Through hard work and mutual respect, a Napa Valley family has created the über-successful Cakebread Cellars
More than 30 years ago, Jack Cakebread, a freelance photographer and the third-generation owner of an auto repair shop, spent the day in Napa Valley taking photographs for a book. During his visit he casually mentioned to some friends his interest in one day owning a vineyard. Upon his return home that afternoon, the phone rang and it was the family friends offering to sell their property. He immediately headed back up to the valley to make his best offer, a mere $2,500 he had received as an advance on the book. Fortunately his offer was accepted and shortly thereafter Cakebread Cellars was born.
The first vintage of Cakebread, 157 cases of chardonnay, was made in 1973. Today the company produces 150,000 cases of wine, including chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sauvignon blanc and, soon to be released into national distribution, pinot noir and zinfandel. Additionally, what began as 22 acres has blossomed tremendously into 13 sites scattered throughout Napa Valley and the North Coast totaling 420 acres, 340 of which are currently planted. Like Cakebread’s founder, the second generation is dedicated to quality above all else. Amassing such a large holding of vineyard land affords them the control upon which they insist.
While it is hardly uncommon for a winery to be a true family venture, at Cakebread this uniquely successful “culture” has been taken to another level. And while this close-knit clan has seen many changes take place over the past 30-plus years, from winemaking and farming techniques to marketing, one thing remains constant: the belief that success is rooted in honesty and respect. I had the opportunity to chat with Jack, the charming and gregarious patriarch, and Dennis and Bruce, two of his sons, to discuss the ins and outs of working for a family-owned and -operated company.
LIKE FATHER …
What prompted you to make such a drastic change from automobile garage owner to winery owner?
Well, it was not a winery originally. I actually bought a cow pasture. [Laughs] As it grew, you have to pay personal attention to details, just like at the repair shop. You have to do it right so that your customers return.
Apparently, working with family is in your blood. What did you learn from your business relationship with your father?
I learned what you can never learn in college. My dad had street smarts and people skills and tremendous analytical skills. Like most fathers and sons, we did not always get along, but I worked with him for 30 years, so I learned something new practically every day.
What’s it like working with family day in and day out?
Well, when I got into it with my sons, and even though that’s one thing they tell you is never have a child come straight out of school and work for the family, Bruce did just that and it’s worked out well. He’s been here for 30 years. Dennis went off into banking and finance, and after about 10 or 11 years, he said, “You and Bruce are having all of the fun. Can you teach me marketing?” I have one real complaint about both Dennis and Bruce: They both work their tail feathers off. They work hard, and they work smart. It’s a family effort for sure, and my wife, Dolores, is an integral part, she’s been the rock since the start. The oldest one [Sam] does not work here, but he’s on my board of directors
. Working with your sons, to see them grow up really makes you feel good. God gave us three wonderful sons, he really has. But, the credit goes to the whole extended family. We have a team of people working here who are the best around. The Cakebread family looks at them as extended family, and it’s an absolute pleasure to have them around.
With three more-than-capable sons, how was a successor chosen?
I have an outside board and have had the board for 19 years. About 10 years ago they came to me and said, “Jack, you’re not getting any younger, so do you want to do the succession planning now, or do you want the boys to do it in the backseat coming home from the cemetery?” I said, “Let’s do it now!” See, if I had picked one of them to be CEO, I would alienate the other two. Without a doubt all three of them have the horsepower to do the job, so it’s going to be their issue. I called all three of them into my office, and I said, “Okay you guys figure out who you want, who you can work with, who you can love and support and, above all, let’s be the first family in Napa Valley in 200 years, who’s gone through succession planning without losing a family member.” Pretty good, huh? That was eight years ago. It’s quite rare in Napa Valley that families can change from one generation to the next without one of the members leaving. It’s amazing that we’ve done it, but I’m not surprised as the guys are all really good guys. In working with your family there’s a certain inner pride, I guess you can call it. It makes you feel good that things will continue. We have a culture in our family, if I can call it that, it means you’re honest, you’re trustworthy, you keep things clean and do things right and that will reflect in your product all over the world.
What’s the biggest challenge in running a family-owned and operated business?
That’s the understatement of the year! [Laughs] Well, I don’t say this in front of the boys, but any person with any brains can be a CEO. But to be a CEO and a father in a family business, boy, you’re walking on thin ice! The key is to communicate, and we don’t let things ferment.
It must also be incredibly rewarding to cultivate a business from the ground up with your family.
It’s not always been easy. Delores and I—she was 14 and I was 15 when we met—we married when she was 19 and I was 20, and by the time we were 24 and 25, we had three sons. When I bought the cattle ranch, I had two sons in college and one in high school, I had the garage shop and no money. I was doing freelance photography and someone asked me to do a tabletop book on wineries and my advance was $2,500. So that’s all I had to start this thing off with. Well, let me put it this way, people say, “Gee, Jack, you’ve done this and that and this.” Well, God opens the door and I just walk in. Really, that’s it!
So what’s one business lesson you hope that your sons have learned from you?
Be truthful. Don’t hide anything. Be right upfront and treat people like you want to be treated. Treat everyone with dignity and honor, and you’ll find that that will come back to you in spades.
If you could have only one last bottle of wine, what would it be and why? And with whom would you share it?
[Laughs] That’s like choosing your favorite child. But I would share it with my wife, of course!
… LIKE SONS
Bruce Cakebread is the youngest of the three sons, but he was the first to join his father in the family wine business. He studied agriculture at UC-Davis, so the transition into the family wine business was a natural one. Bruce started out in winemaking, but a few years ago he assumed the role of president and CEO. The middle son, Dennis Cakebread, received a graduate degree and, upon getting his CPA license, spent about ten years in the banking industry before joining the family business. Today, Dennis holds the position of director of sales and marketing.
