Think about being a CEO like handling an oxygen mask on an airplane: take care of yourself first and then you will be able to take care of your team, your customers and your investors.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Evans — Founder & CEO, The Vines
Fifteen years ago, Michael went to Argentina from Los Angeles for what he thought would be a three-week vacation. Michael fell in love with the people and the place that is Mendoza and decided to embark on this adventure of creating Argentina’s greatest wines.
After a chance introduction to Pablo Gimenez Riili during that visit to Mendoza, Michael and Pablo began an endeavor together to provide the highest quality wine experience to Mendoza travelers and help those who love wine to make their own. The result was The Vines of Mendoza. With Pablo, Michael raised money from friends and family and purchased 650 acres of land in the Uco Valley, and created The Vines of Mendoza’s one-of-a-kind Private Vineyards. They’ve since sold vines to more than 185 owners from around the globe, and the property has expanded to 1,500 acres.
Prior to The Vines, Evans worked on every Presidential campaign between Clinton and Kerry, and served as Executive Director of CTIA Foundation, the International association for the wireless telecommunications industry Michael is an avid photographer and traveler who enjoys helping vineyard owners document their journeys and sharing stories tales of the best spot to visit next.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
In 2005, I went on what he thought would be a three-week vacation to Argentina. I had always been in to wine and had a dream of sometime owning a vineyard and making my own wine — but it just seemed impossible in Napa, Italy, France, etc. When I got to Mendoza, Argentina’s Napa Valley, I just in love with the place, the people and the wines — and it was way more approachable than the other wine regions. So I decided to buy a few acres. When I told my friends back home about the idea, they wanted to join in as well — so the lightbulb went off and we knew we had a new business idea — and The Vines was born.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
I don’t believe in one “tipping point” for most businesses. There are an almost unlimited series of wins and losses, some big and some small. You need to learn from the losses, improve your skills and maybe most importantly stay in the game until you have more wins than losses and then you have a shot at a successful and sustainable career or business — at least in my case.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As a gringo starting a business in Argentina I thought it would be fun to buy an old rebuilt Jeep from the ’60s to get around. It was beautiful — and had a booming stereo. But it had no top, no seatbelts and no speedometer (the guy we bought it from says — you don’t need one because they never give out speeding tickets). Bought the jeep and needed to drive it 600 miles from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, a trip that normally takes 10–12 hours. It took two full days because the jeep overheated every couple hours. Then the rear view mirror fell off — we stopped to try to find it and the Jeep would no longer go in reverse. And we had to open the hood so many times to add water, the latch broke on the hood so we had to tie the hood down with a large rope — and then spent the rest of the drive praying that the rope wouldn’t break and let the hood fly up blocking our view on the highway. It was a hell of a ride…I loved that Jeep!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The rural community around The Vines has been hit especially hard by the economic impact of the COVID-19 virus and the continued quarantine. Many of our neighbors are contract laborers who only get paid when they can work and the municipal systems that support them are beyond capacity. To help support our community we have raised funds from our team and clients to fund projects with the local schools, food bank and health center that will have a direct impact on the quality of life in the communities where our staff and their families live.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
1. It’s like the old saying from the Peace Corps: “It’s the toughest job you will ever love.”
Many times over the years it felt like our dream was impossible, with so many factors outside of our control, including financial crises in the US, Brazil, and Argentina, inflation, El Niño weather, Zonda winds, labor strikes, political turmoil all over the globe and the COVID pandemia. The road has not been an easy one — it has been downright fu%$#ng hard. Too many days and nights we were not sure we could make payroll, stave off a plague of ants, or stop the flash flood from overtaking our brand-new resort. But we persisted. We refused to give up. We were all-in. Too many people — our staff, owners, investors, and families — had bet on us, and so often they doubled down when we needed it most. Despite the challenges, we found strength at every turn in ourselves, our team, our owners, our investors, and our wines!
2. Create a clear structure and don’t even think about having co-CEOs. Build a strong team with diverse points of view that can get through to you even when you are being especially stubborn — but someone needs to be in charge. When we started the company, in an effort to make everyone feel good, we acted like equal partners and made every decision together — which was fabulous for a while, but when major challenges surfaced and tough decisions had to be made, we were stuck. And the strife from those tough conversations and poor expectation setting from the beginning caused us to lose two founding partners — which was personally and professionally disruptive and painful.
3. Make the tough staffing decisions thoughtfully but quickly.
If you are having a 3rd or 4th discussion about the possibility of someone leaving the company then it’s time for them to go — and probably has been for a while. The corollary to this is take your time to hire the right people and ensure the team and culture fit is a good one. We have hired some extremely talented people that just didn’t connect with our hybrid gringo/Argentine culture and velocity.
4. Think about being a CEO like handling an oxygen mask on an airplane: take care of yourself first and then you will be able to take care of your team, your customers and your investors.
I came to Argentine because I was burned out after 15 years of 12+ hour work days and 7-day work weeks. I told myself this time would be different — but then we started a fabulous company with friends and investors and we had to be successful — so very quickly it was nonstop work again. On my 45th birthday, sitting around a fire in the vineyard, one of my great friends and investors named Mike Brochu said, “Happy birthday — with luck you have 50% of your life to go — how are you going to live it, and how are you going to make sure to make it last as long as possible?” Since that day, I strive to put on my mask first — and for me that looks like spending time with friends, meditation, learning to play the guitar and traveling off the grid taking photos.
5. Build a culture of debate and curiosity — there is strength in disagreement. Find people that see the world differently than you so your decisions are necessarily better informed. At The Vines, we were at times so worried about upsetting someone that they didn’t receive the candid feedback on their work needed to meet expectations and grow as a professional. The same applies in looking at new ideas and solutions to complex problems — debate it — fight it out — respectfully but openly.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
It is something I struggle with every day. I love the company and feel such a strong commitment to our team, clients and investors that I find it extremely difficult not to work all the time. Over the years I have learned that I am much more effective and creative, and a better leader when I do take time away, and invest in my hobbies, health and friendship. So if you think about things based on economics, learn that you will be more productive by working less and giving your brain and body the non-work nourishment they need.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Sometimes you are lucky enough to meet someone who literally changes your life forever. In 2004 on a quick trip to Mendoza, I met Pablo Gimenez Riili, whose family has been making wine for generations. Introduced to me through mutual friends, Pablo was the “local” connection who was going to give me tips on wineries and restaurants during what I thought would be my three short days in Mendoza. It took only a few moments for us to form a friendship — a brotherhood — to last a lifetime.
Pablo shared the real Mendoza with me, and I immediately saw the potential of this enchanting place, with its incredible, complex wines, mind-blowing steaks, the beauty and energy of the Andes and, of course, the people. Argentines are a beautiful and passionate people more concerned with family, friends, and fútbol than the financial markets or getting the latest iPhone or Tesla.
I have loved and been fascinated by wine for as long as I’ve been drinking it, and I always dreamed of owning a small vineyard and making wines. When I met Pablo, I knew that together we could make that happen. Originally, I was going to buy myself a small vineyard, ask Pablo’s family to manage it, and head back to the States, returning annually to make wine. But when I started talking to friends, I realized how many people shared my dream. Instead of looking for just ten acres for me, we started thinking bigger. This is when The Vines was born.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
Strive to be empathetic. In these troubling times of strife, conflict and uncertainty all over the world, let’s take the time and make the effort to think about our conflicts and challenges from the other person’s point of view.
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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.