Tuesday, March 6, 2012

An Interview with Michaela Rodeno

(The first installment in a series of interviews with notable figures in the wine industry)

In recruiting I enjoy learning how people get to their current career destination.  Often, the twists and turns they encounter during their lives lead them to interesting and rewarding positions.   Frequently people end up in the wine industry after exploring other opportunities.  Did their upbringing, their education, their early jobs or their interest in wine lead them to their current positions?  I thought it would be interesting to talk with some successful people in the field to learn how they got where they are today.  I doubt any of them would have answered with their ultimate work title when asked so many years ago what they wanted to be when they grew up.
Michaela Rodeno
My first profile is of Michaela Rodeno, former CEO of St. Supery Winery.  Michaela was at the helm of St. Supery Estate Vineyards for 21 years.  She retired in mid-2009 and from the board of directors at the end of 2010; she stepped down from the board of Silicon Valley Bank after ten years, in 2011.  She now serves on trade association and advisory boards, including the Wine Market Council, Round Pond Estate and the Napa Valley Destination Council.  Prior to St. Supery Michaela worked at Domaine Chandon for over 15 years, being one of its first California employees and ultimately vice president of marketing there.  

Michaela got her undergraduate degree in French, and her master’s degree in French literature from the University of California, Davis.  She also went back to get her MBA from University of California, Berkeley.  She was inducted into the Haas Hall of Fame in 2010 and was a keynote speaker for the Women in Leadership conference in 2009. (Click here for the video.)

A few weeks ago I sat down with Michaela to talk about how she got to where she is today and some of the decisions that led her there.  Michaela is a very dynamic and engaging person, and she was very open about her struggles and what decisions she needed to make to accomplish her own and her businesses’ goals.  We also discussed some of the challenges she faced and what she learned over the years.

Michaela grew up in a traditional home; her father was a naval officer, her mother a homemaker.  Every 1-3 years the family would move to a new city.  She moved 12 times before she went to UC Davis.   Michaela was one of five children and was the only girl in the family for the first 14 years of her life.  Both of Michaela’s parents were very supportive of their children, and gave them a lot of self-confidence.  Looking back on it, Michaela says her mother made her feel like she walked on water.  Her mother told her she always knew Michaela was destined for big things. 

The frequent moves of a military family were hard on young Michaela, who perceives herself as naturally shy.  Her mother noted that she was always observing others, watching their mannerisms and their behavior.  With all this moving around, Michaela says she did become very adaptable to new situations, something that proved to be helpful later on.

An interesting anecdote that Michaela shared was how she approached a move during high school.  She decided she wasn’t going to be shy at her new school.  So she just acted the way she thought outgoing kids acted.  And lo and behold it worked.  When she returned to her first high school in Alameda to finish out her senior year, she knew she had shed that shy persona.

During our conversation Michaela answered some questions similar to those that we all get asked over the years.  Here are some of the areas we covered

Why did you study French in college? 
Michaela RodenoI always did well in school, and good grades came easy.  I had no idea what I would do with a French degree, but really enjoyed the courses and professors.  After wrapping up my undergrad work, UCD’s French department approached me to be a TA.  So they were paying me to get my master’s degree.  That was a no-brainer since I had no other ideas.

Did you get any career advice from your family?  It was an expectation that all of us would go to college.  My mother’s only advice was to get a teaching degree so I would have something to fall back on.  (I didn’t.)

What drew you to the wine industry and your position?  It was completely serendipitous.  I had studied in Bordeaux my junior year, and wine with meals became a part of my life.  I had also met my husband while finishing up my bachelor’s degree at UC Davis, and he really loved wine.  After getting his law degree he took a job in Napa to be in wine country.  Napa back then wasn’t very developed, and I cobbled together work--leading tours at Beaulieu Vineyards, teaching French at the junior college and organizing a catalog for publication.  One day I read that Moet & Chandon was planning to open up a winery in the valley; and through my husband and my connections, I found John Wright in his barn [the consultant who was tasked with starting up the winery] and told him I spoke French and wanted to work there. 