Did you aspire to be in the wine business or was it just a natural transition?
Bruce: It just kind of worked out that way. It’s an agricultural product, and I’m in the agricultural business, so for me it was the best job in the world.
Dennis: Well, the winery started in ’73, so Bruce and I have always worked here. But we haven’t always been paid, if you know how family businesses work. Back in the early days, during out first vintage, we made 157 cases of wine, that was more of a hobby than a business. So when I got out of graduate school this wasn’t a business to make a living in. So I didn’t really aspire to be in the business because back then it really wasn’t a choice.
As president and COO, what are your main responsibilities?
Bruce: Well, when I began, and for about 25 years, I was responsible for winemaking. Today my responsibility is to make sure that everyone has the tools and the opportunity to be successful in each of their departments. Sometimes it’s just being there to listen. Part of my responsibility is to also make sure that we all go in the same direction, which we are, and so that we’re all running off of the same value sets and guiding principles.
As VP of sales and marketing, what exactly falls under your realm?
Dennis: Well, Bruce makes it and I sell it! [Laughs] Part of our challenge is to keep all of the employees sharp and excited and exploring new avenues and the same thing for us and our consumers. We always need to be creating new consumers and keeping the existing ones happy. In some ways the wine business is crazy because I can’t think of any other consumable product that has more competitors than we do. So if you walk into a grocery store, probably the only other consumable good that has an entire aisle is breakfast cereal. So we’re at a point where we have a lot of choices in terms of our marketing efforts in order to get people to remember us, so a lot of what we do is educational, to get consumers to understand what makes us different.
What are the biggest challenges in working with family on a day-to-day basis?
Bruce: You know, it’s just when we don’t communicate well, when everyone’s traveling or going in a bunch of different directions. Because when you don’t communicate, that’s where things break down. We’re all going in the same direction, although we might take a different path to reach the same goal.
Dennis: Well, it’s a family business, come on! [Laughs] Working with your parents and your brother—just think about it. Everybody makes jokes about getting together with family during the holidays, doesn’t your brother-in-law or sister-in-law just drive you nuts sort of thing. So it’s just typical family things.
What are the most rewarding aspects?
Bruce: One of the rewards is knowing that no one is going to give up working their hardest and doing their best because nobody wants to be the short leg on the stool. You’ve got really strong motivation, so in this competitive industry that we’re in, everyone comes in with passion on their sleeves. You’re going have good days and tough days, but it’s rewarding at the end of the day to sit around with good friends and family to be proud of the product you make.
Dennis: Well, the reward part is easy. First of all, everybody is looking long-term. Second is trying to do what’s right. Because we’re family owned and we have a similar value system, so we can all look at it and say let’s do it right even though it might not be the right economic decision or the current trend. Part of being a small family business is having the opportunity to do things differently.
When it was time to choose Jack’s successor, he had the three of you actually make the decision. Each of you has the experience and the ability to run the business, so how was this all handled in such a civilized manner?
Bruce: It wasn’t the ability issue at all, but more like who’s got the time and who can get replaced in their current job. Dennis is top-notch in sales and marketing, so he needed to keep on top of that because that’s a tremendous aspect of our business. It wasn’t like who’s going to do what. More like you move there and handle that, and I can take over this part. Being president just means that you try to keep everyone going in the same direction and if someone gets too far out there, we’re all quick to let them know. [Laughs]
Many family-owned and -operated businesses succumb to conflict, which ultimately leads to failure or at least family division. To what do you attribute your family’s success and longevity?
Bruce: I think we’re all very different, but we all have the same common goal. Also, we all have the drive to raise the bar. It’s great when a customer says I proposed over your bottle of chardonnay, but you wake up thinking Gee what can we do next? How are we going to top that? And there’s that kind of focus, so I think that’s what is going to help for the next 37 years—that kind of focus on quality, in terms of customer experience with the wines and making them better.
Dennis: Counseling! [Laughs] I think we’re just lucky. It’s about being able to settle our differences respectively. I think the advantage that I’ve got is having worked outside of the family business for 10 years; I’m used to having business disagreements with peers and bosses, so for me it’s a normal thing. So what we try to learn, and we work on it every day, is its okay to disagree, but to look at things factually and not with emotions.
How do you and your brother overcome your differences to find a common ground?
Bruce: Well, to me that’s a good point. Dennis and I are very different, and our kids are very different, so that difference actually makes us more successful than if we all thought the same way. We get a diversity of opinions with the common thread of being from the same family, so as long as you can celebrate and appreciate differences of opinion knowing that you’re going in the same direction, I think that makes us stronger.
Dennis: Usually we try to stay away from knives! [Laughs] Well, for one, if we don’t agree, we just leave it until we can reach a consensus, and hopefully, if we all look at the same facts, we’ll all come up with the same conclusion. An illustration of that is years ago when we decided to expand our line beyond cabernet and sauvignon blanc. We were going to get together and agree on one new wine to make. So we come out of that meeting agreeing that we would make merlot, zinfandel syrah, pinot noir. You look at the stated goal of the meeting, and it was like, “Boys, what happened there?” Everybody just could not agree [on one], so we agreed to start making all of them in small quantities with the idea that certainly after we started making them, one would shine and that’s the one we would continue to make. It just illustrates the dynamic of how decisions are made. But the fun part is all of them are terrific wines, so it’s good that we agreed to try making them all.
If you could have only one last bottle of wine, what would it be and why? And with whom would you share it?
Bruce: One last bottle! Well, it doesn’t matter to me what the wine is as long as you have it with good friends and family, that’s the best bottle.
Dennis: Well, my wife and I drink pinot noir all of the time, so that’s what it would be.