The no-family dilemma
If children aren’t interested in taking over the family farm, you need a succession plan.
PHOTO COURTESY OF Betz Family Winery
Steve and Bridgit Griessel, left couple, are learning the DNA of the Betz Family Winery founded by Cathy and Bob Betz, right couple.
You’ve invested your life in building a vineyard, winery, or other agricultural enterprise, producing a high-quality product with a topnotch reputation. For some, the business can be left to children to continue the family legacy. But what if you don’t have children interested in the family farm or winery?
Bob and Cathy Betz were in that very dilemma several years ago.
Betz, who just finished his thirty-eighth grape harvest in Washington State, admits that some of the physical demands of being a winemaker, like doing punch downs, dragging hoses and moving barrels, are getting harder. After Betz and his wife, Cathy, talked about retirement with their two daughters several years ago, they realized that they needed to make a succession plan.
Wineries such as Leonetti Cellars and Quilceda Creek are fortunate in having family to continue the wine business, Betz says. “One of our two daughters, Carmen, works in the family winery in marketing, but neither daughter was in a position to take over and manage the business,” he said. “Cathy and I had invested ourselves so fully in the winery that we realized we needed to do something to ensure its continued success. So we began a well-thought-out process to look for a buyer.”
Betz is an icon in Washington State’s wine industry and an outspoken ambassador for Washington wines. He’s been part of the industry since the 1970s, working for nearly 30 years at Chateau Ste. Michelle before crushing his first vintage in 1997 for Betz Family Winery and building a state-of-the-art wine facility in Woodinville in 2005. Betz Family red wines have received all kinds of accolades, including red wine of the year titles from consumer and wine publications; Betz was named winemaker of the year in 2007 by Sunset magazine. For a time, he was one of only two in the state to hold the prestigious Master of Wine qualification.
In developing a succession plan, Betz strongly recommends “getting your house in order.” Do everything possible to produce a high-quality wine, manage the business successfully and profitably, and get your winery financial and business aspects in order, he said during an interview with the Good Fruit Grower. “You do not want to sell in a position of desperation.”
The process of getting things in order can take several years. Allow plenty of time for preparation, getting financial documents assembled, and paying off loans.
He admits that after getting their financials together, he was surprised at how well their winery looked on paper. “We’d just been hard-working fools all these years, totally focused on the winery. We didn’t realize we’d be looked on so favorably by buyers.”
The Betzes chose an acquisition/investment firm in Seattle to represent them. Confidentiality was a priority. They found out there was a lot of national interest in their winery, and after months into the process, they interviewed four potential buyers—two well-known Napa Valley wine companies, a Pacific Northwest wine company, and a husband and wife looking to buy a West Coast winery. Ultimately, they chose the husband-and-wife team, Steve and Bridgit Griessel.
While Betz wasn’t ready to completely retire, both he and Cathy wanted more time to be with grandchildren and to volunteer for charity events like the Auction of Washington Wines. (Bob served as the 2012 co-chair.)
“We could have hired a general manager and continued on for several more years,” he said. “But that’s what made Steve and Bridgit Griessel so appealing.” The Griessels shared their core beliefs of wanting to produce quality Washington wine, the importance of paying attention to details, and had a familial attitude about business. “They even wanted to live in our house at the winery. It was a marriage with Steve and Bridgit.”
The Griessels are new to the wine industry. Steve grew up in South Africa, starting his first business at age 25 with $2,000. He’s developed companies in the United States and South Africa, mostly involved in the hospitality, sports marketing, real estate, and investment industries. After his last sell-off of a public company, he took a year off to try to realize a long-time dream of owning a West Coast winery. They enlisted an investment bank to help in their winery search.
Part of the sale of the Woodinville winery, which closed in June 2011, was a five-year transition period with Betz as winemaker. Steve explained that five years allows enough time to truly understand and document the DNA of the business and reflect it back to Bob and Cathy to make sure they have it right.
Steve said the winery is all about the Betz family, and he and Bridgit want to keep it that way. “It’s all about the legacy of Bob, his great winemaking skills, and his dedication and ambassadorship to Washington wines.”
When children take over a family business, they have the family DNA and business culture already imprinted, Steve said. “Bob and Cathy have had to turn us into their family and imprint us with the business DNA.” To do so, Steve said that they’ve documented what the business is about and the partners talk about it all the time so that he and Bridgit know what they’re aiming for and what they still need to learn. “We want to get there by design not by default.”
He notes that the winery is not just about Bob and Cathy, but the Betz winery has a host of stakeholders, from growers producing the grapes to distributors to wine club members, consumers, and even volunteers who help during winery events. “You need to understand the key stakeholders in the business because they, too, have interest in the business’s future and continuity.”
Steve shared that when he and Bridgit learned of the Betzes’ succession plan— Bob’s desire to continue making wine without all the other management duties—it was a perfect fit.
“We wanted to be their kids,” he said. “We loved the idea of stepping into their family.”
They moved into the Betzes’ house, fully embracing the family winery environment. Steve and Bridgit are raising their last child, Trent, a ten-year-old, in the family business environment.
“Who knows, maybe he’ll grow up to be a winemaker”, Steve mused.
“It will always be the Betz Family Winery,” he said. “We have no problem with keeping the Betz legacy intact. Changing the name would be like changing the name of Disneyland if it sold. Why would you want to do that?”
Steve likens his relationship with Betz to being an owner/intern. “And I’m very happy to be that intern, learning from the ground up. By being in the winery every day, next to Bob, I am learning his winemaking protocols and his personal signature to making wine.”
With Bridgit and Steve taking over other business aspects of the winery, Betz can concentrate solely on winemaking. Bridgit brings information technology and digital skills to the winery and is working to manage and improve customer service.
“I’ve told this to Bob a hundred times, and I keep telling him, he’s not going anywhere,” said Steve. “My hope is that after five years, we’ll be having so much fun that he’ll want to stay involved longer.”