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  • Writer's pictureSherry

May 2012 S. Benjamins & Co Newsletter: Building The People Foundation For a Successful Future

Entrepreneurial family businesses are amazing. We hear a lot about their passionate leaders, intense competitiveness and incredible focus. In early January, I learned that the President of Jackson Family Enterprises was on CBS’s Undercover Boss show. It had been too long since I had talked with Joel Miller, a friend and admired HR leader, as well as a former Southern California resident who relocated to the Bay area two years ago to join Jackson Family Wines. Before you presume that working for the 8th largest winery in the country offers a relaxed Sonoma county ambiance with wine tastings when you want them, read on to learn more about the hard work, challenge and yes, fun in this growing organization.

I learned Joel had been an avid wine enthusiast since college days, so that when the Chief People Officer role at Jackson Fine Wines appeared two years ago, he explored and ultimately joined them. Those of you who know Joel may remember he was often known as the turn-around guy in Southern California with experience at companies such as Newegg, Guitar Center and Gateway to name a few. He is exceptionally good at helping companies grow through focusing on strategy, leadership and managed change.

Jackson Family Wines (JFW) encompasses about 30 major wine brands, including Kendall-Jackson, LaCrema, and Murphy-Goode. They are the leading higher-end (> $10/btl average price) producer with about 1,000 employees. Three years ago, JFW was not able to avoid cutbacks during the recession, and has only recently begun to re-staff. The visionary founder, Jess Jackson, was losing his battle to cancer and he named a new President (an 18-year veteran) to oversee the business. Morale was a major concern, and Joel saw the opportunity to work with this senior team to build the people foundation for a successful future. I asked Joel about these past two years.

What did you tackle first?

“I worked with the senior team to first define a strategic plan. It was more than just facilitating the typical SWOT analyses – we had to ensure that the vision, values and path to success of this incredible family legacy would be embraced by all our employees. Following the creation of our business plan, we held “road-shows” at town hall meetings in our various wineries and facilities across the company. Town halls are now standard for us. We share the state of the business, where we are going (our vision), and how we plan to get there (our strategy). Nothing particularly genius about this except for executing it well. Employee input makes a difference for us. It is a valuable part of our business conversation and planning.”

What served as the foundation for a “grow your own” people culture?

“We have a commitment to quality which is clearly seen in our brands and our products, so it was a natural extension to take this idea to our people plans. Our mission was simple as set forth by our founder, Jess Jackson, ‘Become the best damn wine company in the world.’ (Note – we cut out the damn to be politically correct, but I still like it). The company values of hard work, integrity and uncompromising quality drives our approach in developing and recognizing talent.”

What made your President go for “Undercover Boss” the TV show this past January?

“Our President, Rick Tigner, saw the benefits of sharing our dramatic story, one that reveals the amazing talent in this company and of telling a wonderful, iconic American success story. It meant taking risks, as there is no editorial control once we agreed to do the show. It was a wonderful learning experience that offered valuable internal insights and strong external exposure. Rick and the team are really happy they decided to go for it. We made sure to acknowledge the openness of our culture, value of this experience, and even hosted a celebration at the conclusion of filming.”

What is it like to be leading HR in the winery business?

Joel began by saying, “In many ways, ‘HR is HR.’ Many of the people challenges and strategies are the same, however, the agriculture business is another thing altogether. It is subject to dynamics of mother nature that are not to be controlled….so it has a less predictable aspect to it. That said, the distribution systems stress tight margins, making managing this a challenge.

I have learned a lot in the various industries I have worked in and while there are big differences, the similarities of understanding the core business and then aligning all to support the overall goals are critical. One thing I have done with my HR business partners here at JFW is offer once a month discussions about our products, our challenges, and the occasional wine tasting that keeps us close to what we are all about.”

What has changed the most in the past two years?

“Our turnover and morale has dramatically improved. We’re trending below 10% turnover and data from our engagement surveys reveals we are really making headway on keeping our employees engaged in the business, sharing the long view, and also addressing their needs.”

I have to admit that as a wine country fan, it was fascinating to hear about Joel’s new life in Northern California with a highly successful and strong-branded company. More importantly, I appreciated learning about an entrepreneurial family culture business and seeing that “simple foundational HR” building worked. What can be better than working in a business where the founder set the standard by saying, “Wine celebrates friends, family, and love – all of the best things in life.”

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