Why This Top Entrepreneur Thinks ‘World Class’ Isn’t a Hard or Unrealistic Aspiration

How This Top Wine Entrepreneur, Barbara Banke, Learned to Scale Her Company By Letting Go of Control

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BY Elizabeth Gore - 03 Apr 2019

Jackson Family Wines chairman and proprietor Barbara Banke

Jackson Family Wines chairman and proprietor Barbara Banke PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy Company

It's not often that you get to sit across from an icon and listen to the tale of how they scaled one of the largest premium brands in the world.

Jackson Family Wines chairman and proprietor Barbara Banke, has broken through many glass ceilings--or wine bottles, in this case. In 2013, she become the first woman to ever be awarded Wine Enthusiast's Wine Person of the Year. If you are anything like me, you've almost certainly sipped one of her company's 40 brands of wine at some point (or many points) in your life.

It wouldn't be a stretch to call Banke a world-class leader--in fact, that's a phrase she uses often. Banke says she aspires to be "world class" in every aspect of her life, whether it's having the most elegant vineyards in California, the top Pinot Noir in the world, or the best racing horses in America.

This week, Jackson Family Wine announced that it will host the 2019 Circular Summit in Sonoma County for top global entrepreneurs. That announcement gave me the opportunity to sit with Banke and discuss her growth over the years. With a thoughtful pause, she opened with a self-deprecating statement that she is "quite boring."

I can assure you, she is anything but boring--and every entrepreneur should learn from her journey.

How to make the jump into entrepreneurship

In 1982, Banke and her late husband Jess Jackson started Jackson Family Wines. Both were litigators in San Francisco, with Banke focusing on land use and constitutional law, something that would serve her well in acquiring vineyards.

In the late 1980s, Banke described their winery as an "artistic success," a term she says she uses to describe unprofitable ventures. She kept her job as a lawyer to ensure the family had enough capital for the vineyards and their familial financial needs.

Like many entrepreneurs, they had to keep capital flowing for their family as they grew their startup.

The San Francisco earthquake of 1989 caused devastation everywhere, and Banke lost much of the paperwork from her active cases. In some cases, she couldn't even find her clients in the aftermath. She took that as a sign, she says, to fully focus on the family business.

How to turn a worthless asset into a world-class product

In the early 1990s, the California wine industry was growing and viable vineyards were pricey. Banke had the idea to acquire vineyards that had phylloxera, a disease that rendered vineyards basically worthless. She and Jackson put little-to-no money into them, instead re-planting them and turning them from disease-ridden to prestigious producers.

It's a good lesson: Sometimes, you don't have the money to buy a perfect asset. If you're creative and able to burn some money without running out, you can turn those assets into viable options. Notably, Jackson Family Wines has never taken outside capital. It still retains 100 percent ownership.

A vineyard can take 10 years to be profitable, which for many traditional investors is too long a cycle to be attractive. Besides, Banke says, she wants to pass the business down to the family's children.

As Banke and Jackson worked to scale the company, they decided to hire an outside CEO and leadership team. It took them several tries with CEOs to find the right fit.

At first, she says, they didn't give the CEO enough decision-making power or authority. It took Banke time to learn that the company was best served when she stayed at the proverbial 30,000 feet, allowing the CEO to be at the three-foot level. It allowed her to focus on vision-oriented work--a classic delegation story.

It also facilitated discipline across the company. To that end, she jokes, you never ask a wine maker how much to price their wine--that's the CEO's job. Making the move built trust across the company, she says, making it easier for employees to buy into the internal motto of being the "best damn wine company in the world."

At the end of our conversation, I asked if being world-class was a hard thing to aspire to. She quickly said no--and that world-class can really depend on your definition: "You can be the best at a $12 bottle of wine or at a $120 bottle. We are thrilled that the La Crema Monterey Ros is the top wine in the $15 category. As a family, we're dedicated to making the highest quality wines - from Cambria to Stonestreet to Cardinale - each winery is making the best wines."

You can hear more from Banke at the 2019 Circular Summit in Sonoma County, where she will be sharing some of her favorite wines and additional words of wisdom to 400 women founders. Boring? No way.

This woman is a world-class entrepreneur to whom I'll happily toast, so raise your glass.


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