Monthly Archives: October 2012

Drunk with Power

Drunk with PowerStanding in the low-ceilinged basement of a rundown Seattle bungalow, among the shiny steel vats and plastic tubing that constitute Animale winery, the wine merchant Jon Rimmerman swirled his glass, sniffed its bouquet, took a sip and moved his mouth around as if chewing. A fair-skinned, dapper and somewhat elfin man, Rimmerman wore Kelly green jeans, a lavender sweater and a black-and-white plaid sportcoat. Salt-and-pepper curls bushed out from under his Greek fisherman’s cap as he bent over a white plastic bucket. Spitting out a great purple jet of wine, Rimmerman signaled to the winemaker Matt Gubitosa that he could taste exactly one more vintage before leaving.

From the outside, Animale — named for Gubitosa’s dead but still-beloved cat, whose image has appeared on many Animale bottles — looked more like a methamphetamine lab than a winery, with an overgrown lawn, a faded gnome statue and reflective insulation covering all the basement windows. On the inside, Animale was clean and well lighted, with all proper licensing, classic R. & B. on the radio — “a little bit louder now!” — and a sleepy kitten.

“That’s the Dolcetto?” Rimmerman asked, as Gubitosa poured.

“Two thousand ten, yes. You need some pizza with that. I use cultivated yeast, but no mechanical anything.”

Rimmerman is the founder and sole owner of Garagiste, the world’s largest e-mail-based wine business. With 136,000 subscribers, Rimmerman says that Garagiste does, on average, $30 million in annual sales offered exclusively through his long, florid, self-mythologizing daily e-mails. “Dear Friends, somewhere along the path to wine-related enlightenment” began a recent one, which later evoked “the incredulous 1970s chemical salesman, dumping buckets of toxic pesticides” onto the vineyards of poor Chambertin, Margaux, Latour. “At some point, the land gives up. It must be resuscitated over decades to fully escape the poison (similar to smoking — the body eventually cleans itself and regenerates, but a certain scarring remains).” He then conjured lovely Sardinia, Europe’s “truest untouched terra firma,” source of the obscure 2011 Rigaterri Mirau — “Djarum cigarette in your glass . . . massive pine forest, clove, resin,” a “once-in-a-blue-moon” steal at $18.61 a bottle.

Despite Animale’s admirable smallness, Rimmerman was skeptical going in: only months earlier, Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate gave Gubitosa’s 2009 Petit Verdot a stellar 92-point rating; Rimmerman has built his reputation by differentiating his tastes from those of other critics, favoring the austere, eccentric and putatively authentic over what you might call the merely delicious. But now Rimmerman spit out another purple mouthful and said, with evident surprise, “That’s the most unusual wine.” He looked Gubitosa in the eye. “I mean, not to say whether it’s good or bad, like or don’t like.”

Gubitosa, a burly, thin-haired 50-something who works for the United States Environmental Protection Agency when he’s not cranking tunes, petting kittens and making fine wine, nodded. Point taken.

“But it has a personality.”

“Yeah, it’s not for everybody,” Gubitosa conceded.

“The pepper, it’s incredibly crushed on the nose and through the palate, with those hard tannins,” Rimmerman said. “There’s nothing fun about that.” This was a backhanded compliment. Wines of integrity — wines of “character and terroir,” to use Rimmerman’s term — aim not to please but to express what Rimmerman calls, in all seriousness, “vinous truth,” meaning the honest expression of a particular grape varietal, grown in a particular place, in a particular year. “People have distilled my life down to, He’s in pursuit of the truth, more broadly, in all things,” Rimmerman says.

Rimmerman shook Gubitosa’s hand, explaining that he had a flight booked for later that evening, over to the wine country of southeastern Washington, for a few more days of tasting. From there, Rimmerman had a flight booked to Washington, D.C., where his first East Coast warehouse is under construction. Rimmerman says he has spent about half of the last 15 years on the road, hunting wine and story in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America, Turkey, Israel, three Canadian provinces, northern Mexico and 13 American states.

The vineyards of the Savoie, in the French Alps.

Photograph by Shira Young

Stepping into the Seattle downpour, Rimmerman trotted delicately across the sad lawn, climbed into the car and insisted that his personal preference — the question of whether or not he would drink Gubitosa’s wines in his own home — was irrelevant.

