In HealthChangers, Powered by Innovation Force, Cambia’s Chief Innovation Officer and SVP, Mohan Nair, sits down with industry leaders and influencers to explore the real stories behind health care innovation and transformation. You’ll hear thought leaders share their motivation for changing the way consumers experience health care and learn about the challenges they’ve faced. And you'll gain practical insights to inform your own health care journey.
Mohan Nair (MN): Listeners, I'm very excited to introduce this podcast that I've been waiting for many years, because I've met this gentleman named Gary Mortensen. Gary is president of Stoller Family Estates. He's got about 20 years of senior leadership experience in the Oregon wine industry, he's also a startup veteran, and he brings a lot of passion for leading edge technology and pushing boundaries. He's applied all of that knowledge into wine making and wine delivery. But he's also a devoted historian. He's an award-winning director of two documentary films relating to military history. He's really focused on the stories of Oregonians who've served in the combat and for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now in times of tough times that we all live under, I was hoping that at we can share a conversation about values and how values transpose to action, and that we can talk about COVID-19 and about the transformation of the industries that we both serve and how they all converge. Where health and the business of wine making, veterans, and the documentation that comes with this life we now live can be expressed in a short conversation that brings together the idea of battling this new battle that we all face, but then also dealing with the inner battles that we all face in the caring of our community and the sharing with our community. Welcome, Gary.
Gary Mortensen (GM): Well, thank you for having me, Mohan.
MN: It’s been a while. You know, we met a while ago, a long while ago. Do you remember when we first met?
GM: I do. I think it was probably 2001 or 2002, somewhere right in there, at the startup that I was working at called Qsent. I remember this interesting man walking down the hallway, and I thought I haven't seen him. You were kind enough to introduce yourself. It didn't take long before we realized that we were kindred spirits around things like music and history.
Stoller Wine Group: Values Built on a 200-Year Vision
MN: That's right. It was a Howard Schultz company that invested in your company. I had started to advise it. And next thing you know, we get to know each other a little. We are friends from a slow burn, I think. We met then, and we then met multiple times in different situations and the different roles that you've taken and I've taken. And that has blossomed into a conversation today. One that deserves a conversation because now you're president of Stoller Family Estates. Tell us a little bit about what Stoller Family Estates is all about.
GM: Well, it starts with Bill Stoller, a native Oregonian who grew up in the town of Dayton. If anyone has been to Stoller Family Estate before, it's a beautiful piece of property. He actually farmed that land as a kid. He was born on the property. It was his uncle's at the time. He’s an entrepreneur. He decided that, at some point, he loved wine. He loved kind of the comradery of wine, the interaction with people over wine. As people person he thought, "Well, maybe I'll be convinced to start a small label." It started to grow.
That comes, for me, full forward to 2012, when I joined the company The winery was making about 9000 cases of wine at the time. On my first day, I was standing out there with Bill, and we were looking at the sunset, and it was this beautiful sunset over the West. He looked at me and just casually said, "I like to build companies that last at least 200 years." That was a really profound moment for me, having come recently from startups, tech startups in particular, where kind of the operative word is exit. When are we going to exit? How big is exit going to be? Then to sit there with someone who is looking well past his own life, several generations ahead, and talking about this kind of vision. For me, it cemented everything and validated about why I wanted to come back into the wine industry.
It's really been a love affair being involved in this organization because it is nice to be part of something that stands for something. We like to say sustainability. The core of Stoller is sustainability in three phases. There's the environmental sustainability, there's the economic sustainability, and there's the community-based sustainability. We try to practice all of those things. I think, in terms the essence of what we're trying to do, that's Stoller.
The core of Stoller is sustainability in three phases. There's the environmental sustainability, there's the economic sustainability, and there's the community-based sustainability. We try to practice all of those things. I think, in terms the essence of what we're trying to do, that's Stoller.
MN: Well, that's an extremely powerful description of an alignment of your ideology and the ideology of Bill Stoller, and also the people that serve the wines that we drink. That’s a powerful, powerful message to start this conversation with. I thank you for it.
What’s interesting is the desire to be a 100 year old company. Cambia is also in its 100th year and has enjoyed 100 years of serving our community. And think about that, right? But, there is no guarantee that we have the right to consider ourselves available every day of the year given the COVID crisis. It affects all of the elements of sustainability that you just mentioned. It goes without saying that we have to talk about this topic given the current transformative moment we are all facing. The irony is, I was met with you, your team, and Bill just about a month ago or so, wasn't it?
