Have you ever wanted to ask someone questions about their career path? How I Did It asks those questions for you. Serial entrepreneur and beverage magnate J. Smoke Wallin, MBA’93, starts off this recurring series.
Q. What do you do?
I turn ideas into actionable things. Whether working on community issues, industry issues or business ideas, time and time again, I tackle a challenge by manifesting something that was not before.
In recent years, I have been looking for ways to acquire or create new brand businesses in the beer, wine and spirits space. This pursuit has taken many a twist and turn, and the process has not always been pretty. Today I run several businesses.
I am president and CEO of the Napa Smith Brewery and Winery in Napa, Calif. I acquired the brewery in late 2010 with some partners. We sell in 10 states and Sweden, the U.K. and Hong Kong.
I serve as managing director of Lipman Brands, a brand marketing and sales company. My task has been to build out the infrastructure (systems, process and people) for Lipman Brands to be a national selling organization.
I am chairman, CEO and founder of eSkye Solutions, a technology dot-com I started with a number of Owen alumni back in 1999. Though we have changed our business model a number of times, acquired numerous companies and sold our winery software division in 2007, we continue to build our national account pricing business with large retailers and brands.
And through my holding company, I am still engaged in various consulting projects for new brands, existing businesses and startups. This is a minor part of my job, but it keeps me in touch with new ideas, people and opportunities.
Q. What’s your educational background?
I started as an engineer at Cornell, then was in the hotel management school and then settled on agricultural economics (Cornell’s undergraduate business program). It turns out my time in hospitality management and the agricultural economics department—with a huge emphasis on the grocery and consumer packaged goods industries—gave me a great initial preparation for the beverage industry. At Owen I had a triple concentration in finance, marketing and operations. My view was I wanted to be a general manager/entrepreneur so I needed to learn about all those areas.
Q. What was your first job?
My first job out of Cornell was with Seagram in their management training program. After a summer at Seagram, I had the opportunity to join them full time or join their distributor, National Wine and Spirits. I joined NWS when it was doing $150 million annually. When I left 14 years later, we were a $1 billion operation.
Q. Tell us about your consulting and brand work.
With eSkye, we were doing business with beer, wine and spirits companies all over the world. At one point we had over 250 wineries making or selling their wine using our software. I ended up advising many clients on not just their technology but also on their distribution and business strategy.
I got a bit frustrated with trying to get an old, sleepy and successful industry to be creative in their business strategy. This inevitably led me to want to own my own brands so I could demonstrate my ideas in real life. Starting a new business takes a level of commitment that has to overcome huge obstacles. To make such a commitment, one has to be fairly passionate about whatever it is one does. I have been passionate about the brands business for some time now.
Q. What would you say was your big break or opportunity?
Growing up with a mom who was (and is) very independent-minded, hard-working and stubborn. Becoming a wrestler in high school and later at Cornell. No sport teaches better discipline and self-reliance. Select coaches, teachers and mentors along the way who saw potential in a kid with big ideas and no wallet.
Q. What was—or has been—your biggest challenge?
Overcoming financial distress when either markets or circumstances have gone against me at select moments. …The good news is, if you can get through those times and never forget them, it makes for a wiser, more humble perspective. This is something I think I was meant to learn.
Q. What was—or has been—your greatest thrill (or accomplishment if you’d prefer to answer that)?
Biggest thrills: Closing on a $110 million bond deal for NWS as CFO, closing on a $60 million equity deal for eSkye as CEO and acquiring the Napa Smith Brewery. Also a handful of sales closes over the years that were big enough to materially impact that particular business.
Biggest accomplishments: I would say seeing some of the people I hired, believed in and worked with go on to be very successful in their own right. That includes some Owen grads and many others along the way.
Q. If you could give one piece of advice, what would it be?
I’ll give two:
- Don’t let fear prevent you from pursing your dreams. Nothing great was ever accomplished by someone who simply thought great things. It only happens in doing.
- Enjoy the journey. I spent a lot of energy focusing on outcomes: raising money, IPOs, deals and sale closes. Those are important, but enjoying the process of getting there, each and every day, needs to be constantly remembered. This is where we spend most of our time and if that is so, how do you want to remember most of your time?
Easier said than done, but you asked for advice.