“What I’m trying to uncover is something that is culturally important or of the moment, which this definitely is,” Rimmerman said. “This is cutting-edge Washington State winemaking. So, first: Are the wines sound? And then, would people that read everything that I write, every day” — in those Garagiste e-mail offers — “be interested not just for the wine but for the story, the cats, the meth lab, the geologist, the maybe-no-woman-in-his-life. Would they like to kind of taste that story in the bottle.” The answer was maybe: Gubitosa’s wines were not “immediately crowd pleasing, but he was trying to make something real, that was not doctored.” In Rimmerman’s cosmology of the wine industry, which holds that a vast majority of wine on the U.S. market goes through industrial processing aimed at pleasing Robert Parker, this was high praise indeed.

Driving through Seattle’s streets, he rattled off various nicknames he claimed to have been given by unnamed others: “The Wine Whisperer. The Pied Piper of Wine. The Great and Powerful Vinous Oz. The (Real) Emperor of Wine. The Emperor Who Has Clothes. I’ll get you a list.”

“The Wine Whisperer” refers to Rimmerman’s conviction that he, along with his partner and their 6-year-old daughter, all have superhuman tasting powers that may or may not qualify them as what are called “supertasters,” a distinction thought to have a legitimate anatomical basis. In addition, Rimmerman will say that his daughter has a genetically enhanced tactile sense — that she is a kind of superfeeler — and that he, personally, by simply looking at a label, can recall the taste of any wine that has ever crossed his lips, a number running into the many tens of thousands. This is an aptitude that, he feels quite sure, even Parker cannot claim. “This is something that people have called a photographic memory of wine,” Rimmerman told me. “Or they’re not quite sure what it is. It hasn’t been categorized yet.”

Those two “Emperor” nicknames, playing off the Robert Parker biography “The Emperor of Wine,” evoke the doubtless pleasant fantasy that Rimmerman — despite being a salesman with no medium beyond his own marketing copy — might somehow displace Parker as the great American wine tastemaker. “I don’t think of myself as a retailer or an importer,” Rimmerman likes to say. “I think of myself as a writer and a conduit of culture.”

As we parked near Seattle’s deepwater cargo port, Rimmerman said he has also been called the J. Peterman of Wine, “being able to tell vivid stories in a catalog where people buy trunks from India they have no use for.” He tried to put all this together for me: “There is an aspect of J. Peterman. There is an aspect of Oz. There is an aspect of the Pied Piper leading people over the edge where they’ve never tasted before. But no one really knows who I am and how I do this. When other people try to copy what we do, I’m very floored by that. It’s wonderful, the admiration.”

Stepping into the rain, just then, he opened an unmarked door in a concrete wall and led me into his cavernous warehouse filled to the ceiling with countless cases of wine. His partner, Shira Young, stood nearby, a striking woman with jet-black hair, dark eyes, golden skin and a soothing and sensible demeanor that reflects well on the manic Rimmerman. She and one of their daughters, Gigi, hovered near a tall round table covered with olive oil both in bottles and on plates.

Rimmerman asked Gigi if she had tasted them.

Shira replied for her. “She tasted the entire table.”

Gigi did not look up; she was busy drawing her little hands through a plate of olive oil and then dreamily rubbing her fingers together.

Rimmerman with his partner, Shira, and their daughters, Gigi, 6, and Pip, 3, in the South of France.

Photograph by Shira Young

Garagiste, which gets its name from a French winemaking movement, has not advertised since its creation in 1996. Rimmerman built a Web site only two years ago. Before that, you had to hear about his list through a friend, copy the e-mail address, then send in a polite request to join — analogous, in some ways, to the nightclub without a name, creating desire precisely by its disinterest in attracting you. Even today, the Garagiste Web site — through which you can now sign up for the e-mail list — has no e-commerce function nor even a blog post of Rimmerman’s daily offers. You get the memo or you don’t, and Rimmerman rarely offers the same wine twice. Though he blackballs people who might buy in volume to resell — the words “no sales to retailers or wholesalers” appear in every e-mail offer — he claims that competitors skulk around the list nonetheless, under fake names, even sending him anonymous death threats demanding an end to his dangerously low prices on both inexpensive wines (he sells plenty for under $10 a bottle) and pricey ones, like his recent offer of 2009 Romanée Conti at $25,821 per 12-bottle case. (“Please limit requests to 1×12-pack per person,” said the accompanying order information, as if that were necessary.)

