a venture of Martignetti Cos. of Massachusetts and New York private equity firm Lindsay Goldberg and Bessemer, gets a guaranteed annual profit margin of 36.8 percent based on sales of all liquor. Maine Beverage subcontracts with Pine State Trading of Augusta. Maine Beverage makes about $36 million a year in profits, before taxes and amortization of the lease payments. Its actual operating costs are about $7 million a year, according to Reid.

Reiche expects to take a different approach with his proposal, saying he envisions Dirigo Spirit as a “small company making small company profits,” with about 55 employees, all based in Maine.

Reiche, a history buff whose family has been in the state since the 1630’s, was trained as a lawyer but has spent the bulk of his career as an entrepreneur and philanthropist. He previously served on the board of The Nature Conservancy of Maine and as president of the group’s Caribbean program.

His political donations show he spreads his money among Republicans, Democrats and independents alike. He and his wife Karen, who live in Cumberland, gave the maximum amount of $750 each to Gov. Paul LePage in 2010. Reiche backed Matt Jacobson, who lost in the 2010 gubernatorial primary. This year, he gave $500 to independent Senate candidate Angus King. He’s also donated to Bruce Poliquin, who finished second in the Republican primary, and in 2008, he donated to Democrat Adam Cote, who lost.

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