John Wright hired Michaela, and the two of them went on to create and run Domaine Chandon. 

Why did you get your MBAWhile working at Domaine Chandon, my husband, Gregory, encouraged me to go back for my MBA.  We both knew it was the right thing for me to do.  When I was preparing my applications, I approached John Wright for a reference.  He told me he thought an MBA was a waste of time, but complied.  Ironically, only when recently researching John Wright’s background did I learn that he had gotten his MBA from The Wharton School. 

Over the years Michaela and Gregory became friends with Robert Skalli, who was to start up St. Supery Winery.  While Michaela wasn’t part of the initial staff at the nascent company that would become St. Supery, she stayed in contact with Robert, and in 1988 she ended up joining Robert to be the first CEO for his winery.  Michaela went on to lead the company for the next 21 years. 

During her years in winery management, Michaela has developed a network of friends and colleagues in the industry.  I asked about some of her reflections on her experience

Do you think you have an internal compass that has helped you navigate in your careerOh yes, my family instilled a high ethical standard from an early age.  I do think this helped me make decisions. 

What role did mentors have in your careerMy husband has always been my number one fan.  He has been the backbone for our family, and has a long-term approach to everything he does.  This allowed me  to focus on my career.  Gregory always celebrates my success.  My family also gave me a lot of confidence.  John Wright has been a business role model, a most unusual one.

What lessons have you learned?  I have learned to always do my best, the first time.  Also, I mentioned that I am fundamentally shy, though I’ve learned to hide it.  It was hard for me to speak up for myself—but that I had to learn how to do it.  The first time I spoke my mind to John Wright at Chandon was effective but my method was not advisable.  But once I made my goals clear to others, it allowed me to do things that helped the company. 
               I also learned that I had trust my instincts.  Years ago at St. Supery, we were hiring a new winemaker.  I had screened many applicants, and had put together a slate of candidates for the management team to interview while I was away on a business trip.  The night before I left, I was having nagging thoughts about one candidate that I had not quite connected with.  Something kept telling me that he was worth bringing in for the team interview.  On such short notice, it would have been easier to just keep the slate intact and have the team proceed as planned.  But the gremlin in the back of my head wouldn’t leave me alone; we called him in, the team was impressed and ultimately he got the job.  Michael Scholz quickly proved himself a marvelous winemaker and a great addition to St. Supery. 
               Another lesson I learned was that empathy is a very good skill to have.  Once I put myself in other people’s shoes I could understand the issues better and find solutions.  Knowing how to work out  problems is very important. 

What advice would you give yourself years agoI would advise myself to not be afraid to step up when necessary, but always to be myself.  This took some practice. 

What industry changes have made the most impact on you?  I was very proud that St. Supery was ready to take action when the Supreme Court decided in 2005 to stop discrimination by states against direct shipping.  This was something I had been anticipating, and our direct-to-consumer program has been very successful. 

Were there any areas you could have been more successful?  One area that I never managed as well as I would have liked was the distributor sales relationship.  It was such an important aspect of St. Supery’s overall sales strategy, and I wish I had been better at building and maintaining those relationships.

One question I forgot to ask Michaela was “What did you want to be when you grew up?”  It seems like a silly question.  I don’t think she could have foreseen her future, and she had to make a lot of decisions along the way to get where she is today.  Reflecting on her experience, I think successful people have an internal compass that guides them.  They learn to challenge themselves, even when it is difficult.  They also have people in their lives who support and encourage them.  I don’t think successful people always know what they are going to do, but when opportunities present themselves, they take advantage of the situation and often take risks.  Learning what lessons Michaela has learned is helpful for moving forward in my own career, and I hope this information is helpful for others as well.

Thank you, Michaela, for your insights.  I really appreciate all of your thoughts.  I look forward to learning about your next endeavors.    

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