Keeping Family In The Picture At My Evergreen Business

Courtney Kingston, Kingston Family Vineyards

July 18, 2016

Each bottle of Kingston Family Vineyards wine shows the front door of our home in Chile. It represents five generations of family in the Casablanca Valley, beginning with my great-grandfather Carl John Kingston’s elusive search for copper and gold in the early 1900s near Santiago. Generations later, the Farm still serves as the cornerstone of our family business. Today we open the same door of the casa patronal, built more than a century ago, and invite our customers to explore our estate-grown vineyard in the heart of Chile’s wine country.

Since we started our farm in the 1920s, we’ve made the conscious decision to keep our family in the picture. Although I live in the San Francisco area with my husband and three daughters, that Chilean century-old farmhouse in the middle of 8,000 acres is also my home. I’m there every other month and for a year, we lived there full time and sent our kids to school with their Chilean primas. It’s where the five branches of my extended family gather for special occasions and where many of us spent summers riding horseback as children.

Mixing family and business can be a challenge, especially when you’re building a company for the long run. Many Evergreen entrepreneurs worry about family dynamics in the workplace — not wanting to taint their business with their family, or their family with their business. As a next-generation leader of the Farm, I work closely with my father, brother, sister-in-law and Chilean uncle and aunt. I’ve had to set clear personal and professional limits and learn to listen in ways that I never would have had to do in the corporate world. Most important, I’ve had to find a different way to lead.

I started my career working for digital media companies such as CNET in Silicon Valley. With a Stanford MBA under my belt, I got a charge out of working in the fast-paced, go-go world of the early internet in the late ’90s. But when I turned 30, I hit a wall. The tech world began to feel like a game, and I desperately wanted to switch to something that was more meaningful to me.

When my brother Tim asked me to help get the vineyard off the ground, I jumped at the chance. At that time, the Farm focused mostly on dairy and beef cattle, supplying 5% of the fresh milk to the nearby capital city of Santiago. We had dealt with the vagaries of commodity pricing for two generations.

Our idea was to diversify into managing a top-quality hillside vineyard, and focus on less-common grape varietals like pinot noir and syrah. If we built a reputation as a world-class vineyard, we could create a sustainable business and help insulate the Farm from the booms and busts of Chile’s export economy.

Tim took a board seat and as president, I led sales and marketing. My father, Michael, stepped in as our CFO. My uncle Enrique managed daily operations at the vineyard and Farm, and my aunt Sally managed everything related to the extended buildings and grounds.

In a corporate context, there would have been a clear hierarchy with annual reviews, raises and promotions. Now, we had to provide that internal feedback to one another. That’s hard enough to do with a business partner, but even harder when the person to whom you’re giving feedback is your father.

At first, my dad wanted to work nights and weekends, and he gently chided us for not doing the same. But my brother and I were both raising young families, and it was important to us that we had time set aside away from work. To overcome our conflict, we had to sit down and talk honestly — not always the easiest thing to do with family members. But with time, and lots of practice, we got better at it.

Now we’re very careful about when we’re on work time and when we’re on family time. We try to make sure we don’t discuss the Farm on family time. During my wedding weekend in 2003, we hung a sign on the front door of our family home that said, “This is a wine-free zone” to discourage everyone from talking business (not from drinking).

We’ve also learned that family members often work best together when we have our own independent, yet complementary, businesses. Each generation needs to lead in its own way. In 2003 we started Kingston Family Vineyards, our own wine label from our estate-grown grapes. Our top-rated Kingston Family wines further elevate our vineyard’s brand.

We continue to sell 90% of our vineyard production to other Chilean winemakers. Uncle Enrique is uniquely positioned to oversee those key local relationships. Our own winery is a vineyard client (with most-favored nation status). Over the last 10 years, I’ve led our direct-to-consumer distribution strategy in the U.S., a unique business model for a small Chilean winery.

Luckily, I’ve never had to persuade our family that we should be Evergreen. We’ve been focused on the long term from the beginning, with no interest in outside investors. Now that I’ve led our family business for 15 years, I can’t imagine wanting to do anything else. The benefits that come from working with your loved ones far outweigh any tensions we’ve had to overcome. There’s no one I’d rather be building my Evergreen business with.

Courtney Kingston is the Founder of Kingston Family Vineyards.

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