Rimmerman makes ordering easy enough, and also remarkably human: every offer says something like, “reply to this e-mail or send Nicki a note,” referring to his longtime assistant. But he also requires a tolerance for deferred gratification, shipping only twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall, when Rimmerman says extreme heat or cold are less likely to destroy the wine in transit. In his wine offerings, he told me in a personal e-mail, he strives to reach his entire demographic simultaneously, “from Brooklyn ‘coolio’ (Williamsburg, Red Hook) to waning coolio (Park Slope) to Upper West Side to Scarsdale,” as he puts it, “with vastly different levels of disposable income.” Thus, obscure cheap wines for “the lowest-disposable-income group with the most cutting-edge knowledge of the wine world and the most time to spend on their computer (23-to-33-year-olds in Brooklyn, the Mission, Echo Park in L.A., etc.)” are offered in the same e-mail as wildly expensive ones, the whole thing stitched together by, say, “Beach Boys songs and bizarre, little-known facts or idiosyncrasies of Brian Wilson.”

Rimmerman was born in 1966 and raised on Chicago’s North Shore until his parents divorced and Rimmerman’s mother and stepfather took him to live in rural Wisconsin. He remained close to a father he describes, with characteristic brio, as a kind of supersalesman — claiming he invented commodities-trading algorithms “before computers,” created “one of the first pro-athlete management agencies” only to sell it before it became profitable, and helped the N.F.L. develop the whole idea of staging exhibition games overseas.

“He made millions and he lost millions and he was never afraid to go for it,” Rimmerman told me. “That’s definitely my personality and the impetus for Garagiste — no fear, believing in yourself.”

Garagiste itself emerged from an ad hoc wine-tasting club at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After finals one year, Rimmerman and a few classmates celebrated by pooling money to buy a 1979 Krug Champagne and 1982 Dom Pérignon. “It was one of those ‘Oh, my God’ moments, there’s something of a higher order here,” he said. “I sat with those wines for 15 hours.”

It soon emerged among the group that Rimmerman had the most sensitive palate and a gift for spinning great stories about interesting wines, and it wasn’t long, he says, before he found himself faxing an informal wine letter to friends scattered around the country.

Three tips from Jon Rimmerman
for buying wine at your local shop.


AVOID THE MIDDLE

The eye-level rack at your market is usually dominated by shelf space “owned” by local distributors. Some of the top, smaller production examples are represented by tiny distributors that cannot pay slotting or marketing fees demanded by grocers for eye-level rack space. Beat them at their own game — look at top and bottom shelves or in poor visibility areas of a display — my gut tells me you will find a number of gems lying in wait.

 

ALCOHOL CAN FOOL YOU

High alcohol does not equal high interest. Alcohol can obfuscate the true nature and nuance of a wine — even with normally high-alcohol examples like Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Alcohol levels have risen to blackout levels over the last 10 to 15 years, spurred by a variety of sparks: a certain critic’s preference and possibly global warming. Don’t give in to the rise! Challenge yourself to look for reds under 14 percent and whites under 13 percent. My sweet spot is 12½ to 13½ percent for reds, 11½ to 12½ percent for dry whites.

 

TRUST OTHER DRINKERS

Use your smartphone to create a level playing field: community-based Web sites like Eric Levine’s CellarTracker (cellartracker.com) give you the opinions of your peers, those who have actually tasted the wine in question — not the opinion of a distributor or a magazine. You can easily pull them up while standing in front of a wall of a dozen unknown New Zealand sauvignon blancs, and all will start to make sense in a jiffy.

During Rimmerman’s years at DePaul University law school, he landed a summer job in Chicago, at the first American Starbucks outside Seattle. While jerking espresso and sweeping the floors there, he happened to meet the company’s founder, Howard Schultz.

“So I was part of the whole genesis of, whoa, what Starbucks was,” Rimmerman says. “I’ll never forget the incredible passion he had for a very simple idea that he was absolutely 100 percent certain would be important to the culture of the United States in the next 20 years.” Rimmerman says he learned from his time at Starbucks “the beauty of retail marketing, of conceptual ideology with consumer goods,” an idea that can be roughly translated as defining a crystal-clear brand identity and then ensuring that everything from the product to customer relations reinforces it.

Rimmerman was living in Seattle when his own simple idea fell into place. “That was right around the same time as the whole Seattle, Nirvana, Internet, you know, boom, of incredible creative energy,” he says, aligning his own origin story with those. “I met all these incredible, smart people inventing all these things called, like, Adobe. I mean, Bezos was running Amazon out of a garage. And everybody knew them!”