GM: It was about two months ago. There was no conversation at all about COVID at the time. I think it was one of those things where, Mohan, you were kind enough to come out and address our broader company for our staff retreat. Mohan you speak so well about transformational change, both for us personally and the organization. To this day, it was one of the most powerful investments that we've ever made in terms of our time on anything in the eight years that I've now been involved in the winery. Everyone was immediately impacted by your conversation with them. I think what it did was it helped to awaken within each one of our team members that thought process of what does that really mean? It's not just a book you read or a catchphrase, but it's actually taking time to contemplate, where you want to be in terms of your own personal growth. From that, you're able to look at your organization, and it really resonated with so many of our team members. It was really powerful.
Turn a Crisis into an Opportunity
MN: I appreciate it. I really appreciate that. It's a life work on my part and a life journey on yours. What was irony, the reason I brought it up was, here we are two months ago talking about personal transformation and business transformation and transformation of our community and our society and how they're all linked. Then we get this happening. Now your organization and mine are facing the very realities of a world transformed through one person, having an illness somewhere. And an entire world transformed, an entire business transformed, and entire psychopathology of our country and our nation transformed, in an instant. So how are you dealing with that business discontinuity in a service-oriented business about grapes, wine, and people? How are you dealing with it? How is Stoller dealing with it? How are you entering into this? And what have you been doing lately with respect to those challenges?
GM: It's three parts. One part of this is I spent 11 years in the Oregon wine industry from 1988 to 1999. I think that informed a lot of, let's call it base information, institutional knowledge around this industry. Then in 1999, I left and didn't come back for 13 years and spent all of that time in technology startups, creating documentary films and doing things that had nothing to do with wine. To marry those two halves of my careers together, and then to apply the idea and belief that transformational change is required and welcomed into a moment like this is critical. On top of that, when I arrived in 2012, my whole goal was not to come in and run a winery. My whole goal was to come in and build and run an agile company.
The fact that it's a winery is cool, but that wasn't the first thing. It was to build a team that understood that we were many things, and a winery is among those things. But agility, and being able to grow with opportunity, was more important to me. And to follow our ethos. All of those were more important than the fact that we were producing wine because in my mind, whatever we produced should be produced with pride.
We’re lucky enough that our products are wine. In a time like this, the cards that not only we were dealt, but all 800 wineries in Oregon, and those across the nation and the globe were dealt, was the fact that tasting room business was shut down. The other half of our business, which is our distribution business, where other large or small distributors will sell people's products into stores and restaurants, to look at the restaurant business also being cratered.
Then we were left with our grocery store business, which was of the three legs of that stool, tasting room, restaurant, and grocery; grocery was the smallest. This was a supreme challenge and moment for us. What I didn't want my team to ever use was the word, “crisis.” I asked them all to replace the word, “crisis” with the word, “opportunity” and to challenge us to become innovative on a level that we hadn't done before. We began with that moment in mid-March, understanding that things are going to be very different. We began to not really worry about a 200-year vision or even a two-month vision. But, to focus on March. The last two weeks of March and what we were going to do. And then we got to April and determined based on a real world unfolding scenario; what we can control is what's in front of us only.
What I didn't want my team to ever use was the word, “crisis.” I asked them all to replace the word, “crisis” with the word, “opportunity” and to challenge us to become innovative on a level that we hadn't done before.
MN: Understood. During the toughest times in our history, and I know you're a historian, both in the high tech world and in the generations prior to technology being a dominant force, innovations surfaced, new structural changes opened up. As you think through your winery business and the realization that this is a serious transformation of our country and our world and our own selves, how are you viewing innovation and brainstorming? And how do you see innovation playing in your marketplace right now?
GM: I'll tell you, it's a quantum shift right now. I've been feeling for some time now that the future of marketing for wines needs to shift. It needs to change. The way we're consuming information as a general public is shifting and changing at all times. Information is miniaturizing to our handheld devices. The wine industry is one of those sort of legacy based systems that still prints out stat sheets with things about pH and acidity and all this stuff. They leave it in little folders that look nice. That's still a lot of how business is done in this industry, and to me, that was ripe for change. We decided earlier this year, and then we just really ramped it up, to create as much of our content as possible in digital format and deliver it in ways that were both educational, informative, and entertaining. And most importantly, succinct. In 60 to 90 seconds, being able to deliver great amounts of information that was both entertaining on some things, a cooking show, recipes, to more informational around here's our 2019 Solar Rosé, as told to you by our winemaker.
That format right now is really taking off. I think that's really correct. I think that that's where the future is going. The big danger for an organization is that they start this, and then they don't continue with the momentum. Part of our transformational change is I have signaled to our organization that it doesn't matter if there's a pandemic or if there's not a pandemic, we are going to go all in on content creation and content delivery.
