True To Our Roots

\'dolanlarge.jpg\'Paul Dolan’s turning point came early one crisp fall morning in 1987 while, as head winemaker of Fetzer, he was tasting grapes in the vineyards before the harvest. He tried a ripe Sauvignon Blanc grape from an experimental vineyard that was being farmed organically. The fruit was bursting with lush, creamy flavors. Only fifteen feet away was the same grape being farmed conventionally. Its bland and flat taste changed Dolan’s views not only on grape growing, but on the business world as well.

True to Our Roots: Fermenting a Business Revolution, written by Dolan with Thom Elkjer, imagines a world where the earth’s resources regenerate faster than they are depleted. A world of less waste, widespread economic well-being, and social tolerance. And it argues that businesses – that is, sustainable businesses – are the way to get us there. Dolan transformed Fetzer into a company dedicated to organic agriculture, environmental stewardship, and socially beneficial practices, providing a model for leaders of all industries to follow.

When Dolan was appointed president of Fetzer in 1992, he changed its business model from one that was solely profit driven to one that viewed sustainable practices as an asset and competitive advantage. Ten years later, all his vineyards were being farmed organically, landfill waste had been reduced by 93%, productivity had increased by 100%, and renewable energy was being used for the winery and its visitor center. Fetzer also worked to enhance the community, establishing a food and wine center with educational classes, offering ESL classes for workers and creating scholarship programs.

And the impact on the bottom line? Fetzer increased its earnings an average of 15 percent a year, became the largest California brand of premium wine in the U.S. in the $7 to $10 range, and was one of the best-selling brands in the U.S. for all varietal wines. Dolan showed that sustainable business not only benefits the environment and society, but is profitable to shareholders as well.

Fetzer’s path to sustainability wasn’t always easy. As a pioneer in the field, Dolan was trekking through uncharted territory and learning through exploration, trial and error. After purchasing an historic cherry orchard to develop new vineyards, Fetzer became the target of public outcries, and then company-wide protests when they began to cut down virgin woodlands beyond the orchard. Dolan, brimming with personal conflict, hosted multiple public meetings to discuss the situation. The cherry trees were eventually cleared for the new vineyards; the company couldn’t afford not to develop the land after purchasing it. However, Fetzer then adopted a company policy of only converting previously existing agricultural land into vineyards.

Dolan has turned his experiences into a model other business leaders can follow to sustainable success. With optimistically named chapters, such as “The Soul of a Business Is Found in the Hearts of Its People” and “You Can’t Predict the Future, But You Can Create It,” he illustrates how he individually, as well as Fetzer as a company, came to embody the principles of his plan. It is in the personal examples that the book becomes alive. Dolan describes how the “command and control” personality that severed his first marriage helped him realize that a business environment of trust and communication produces much better results. He realized that his tendency to prejudge people and his poor listening abilities were not only hindering the potential of his staff, but even affecting his relationship with his son. As Dolan began shifting his managerial practices to a healthy and sustainable model, he simultaneously changed his outlook on his personal life.

Throughout the book, one of Dolan’s most passionate claims is that today’s business leaders need to discuss sustainability along with profits and talk with each other about creating standards within their own industries. When organizing a Wine Vision meeting with 60 top leaders from across America, Dolan made sustainability one of the major platforms of the event and was able to gain commitments from the industry as a whole.

Dolan asserts that businesses need to take a stance on sustainability and formulate a clear vision for the future of their organizations. Once leaders go public with their decision to become sustainable, “fulfillment is not only possible, it is inevitable,” even if the path getting there is uncertain. In 1994, Dolan wrote an internal memo that explicitly outlined what Fetzer would look like in the year 2005. He envisioned a company recognized as a leader in sustainable business practices, one that would nurture an environment of learning, with all service and support vehicles operating on sustainable energy sources. In almost every respect, Fetzer lived up to the vision.

Ultimately, True to Our Roots is a call to action: business leaders must extend their responsibilities beyond procuring financial returns and also attain environmental and social returns. The concept may seem idealistic to some, but Dolan proves it is feasible and may be our only hope for achieving a future of environmental, social, and economic well-being. And in some cases, it’s already happening. Dupont, Nike, Xerox, and Patagonia are some of the companies that are taking a stance toward positive change, in the forms of zero waste, organically grown cotton, or environmentally responsible practices. But we have yet to see industry-wide shifts. Perhaps a group of united winemakers will provide inspiration to other businesses to create large-scale change toward sustainability. Let’s hope that Dolan’s harmonious vision of the future is as accurate as his past predictions for Fetzer.

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