He realized he had the seeds of his own start-up in that wine letter. He’d already switched to e-mail, picking up several hundred new subscribers who often asked where to buy the wines. It was a no-brainer to start selling them. All he needed now, Rimmerman decided, was a clear sense of mission — a brand identity, in other words, centered on making the world a better place instead of just making a buck. Rimmerman claims that he made two lists — things he liked about the wine business, and things he did not — and decided that his company’s goal would be to transform the industry until his “don’t like” column was empty.

He’s a little vague about what was actually on those lists — you suspect that he has, to be generous, lost the originals. But he is consistent in characterizing his primary don’t-like: an intolerable gulf between winemakers and wine drinkers caused by a legally mandated separation of importers, distributors and retailers. “It’s one of the only systems in our country — women’s right to vote, all these things that have changed over time, the whole racial thing that happened in the ’60s — that the government never wanted to look at,” Rimmerman says.

By cutting out all those middlemen, Rimmerman could offer lower prices at higher profit margins, while becoming the “Sub Pop Records of the wine trade,” scouting talent and connecting old-school vintners to discriminating consumers. He could also be “the Erin Brockovich of the wine trade,” pointing out that pesticides have been found in bottled wines at every price point including world famous Bordeaux. In addition, many wineries use additives and processing agents like egg whites, milk, fish extract, animal gelatin (sorry, vegetarians), sugar, toasted oak powder, the color-enhancer Mega Purple and dimethyl dicarbonate, a chemical so toxic that merely inhaling it can be fatal. Bringing attention to all this, and to little guys doing it the old-fashioned way, Rimmerman appeals to the moral and intellectual vanity of his subscribers before even mentioning anything as tawdry as the per-bottle price. Only a chump would buy top-dollar status-symbol wines secretly saturated with chemicals instead of the far-cheaper real stuff favored by true insiders.

Rimmerman is neither the first nor the only wine merchant to have built a brand identity around the distinction between industrial and artisanal winemaking. Kermit Lynch, for example, a minor legend in the international wine trade from Berkeley, Calif., who says he has never heard of Rimmerman, has been importing French wines of this stripe since the 1970s. Then there is Chambers Street Wines, a brick-and-mortar retail shop in Manhattan that makes a comparable commitment to selling noninterventionist wines.

But Rimmerman has discovered some of the great noninterventionist standard-bearers, like Frank Cornelissen, who was toiling in obscurity high above the snow line on Sicily’s volcanic Mount Etna, before Rimmerman found him resurrecting abandoned vineyards and vinifying the juice in the strictest of Old World methods. According to Alder Yarrow, a Garagiste fan and author of the influential wine blog Vinography: “Cornelissen just takes a bunch of grapes, throws them in buckets, stomps them, comes back six months later and puts it in bottles. They are the most natural wines in the world.” The result is cloudy with visible sediment, and even prone to refermenting in the bottle. “But when they are good, they are unbelievable!” Yarrow says. “Rimmerman likes that kind of thing, wines that to most Americans are like eeuwee!”

Rimmerman considering a cask of Sagrantino in Montefalco, in central Italy.

Photograph by Shira Young

Of all the purported nicknames Rimmerman offers, the most telling may be “the Great and Powerful Vinous Oz” — celebrating, as it does, a certain Emerald City quality in Garagiste. Rimmerman has doubtless traveled around the world seeking great wine, but he also appears to find at least some through traditional distributors and importers — one of whom, asking to remain anonymous because he does business with Rimmerman, explained that Garagiste can be a convenient way to move a lot of inventory in a big hurry.

Alice Feiring, a New York-based wine writer, claims that Rimmerman has even discovered wines through her blog posts. (Rimmerman, who considers Feiring a fellow traveler, insists the timing of their discovery was merely coincidental.) “He’s not a tastemaker,” she says. “He is picking up on a trend. He is a businessman.” Feiring adds, however, that she knows “people who are very, very, very faithful to him, and give him a lot of money all the time.” Other industry insiders have told me similar things, raising one of the greater curiosities of the Garagiste phenomenon: Rimmerman’s act seems to appeal most powerfully to people with no illusion about how it works. David Schildknecht, for example — one of the most prominent wine writers in the world and a critic for The Wine Advocate, and therefore a man deluged with free wine samples — chuckled over the phone, saying: “I buy wine from him regularly. . . . .It’s pretty amusing to me.” Michael Terrien, a boutique Napa winemaker, calls Rimmerman’s daily e-mails “wine crack,” adding that he has to unsubscribe periodically to stop the financial hemorrhage.