We Will Ride This Out Together
MN: The entire service of health is at threat right now. Your business is one where you grow grapes. You have people pick them out after they've been nurtured and loved. Then you transform them through as chemical reaction and fermentation. You produce something people like to drink casually at the dining table or in the restaurant. That energy is all people oriented. And in that energy that's fully people oriented, people are involved. You have people walking the fields, engaging in nurturing wine, nurturing the precursors to wine. You have them serving you, and they are all under stress right now. They are all challenged in terms of health, in terms of their own financial model, and especially their own physical threats when they are there. How are you helping that community succeed? And what I mean, the community involves all of them from the people who pick the wine, who nurture the wine, all the way to the wine makers, all the way to the ones who deliver wine. How are you thinking through the health of your institution?
GM: Thank you for that question. A very important question. It is fascinating when you think about our business, that we are agriculture, manufacturing, wholesale and retail. So check most of the boxes there in our industry. We have our own set of unique sort of challenges. The bottom line is, and back to Bill Stoller, Bill also invested and built an Human Resources (HR) company, called Zenium. It’s really a powerful resource for us to have access to. We have to acknowledge that for many workers out there, what's happening in our economy right now is just devastating because many of these folks live paycheck to paycheck. The idea of someone not feeling great outweighs staying at home sometimes and instead going into work because they need that paycheck so badly. So the kinds of structural support that we can give them is so important.
We have everything from full HR resources all the way to mental health resources for our workers, to the fact that we haven't furloughed anyone in our organization. We don't intend to. It's one of those things where we wanted our team to understand that we stand with them. These are going to be tough times, and we would rather embrace the idea of moving forward as an organization and becoming innovators and agile and transformational, versus taking a knee jerk reaction and furloughing people, and then just riding it out. For those organizations have done that, they've done it probably because they had to, in a business context. We've chosen that we will ride this out together. What we've seen from that, I think going back to sort of this idea of mental health, has been that that organization understands that we've invested in them.
These are going to be tough times, and we would rather embrace the idea of moving forward as an organization and becoming innovators and agile and transformational, versus taking a knee jerk reaction and furloughing people, and then just riding it out.
GM: This organization has responded in a way that will be one for the ages. Our budgets, along with everybody else's, were severely compromised. Especially when you consider that two or three of our stool legs were knocked out from underneath us. Somehow our teams have been able to innovate and find ways to beat last year's numbers for both March and April. At the same time, our vineyard crews have managed to not only do what they did last year but take on another 80 acres this year of newly acquired acreage. Our wine making team continues to show up and make wine at the same excellent levels. So, what everyone has done is they've said, “We've got to practice social distancing. We've got to wear masks. We've got to sanitize.” Small prices to pay for keeping everybody working and coming and keeping morale high. So, everyone has become owners in this organization.
A dear friend of mine, a friend of ours, Pat Cox, my former CEO at Qsent once said to me, and I'll never forget this. He said, "You know, Gary, there's two kinds of people in the world, there's owners and there's renters." That's always stuck with me. You can have someone who's been with you for 20 years, and at some point they've just decided that they're going to be a renter or you could have someone who comes in and they've been there a day, and they see litter on the ground and they're picking it up. They’re doing conscientious things. That's someone that you want to have around your organization for a long time. What we've seen is we have an organization full of owners. People who are taking extreme pride in the work that they're doing and watching out for each other and doing everything they can to help us be successful. The net result of that is that this company is just reinventing itself in front of ourselves. It’s been powerful to be part of.
MN: Yeah, it is. I think a has to do with your philosophy. The highlight of our conversation to me is the linkage between your values and how those values and the common values of the institution led by Bill Stoller, of course, and then expressed through you with your values. I've had the pleasure of meeting all of your staff; all the people who work in your organization. There’s a common belief in being an owner of the land and a custodian of the land, and to engage that land the right way. That’s the power that I see. And, I mean owner of the land, not from the perspective of having authority over it, but having a custodial responsibility.
The highlight of our conversation to me is the linkage between your values and how those values and the common values of the institution led by Bill Stoller, are then expressed through you with your values.
Preserving Veterans Legacies Through Movie Making
MN: Now, your movie-making career is really centered around military, and there seems to be a connection between you and your father's military. I know your father's story that you've shared with me, and it's about veterans, and it's about veterans legacies. You formed a not-for-profit that focuses on that, to educate, preserve and honor the veterans' legacy. At this time, where people aging through vulnerability is being threatened like a level that we've never seen before. There's always comparisons to World War II and the impact to lives now. We've all been humbled by our vulnerability today. But, one should not forget the work you're doing with veterans. Tell us about how that is healing in its own way, the work that you're doing.
