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Rifino Valentine: “Always be learning”

Always be learning. We have to recognize that we don’t know everything, even if we are an expert in the area of expertise. As part of the series about how to Become a Thought Leader In Your Industry. I had the pleasure to interviewRifino Valentine. He has a passion for quality and this passion makes […]

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Always be learning. We have to recognize that we don’t know everything, even if we are an expert in the area of expertise.


As part of the series about how to Become a Thought Leader In Your Industry. I had the pleasure to interviewRifino Valentine. He has a passion for quality and this passion makes quality the key ingredient in everything that Valentine works on. He spent his childhood growing up in Leelanau County in Michigan. He then ventured off during his college years to attend Cornell University where he majored in economics as well as was a team member of the wrestling team. In 1993, Valentine graduated from Cornell with his degree. From there, he went on to Wall Street where he was an equities trader for 11 years.

His adventure into the spirits industry all started while he was out one night and had ordered a dirty martini. Valentine realized that the only way he could receive a dirty martini was to consume a mass-produced, imported vodka. And people were claiming those to be “top shelf.” Yet, he didn’t understand why he wasn’t able to find a quality American produced vodka. This set him out on his mission that is known today as Valentine Distilling Co.

In 2005, he came back to Michigan and started working side-by-side with Dr. Berglund who leads Michigan State University’s Artisan Distilling program. Dr. Berglund mentored Rifino to show him the ropes of fine distilling craftsmanship.

His experience on Wall Street led Valentine to realize we were losing quality manufacturing in America. It is moving overseas and mass production has diminished the quality of products. Rifino set out on a goal to create a manufacturing business revolving around distilling quality products in the former birthplace of manufacturing known as Detroit. And in 2007, he founded Valentine Distilling Co. with the intent to show America that quality manufacturing still exists in Detroit. Valentine Distilling Co. is globally and nationally recognized.

Valentine is a founding member and served as the first president of the Michigan Craft Distillers Association. He resides in Ferndale, Michigan with his wife, Alina, and dog, Sherbert.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I grew up on a farm in the northern lower peninsula of Michigan. I was actually born on the farm, my dad serving as a midwife. It wasn’t a typical farm though. It was more of an effort of my parents, who both grew up in cities, to get away from the unhealthy aspects of life. So, we raised chickens and goats. We ate mostly what we grew or raised organically… I still can’t stand the taste of goat’s milk! What we didn’t grow or raise ourselves, we bought from local farm markets.

We planted evergreens to replace the barren pastureland at first just for the benefit of the environment. My dad also ran tree planting crews every spring and fall and figures that they’ve planted more than 2 million trees in the tri-county area. The trees that we planted on the farm eventually turned into a Christmas tree and landscaping tree business.

I wrestled since I was nine years old and that led to being recruited by Cornell University. After earning a degree in Economics, I landed a job on Wall Street and worked there for more than a decade. It was there that I saw firsthand the degradation of manufacturing and is ultimately what led me to start Valentine Distilling Co. in 2007.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

I don’t consider myself an authority on thought leadership. In fact, if others consider me a thought leader, I would be humbled and honored. I just know that Valentine Distilling Co. has been able to become a leader in the brand-new craft spirits industry.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I think that it’s the people that I’ve been able to meet and do business with. It’s been everything from politicians, business leaders, immigrant community members, and just generally interesting people.

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?

It wasn’t one! It was a multitude of mistakes. If I had known what I didn’t know about this industry, I may not have even started this company! In general, though, it was this preconception that if you make a better product, people will buy it. When I was writing the business plan, I got the best piece of advice from someone in the industry. And that was, “you are not in the liquor producing business, you are in the liquor selling business.” But even with that advice, I didn’t realize the strength of the corporate machines that create our shopping experiences. What I mean is, every shelf, every placement in a retail store is controlled by a handful of massive conglomerates. To breakthrough that as an independent manufacturer was a massive undertaking. Quickly learning how to break through that and speak directly to consumers was crucial to our early success.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

To me, a thought leader is able to look at things through multiple perspectives. It is not just making decisions based on what may seem immediately best for the business. It is combining what is best for the business with personal values and community benefits and values.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

When you approach your company with big ideas, ideas that might not be mainstream in your industry, it allows you to take a larger view of what it is that your company does. Of course, we produce spirits. We are a manufacturer. And every day, we try to produce the best spirits that we can. But if you look at the company further, we are not only manufacturers.

We are integrated into the web of our local supply chain. We rely on and support many other businesses, large and small, that supply the raw materials and parts for the items that we produce. If you look even further, we have to be a part of the community. What we use for resources and waste streams that we generate affect the entire community.

So, when we started looking at the sustainability aspect of our company, we had to look at it in this perspective. What good can we do with our waste stream? What can we do to reduce, reuse, and recycle? And can we be an example for other businesses to emulate?

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

When we decided to embark on this sustainability initiative, it became clear early on that we weren’t only doing what we thought was right for the community and environment, but it also opened up new streams of customers. People who were yearning for products that were produced responsibly, but were not being served, suddenly became our customers.

Being a thought leader also gives us more chances to work with other innovative companies. It’s much easier to cultivate partnerships with other companies when we are the go-to leaders in the industry. We have had many successful partnerships that have benefitted all involved.

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry? Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

Take a broad view of your company. It is more than a profit-generating machine.

Think of the interconnectivity of your company and your community.

Think of the long-term consequences of your decisions.

Always be learning. We have to recognize that we don’t know everything, even if we are an expert in the area of expertise.

Share your knowledge and experience.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.

Jon Gordon is the first person that comes to mind. I actually went to school with him and was a peripheral friend at Cornell. His writings and talks about leadership are invaluable lessons. Positivity is a culture that is cultivated and grown. Your company will not develop this on its own. As the company leader, you have to set the culture and let that permeate through the company and employees. You have to give your employees a reason to believe in you and what you’re building.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

I abhor the term. It just seems like more business buzz speak. We have enough words in the English language to describe these things. We don’t need to create new ones that seem to lend a different level of genius or entrepreneurialism. I think often business leaders are lionized. There are some particularly relevant ones recently, that when all the dust settled, they weren’t so great after all. Any success that I’ve had, I have a deep understanding that it wasn’t due solely to decisions that I’ve made. To be successful takes many things coming together. A great team, ideas, execution, hard work, and always a bit of luck.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Most of it comes from your perspective. If you view your job as work and your hurdles as problems, it makes things much harder. If your job is something that you’ve chosen and enjoy, it becomes a series of challenges that must be overcome. It’s more adventure than work. If problems are treated as hurdles, instead of burnout, getting over them becomes satisfying and rewarding. So, it’s really about how you look at things. A positive attitude reframes everything. I like to follow the motivational writer Jon Gordon.

However, if you feel burnout coming, there’s nothing wrong with taking some time completely away from the business. It will be there when you get back! You and your company will be better for it.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I want the culture of manufacturing to change. We need to start looking at manufacturing as more than a profit machine. Let’s focus on the quality of the products we manufacture and how to manufacture socially and environmentally responsibly.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Gold medals aren’t really made of gold. They’re made of sweat, determination, and a hard-to-find alloy called guts.”- Dan Gable

You’ll never be the smartest, make the best decisions in the world, or have all the answers. But most shortcomings or mistakes can be overcome with just plain hard work.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have lunch or breakfast? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Kim Jordan, co-founder New Belgium Brewing

How can our readers follow you on social media?

https://www.instagram.com/valentinedistillingco/
https://www.facebook.com/valentinevodka/
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