Rimmerman’s personal theory about how it all works — how the Garagiste business model and those idiosyncratic e-mails compel such vigorous spending — fetishizes the human element, the obvious imperfections, like telling his administrative assistant to leave typos and grammatical errors in his e-mail offers — preserving the immediacy of his writing — and never including photographs. “Psychologically, it’s very important,” he says. “If I told you that story but you didn’t like the look of the label” — Animale’s cat, say — you might doubt the pitch. (“This is something I’ve carried for 18 years,” Rimmerman told me, as if confessing a terrible secret. “I’ve never told anybody this.”) He also cites a broader cultural shift working in his favor — “It’s almost like ‘everything old is new again,’ ” he wrote in a personal e-mail to me. “Or the music scene going back to turntables or . . . vintage 1960s tube amplifiers — people crave warmth, whether its auditory or in business, and eventually they come around to what makes them feel good, what keeps them warm — sensory or mentally.”

This idea of analog musical warmth is central to his thinking. In Walla Walla, Wash., after a long morning among the giant grain silos, vast wheat fields, not-so-vast vineyards, and smelly horse corrals of the area’s rural fringes, we stopped at the relatively elegant Waters Winery. Jamie Brown, a vintner who made a living selling bootleg concert CDs during the Seattle grunge scene of the 1990s, is now a sort of Falstaffian rocker/poet/artiste who has sold many wines through Rimmerman. Inside the barrel-aging chamber, Rimmerman tasted multiple vintages of Waters syrah and cabernet, free-associating toward a sales pitch: “This is cabernet sauvignon for cabernet sauvignon’s sake . . . not for oak’s influence, Napa Valley, prestige, Robert Parker.” He spat into a floor drain and took a second stab: “This is the Old World that has come to America. This is like Ellis Island in Washington State. How about that for a quote? That’s a big thing for me to say, because I’ve never found that anywhere.”

Four months later, offering a Waters syrah called Tremolo, Rimmerman instead wrote about Monteverdi inventing musical tremolo about 400 years ago. “He never could have imagined . . . Liszt would use it as a palpitating piano technique or Bo Diddley on the guitar. From Floyd Rose reinventing the double-locking wheel, to the classic blackface circuitry of early 1960s Fender Twin Reverb amps (or Vox AC30, Silvertone, etc.).” He followed this arguably absurd but possibly masterful massaging of his audience with a reassurance to all that Tremolo had an impeccable Old World anti-mainstream taste — “mineral salts . . . natural (ripe) acidity, 12.5% alcohol.” Then he took a quick detour into his global travels — “scurrying about on back roads in Turkey, Croatia, Ribeiro, Sicily” — and made a brief pause to make sure we all knew he really had been in Walla Walla, personally, shaking that winemaker’s hand. “When I first sampled it a few months ago with Jamie,” Rimmerman wrote of the wine, “I was so taken with its truth that I asked to put the offer out then and there (on my BlackBerry, in typical Garagiste fashion).”

I have no recollection of this exchange, nor of any whispered conversation between Rimmerman and Brown beyond my earshot. But Rimmerman swears it happened and, at $39.99 a bottle, it almost certainly doesn’t matter.

Daniel Duane is the author of “How to Cook Like a Man: A Memoir of Cookbook Obsession.”

Editor: Ilena Silverman

The Case for Executive Assistants

Among the most striking details of the corporate era depicted in the AMC series Mad Men, along with constant smoking and mid-day drinking, is the army of secretaries who populate Sterling Cooper, the 1960s ad agency featured in the show. The secretary of those days has gone the way of the carbon copy and been replaced by the executive assistant, now typically reserved for senior management. Technologies like e-mail, voice mail, mobile devices, and online calendars have allowed managers at all levels to operate with a greater degree of self-sufficiency. At the same time, companies have faced enormous pressure to cut costs, reduce head count, and flatten organizational structures. As a result, the numbers of assistants at lower corporate levels have dwindled in most corporations. That’s unfortunate, because effective assistants can make enormous contributions to productivity at all levels of the organization.