GM: Well, thank you for that. Yes, my interaction with veterans is a personal one because I had a father who had survivor's guilt. Navigating my life through his anger and confusion about what happened was my growing up experience. Yet, at the same time, I was a kid who grew up a baby boomer; inculcated into the romance of World War II. Somehow all of that came together for an appreciation, a deep appreciation, of military history and the human condition. I was fascinated after we invaded Iraq. I was trying to understand what was happening, as my kids were getting older, and heard so much about was going on in Iraq through the filter of politics and not ever really hearing what the soldiers themselves were witnessing.
Navigating my life through my father’s anger and confusion about what happened was my growing up experience. Yet, at the same time, I was a kid who grew up a baby boomer; inculcated into the romance of World War II. Somehow all of that came together for an appreciation, a deep appreciation, of military history and the human condition.
GM: I thought that it would be interesting to try to chronicle some of their stories. What was fascinating about this time of our civilization was the convenience of all of the personal recording devices that brought back, not just firefights and things like that, but to me, the more interesting things were the mundane activities and the griping and the goofing around that all these young soldiers were doing all the time. It really humanized them. When they've got their serious look on and a gun pulled, that's the image that we all associate a soldier with, but there were so many more dimensions. That really created, for me, an opportunity to give them the chance to tell the story that they wanted to tell.
Very much like wine-making, you start with good stock fruit or good stories, and you get the hell out of the way and let them manifest themselves. That’s really what happened here. All that I tried to do was ask them good questions and then knit their stories together and fill it in with the footage that they provided to me. And it resonated because I think there was no political agenda whatsoever. It was simply to let these guys tell a story. The fascinating thing for me was that, along this way, I started to understand my father. I thought that that was something that wasn't anticipated, and it was very powerful. At the same time, my mother was dying of cancer. I started to understand loss. Watching it through these 20, 21, 22-year-old kids who were losing their friends, it became an incredibly profound experience for me personally.
Then to know that you don't just come back and assimilate and understanding that the long-term impacts of this kinds of stress and shock and loss, that it is something that is very intimate to each person that comes back, and each one of them handles it in a different way. I think that being respectful of that was something that I tried to tell in the storytelling process.
MN: Yeah, as I listen to you, I'm gratified that someone is doing that work because we have voices that are not heard You are bringing that to light using storytelling as a powerful vehicle. I'm grateful to you for that.
Anything you feel you need to communicate to our listeners? This is going to go far and wide, as we can guess. You have a platform and you've always used it. Well, here's another platform. What message would you send to our community of listeners that you feel is important to send at this very time and in this very space?
GM: There's always a way out of everything. Sometimes those are little solutions, and sometimes those are big solutions. I certainly can say, on my side of the world, that there isn't anything we could probably do to develop the cure, but that we know that there are other people that are. What we can do from our perspective is support our community in ways that are big and small. I think that this is a moment for all of us to remember that kindness is an obligation for all of us to be more patient, more tolerant, to check on your neighbor, to reconnect with a family member. It's a sobering moment, and yet it's a wonderful moment for that.
I think that this is a moment for all of us to remember that kindness is an obligation for all of us to be more patient, more tolerant, to check on your neighbor, to reconnect with a family member. It's a sobering moment, and yet it's a wonderful moment for that.
GM: I think that that is something that all of us talk about at the winery, within the organization, is that life is precious. I had a dear friend, Bill Sites, who was a B24 pilot in World War II. He flew over 90 missions with the 9th air force, including some pretty hairy stuff over Germany. And every time I saw a Bill, I would say, "Bill, how are you?" And he would look at me, and he'd say the same thing every single time. He'd say, "Every day is a gift." I think we need to live by that, that every day is indeed a gift. Sometimes it's a hard day, but there's beauty in every day. I think we have to find that, even amongst all of this uncertainty. And if we can do that, we can get through this together, but we have to rely on each other.
MN: I know now is not the time to enjoy, but now's the time to be contemplated and humble and share, but there will be a time when you and I can actually shake hands and engage and sit together in a social context and share a glass of Stoller wine. I hope that time comes soon. In between that time and now, I want to tell you how much I respect the work that you do, the way in which you do it, and the nature and with the gratitude you engage your day to day. I am really proud to be your friend and proud to be your colleague. Thank you for sharing this with us today at HealthChangers.
GM: Thank you for being such a great mentor to me because much of my philosophy has been shaped by you. So I am truly humbled by our friendship.
MN: Right back at you. Thank you very much.
Watch Video: Stroller Employees share "Welcome Home (with a Few New Rules)"
With Oregon starting to reopen amidst the new “COVID-19 reality” Stoller Wine Group thought it would be good to convey the new rules for being open in a way that makes the point while keeping things positive. Please watch their video, "Welcome Home (with a Few New Rules)" created by employees to share how we will be following guidelines for reopening.
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