Book recounts impersonal 'on-the-job training' of operating a business
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
When winery founder Susan Sokol Blosser was ready to publish her most recent book, "Gracious & Ruthless," people advised against her choice of words.
The book's basic theme -- you should politely pursue the best interest of your company without letting feelings get in the way -- was fine, they said. But "ruthless" is such a harsh word, perhaps she could tone it down.
Sokol Blosser wasn't swayed, and she stuck with her original vocabulary.
"Ruthless is detached, unemotional and looking at the facts. It's doing what the business needs to survive," she said. "I think I had to learn to be ruthless. If you're just gracious, people will run all over you."
Sokol Blosser, former president of the Sokol Blosser Winery in Dundee, Ore., characterizes herself a "liberal arts graduate with no skills who became a business executive."
The gracious part came naturally, but the ruthless part was the result of "on-the-job training," she said.
Her business philosophy began forming early on, when various groups requested wine donations to bolster their fundraising efforts.
After a while, Sokol Blosser realized the fledgling company would run out of bottles if she accommodated all the requests.
So she would call the organizations back, sincerely compliment whatever cause they were promoting, but ultimately say no.
When the winery found its legs and started having some success, groups asked Sokol Blosser to join their boards or partner in other ventures.
If their ideas diverged from the winery's core business, she'd turn them down.
On another occasion, Sokol Blosser learned to be ruthless when under attack.
In the early 1990s, the winery planned to host concerts on the property, which needed approval from the local government.
The bureaucratic process required input from the public, which elicited complaints from neighbors and other wineries about land use and commercial ventures on farmland.
The vehemence of the opposition surprised Sokol Blosser.
"Some of the comments were very personal," she said. "It was very hard for me to get past that."
Ultimately, however, Sokol Blosser decided that she couldn't take criticisms personally or it would skew her perspective.
In the book, she advises small business owners not to take offense or let insults undermine their confidence.
Instead, such conflicts should be considered part of a game, which Sokol Blosser dubs "Bizopoly."
"Not to get emotionally involved is really important," she said. "When you start making decisions based on your emotional state, the decisions will not be good ones."
Despite the objections, Sokol Blosser was permitted to hold concerts at the winery.
The musical operation turned out to be a big success, drawing big names like John Denver and Jackson Brown, who drew thousands of spectators.
A few years later, though, the winery stopped organizing the events after taking a ruthless look at how much time and effort they consumed.
"The concerts became the tail that wagged the dog," Sokol Blosser said. "We had to ask ourselves, 'Are we in the wine business or the music business?' When we asked ourselves that, the answer became clear."
In one of Sokol Blosser's toughest decisions, she had to be ruthless with herself.
Having accomplished the goals she set for the winery, Sokol Blosser no longer felt sure how to guide the company forward.
As she writes in "Gracious & Ruthless," trying to maintain the status quo is a bad strategy for a small business.
So Sokol Blosser decided to turn the company over to her son and daughter, Alex and Alison, who became co-presidents in 2008.
"I didn't want them to be waiting in the wings -- what I call the Prince Charles effect," she said.
The transition wasn't easy, however.
Sokol Blosser acknowledges that her identity was closely bound with that of the winery, so letting the business go was emotionally wrenching.
"I didn't realize how difficult it was going to be," she said. "I was getting awards and recognition for something I was trying to give up."
Since then, Sokol Blosser has delved into writing a third book, this one specifically about separating herself from the winery.
Her first book, "At Home in the Vineyard," tells the story of Oregon's wine industry through Sokol Blosser's eyes.
When she's not writing, Sokol Blosser spends time gardening and serving on the board of a conservation group -- things she couldn't do while running the winery.
"When I was president, my total focus was business," she said.
Staff writer Mateusz Perkowski is based in Salem, Ore. E-mail: email@example.com.
To order a copy of "Gracious & Ruthless," go to www.sokolblosser.com.