At very senior levels, the return on investment from a skilled assistant can be substantial. Consider a senior executive whose total compensation package is $1 million annually, who works with an assistant who earns $80,000. For the organization to break even, the assistant must make the executive 8% more productive than he or she would be working solo—for instance, the assistant needs to save the executive roughly five hours in a 60-hour workweek. In reality, good assistants save their bosses much more than that. They ensure that meetings begin on time with prep material delivered in advance. They optimize travel schedules and enable remote decision making, keeping projects on track. And they filter the distractions that can turn a manager into a reactive type who spends all day answering e-mail instead of a leader who proactively sets the organization’s agenda. As Robert Pozen writes in this issue: A top-notch assistant “is crucial to being productive.”

That’s true not only for top executives. In their zeal to cut administrative expenses, many companies have gone too far, leaving countless highly paid middle and upper managers to arrange their own travel, file expense reports, and schedule meetings. Some companies may be drawn to the notion of egalitarianism they believe this assistant-less structure represents—when workers see the boss loading paper into the copy machine, the theory goes, a “we’re all in this together” spirit is created. But as a management practice, the structure rarely makes economic sense. Generally speaking, work should be delegated to the lowest-cost employee who can do it well. Although companies have embraced this logic by outsourcing work to vendors or to operations abroad, back at headquarters they ignore it, forcing top talent to misuse their time. As a longtime recruiter for executive assistants, I’ve worked with many organizations suffering from the same problem: There’s too much administrative work and too few assistants to whom it can be assigned.

 

 

Granting middle managers access to an assistant—or shared resources—can give a quick boost to productivity even at lean, well-run companies. Firms should also think about the broader developmental benefits of providing assistants for up-and-coming managers. The real payoff may come when the manager arrives in a job a few levels up better prepared and habitually more productive. An experienced assistant can be particularly helpful if the manager is a new hire. The assistant becomes a crucial on-boarding resource, helping the manager read and understand the organizational culture, guiding him or her through its different (and difficult) personalities, and serving as a sounding board during the crucial acclimation. In this way, knowledgeable assistants are more than a productivity asset: They’re reverse mentors, using their experience to teach new executives how people are expected to behave at that level in the organization.

Getting the Most from Assistants

Two critical factors determine how well a manager utilizes an assistant. The first is the executive’s willingness to delegate pieces of his or her workload to the assistant. The second is the assistant’s willingness to stretch beyond his or her comfort zone to assume new responsibilities.

Delegating wisely.

The most effective executives think deeply about the pieces of their workload that can be taken on—or restructured to be partially taken on—by the assistant. Triaging and drafting replies to e-mails is a central task for virtually all assistants. Some executives have assistants listen in on phone calls in order to organize and follow up on action items. Today many assistants are taking on more-supervisory roles: They’re managing information flow, dealing with basic financial management, attending meetings, and doing more planning and organizing. Executives can help empower their assistants by making it clear to the organization that the assistant has real authority. The message the executive should convey is, “I trust this person to represent me and make decisions.”

Not every executive is well-suited for this type of delegating. Younger managers in particular have grown up with technology that encourages self-sufficiency. Some have become so accustomed to doing their own administrative tasks that they don’t communicate well with assistants. These managers should think of assistants as strategic assets and realize that part of their job is managing the relationship to get the highest possible return.

Stretching the limits.

Great assistants proactively look for ways to improve their skills. When I was the assistant to Pete Peterson, the former U.S. commerce secretary and head of Lehman Brothers, I took night classes in law, marketing, and presentations to burnish my skills. Today I see executive assistants learning new languages and technologies to improve their performance working for global corporations.

 

 

In my work, I frequently encounter world-class executive assistants. Loretta Sophocleous is the executive assistant to Roger Ferguson, the president and CEO of TIAA-CREF; her title is Director, Executive Office Operations. She manages teams. She leads meetings. Roger says that he runs many decisions past Loretta before he weighs in.

Another example is Noreen Denihan, whom I placed over 13 years ago as the executive assistant to Donald J. Gogel, the president and CEO of Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, LLC. According to Don, Noreen fills an informal leadership role, has an unparalleled ability to read complex settings, and can recognize and respond to challenging people and circumstances. “A spectacular executive assistant can defy the laws of the physical world,” Gogel says. “She [or he] can see around corners.”

Trudy Vitti is the executive assistant to Kevin Roberts, the CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi. Often when you ask him a question, he’ll say, “Ask Trudy.” He travels for weeks at a time and says that he has utter confidence in Trudy to run the office in his absence.

Compared with managers in other countries, those in the United States do a better job of delegating important work to their assistants—and of treating them as a real part of the management team. Outside the United States, educational requirements for assistants are less intensive, salaries are lower, and the role is more typically described as personal assistant.

You can often tell a lot about an executive’s management style—and effectiveness—from the way he interacts with his assistant. Can the executive trust and delegate, or does he micromanage? Do assistants like working for her, or does she have a history of many assistants leaving quickly or being fired? Not every boss–assistant relationship is made in heaven, but an executive’s ability to manage conflicts with an assistant can be an important indicator of his overall ability to manage people.

Finding the Right Fit

Hiring the right assistant can be a challenge. In some ways, it’s trickier than filling traditional management positions, because personal chemistry and the one-on-one dynamic are so important—sometimes more so than skills or experience.

Expert assistants understand the unspoken needs and characteristics of the people with whom they work. They have high levels of emotional intelligence: They respond to subtle cues and react with situational appropriateness. They pay close attention to shifts in an executive’s behavior and temperament and understand that timing and judgment are the foundation of a smooth working relationship. A good assistant quickly learns what an executive needs, what his or her strengths and weaknesses are, what might trigger anger or stress, and how to best accommodate his or her personal style. Good matches are hard to come by: That’s the reason so many good assistants follow an executive from job to job.

After many years of debriefing assistants who’ve been fired, I’ve identified several factors that make for bad relationships. The most common missteps an assistant makes are misreading the corporate culture, failing to build bridges with other assistants, failing to ask enough questions about tasks, agreeing to take on too much work, and speaking to external parties without authorization. Bosses usually contribute to these deteriorating relationships by not being open in their communications or not being clear about expectations.

There’s an assistant I placed recently who’s having trouble developing the right relationship with her boss. The executive called me and said, “Melba, I expected her to read through these memos and then get them out very quickly to my managers. But she left them on my desk, didn’t call me over the weekend, and didn’t send them out.” I asked the assistant about it, and she said, “He didn’t tell me it was important—I can’t read someone’s mind.” But in fact, in this job you’re supposed to be able to read minds—or, at the very least, you’re supposed to ask questions.

Simply put, the best executive assistants are indispensable. Microsoft will never develop software that can calm a hysterical sales manager, avert a crisis by redrafting a poorly worded e-mail, smooth a customer’s ruffled feathers, and solve a looming HR issue—all within a single hour, and all without interrupting the manager to whom such problems might otherwise have proven a distraction. Executive assistants give companies and managers a human face. They’re troubleshooters, translators, help desk attendants, diplomats, human databases, travel consultants, amateur psychologists, and ambassadors to the inside and outside world.

After years of cutting back, companies can boost productivity by arming more managers with this kind of help—and executives who are fortunate enough to have a skilled assistant can benefit by finding ways to delegate higher-level work to him or her. Executive–assistant relationships are business partnerships: Strong ones are win-wins between smart people. In fact, they’re win-win-wins because ultimately the companies reap the benefits.

——————————

Melba J. Duncan is the president of The Duncan Group, a retained search and consulting firm specializing in senior management support resources, and the founder of the Duncan Leadership Institute, which offers training for administrative support staff. She is the author of The New Executive Assistant .

 

Follow a Career Passion? Let It Follow You

IN the spring of 2004, during my senior year of college, I faced a hard decision about my future career. I had a job offer from Microsoft and an acceptance letter from the computer science doctoral program at theMassachusetts Institute of Technology. I had also just handed in the manuscript for my first nonfiction book, which opened the option of becoming a full-time writer. These are three strikingly different career paths, and I had to choose which one was right for me.

Daniel Rosenbaum for The New York Times

Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown, says many people lack a “true calling” but have a sense of fulfillment that grows over time.

For many of my peers, this decision would have been fraught with anxiety. Growing up, we were told by guidance counselors, career advice books, the news media and others to “follow our passion.” This advice assumes that we all have a pre-existing passion waiting to be discovered. If we have the courage to discover this calling and to match it to our livelihood, the thinking goes, we’ll end up happy. If we lack this courage, we’ll end up bored and unfulfilled — or, worse, in law school.

To a small group of people, this advice makes sense, because they have a clear passion. Maybe they’ve always wanted to be doctors, writers, musicians and so on, and can’t imagine being anything else.

But this philosophy puts a lot of pressure on the rest of us — and demands long deliberation. If we’re not careful, it tells us, we may end up missing our true calling. And even after we make a choice, we’re still not free from its effects. Every time our work becomes hard, we are pushed toward an existential crisis, centered on what for many is an obnoxiously unanswerable question: “Is this what I’m really meant to be doing?” This constant doubt generates anxiety and chronic job-hopping.

As I considered my options during my senior year of college, I knew all about this Cult of Passion and its demands. But I chose to ignore it. The alternative career philosophy that drove me is based on this simple premise: The traits that lead people to love their work are general and have little to do with a job’s specifics. These traits include a sense of autonomy and the feeling that you’re good at what you do and are having an impact on the world. Decades of research on workplace motivation back this up. (Daniel Pink’s book “Drive” offers a nice summary of this literature.)

These traits can be found in many jobs, but they have to be earned. Building valuable skills is hard and takes time. For someone in a new position, the right question is not, “What is this job offering me?” but, instead, “What am I offering this job?”

RETURNING to my story, I decided after only minimal deliberation to go to M.I.T. True to my alternative career philosophy, I was confident that all three of my career options could be transformed into a source of passion, and this confidence freed me from worry about making a wrong choice. I ended up choosing M.I.T., mainly because of a slight preference for the East Coast, but I would have been equally content heading out to Microsoft’s headquarters near Seattle. Or, with the advance from my first book, I could have hunkered down in a quiet town to write.

During my initial years as a graduate student, I certainly didn’t enjoy an unshakable sense that I had found my true calling. The beginning of doctoral training can be rough. You’re not yet skilled enough to make contributions to the research literature, which can be frustrating. And at a place like M.I.T., you’re surrounded by brilliance, which can make you question whether you belong.

Had I subscribed to the “follow our passion” orthodoxy, I probably would have left during those first years, worried that I didn’t feel love for my work every day. But I knew that my sense of fulfillment would grow over time, as I became better at my job. So I worked hard, and, as my competence grew, so did my engagement.

Today, I’m a computer science professor at Georgetown University, and I love my job. The most important lesson I can draw from my experience is that this love has nothing to do with figuring out at an early age that I was meant to be a professor. There’s nothing special about my choosing this particular path. What mattered is what I did once I made my choice.

To other young people who constantly wonder if the grass might be greener on the other side of the occupational fence, I offer this advice: Passion is not something you follow. It’s something that will follow you as you put in the hard work to become valuable to the world.

Cal Newport is the author of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.”

Recovery is upon us…that is if you are producing over 3 million cases…

Financial Symposium attendees hear details of who benefits most from ongoing sales boom

 by Paul Franson

Napa, Calif.—The Wine Industry Financial Symposium held Monday and Tuesday was itself an indication of the health of the recovering wine business. Fully 330 lenders, growers, wine companies and suppliers attended the conference, up from 260 last year.

Vineyard executive David Freed started the symposium 21 years ago to improve communication between wine businesses and sources of capital. The only surprise this year was that more wine executives didn’t attend to gain valuable insights and rub elbows with bankers and other lenders who could make the difference between success and distress sales of their businesses.

Big three’ grew 8% Freed noted that domestic wine producers are increasingly splitting into two segments: the top 16 to 20 who are good at building brands and producing efficiently in volume, and the rest, whom he said “exist in the luxury space.”

He noted that the big three—Gallo, The Wine Group and Constellation—grew 8% on a huge base of 150 million cases. “They represent in real terms almost half the industry’s growth.” The next five players—Trinchero, Bronco, Treasury, Delicato and Kendall-Jackson—represent 51 million gallons and grew at 3.5%. “They were very successful, too,” Freed noted, with Trinchero doing an outstanding job.

He also noted that Kendall-Jackson had the lowest growth from that group, but conceded, “They seem to be managing for profitability.”

The next players—Don Sebastiani, J. Lohr, Bogle, Charles Krug (Peter Mondavi family), Diageo’s Beaulieu and Sterling, Korbel and Fetzer—grew 1.3%.

That doesn’t leave much for smaller wineries.

In a panel discussion of lender representatives, Perry DeLuca from the Wells Fargo Bank Wine Industry Group assessed winery growth, too. He noted that it’s tied to increased retail sales, U.S. wine exports and California winery shipments, all of which have long-term trends going up.

DeLuca said the top 10 wine companies produced 222 million cases in 2011, up 7% from 2010. These companies have been making acquisitions, mostly with cash, to buy vineyards and winemaking facilities. Interest rates are very low, so money in the bank earns little, and these cash-rich wineries are investing in assets as a more likely way to make money.

Read more at: http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=news&content=105598&htitle=Three%20Biggest%20Wineries%20Take%20Half%20the%20Growth&
Copyright © Wines & Vines