Ups and downs of the vintner's luck

George Fistonich has taken Villa Maria from a one-man paddock operation to a decorated wine company - and clocked up 50 vintages. Andrew Stone reports

George Fistonich. Photo / Richard Robinson
George Fistonich. Photo / Richard Robinson

In his office, where wine cartons are jammed under shelves and trophies and dusty posters lean against walls, Sir George Fistonich digests the description that a young winemaker applied to him.

Michelle Richardson worked for Fistonich's Villa Maria for 10 years. She found her boss "at times a bully, frustrating, distant, infuriating, interesting, inspiring, generous, cheeky, fun-to-be-with and not-so-fun-to-be-with." The wine chief recalls he had great disputes with Richardson, whose account of being on Fistonich's payroll is contained in a new book by Kerry R.Tyack called The Winemaker - George Fistonich and the Villa Maria Story.

"We had battles," continues Fistonich.

"As she said, she was growing up," he remarks, a reference to his former employee's comment that at the time she lacked "emotional maturity". That might explain the barneys they had, the "slamming of doors."

Says Fistonich: "She's a very intelligent woman and a great winemaker. She was quick to react to things.

But it was a while ago. We have a great relationship and are very close friends."

Was her characterisation accurate? Fistonich replies: " I expected she'd write something controversial because that's her nature. I didn't bother to alter or correct it. But I don't think I'm a bully or anything like that."

Where he does agree with Richardson is that he's always tried to get the best from his staff and is not afraid to use unconventional means to achieve his ambitions. He sent winemakers and marketers to meditation classes because he found them useful, and he passed on books he thought might give them an edge.

One title which illustrates his method: Donald Krause's The Art of War for Executives.

Fistonich has also put staff through psychological testing and had sales teams attend NLP or neurolinguistic programming classes, which he maintains helped staff close the deal to sell more wine.

"I'm big on presentation and skills coaching," he explains. Sales teams needed to make quick judgments about customers and he wanted his staff equipped to make the best calls.

He thinks he was ahead of the game in what he terms "new age thinking", an approach he says started with his own desire to discover what made people tick. If he knew that, he could help make the sale.

"A good modern salesperson needs to be pretty intuitive, they need quite a lot of emotional intelligence," he says. "I felt it worthwhile to put a lot of that training into our people."

From what he knows about current staff training, he feels his company was doing things 20 years ago which he is now seeing on whiteboard sessions.

These are happy days for the wine knight. On Wednesday Villa Maria and its associated brands tasted success at a show for the umpteenth time with awards from Hawkes Bay. In an industry which showers itself with accolades, Fistonich's Villa Maria, in New Zealand at least, is at the head of the pack. A year ago in London the global industry, in the form of the International Wine Challenge, honoured Fistonich with its annual Lifetime Achievement Award.

Next Friday at its flagship Mangere winery the company celebrates its 50th vintage. Several hundred guests will toast the brand and its driving force, who is 73 next month and remains the company's managing director. Sir George is fit and trim and has long thrown away the smokes. Pilates keeps him supple. Though his daughter, Karen, chairs the company, her father shows no sign of calling it a day. Karen told author Tyack that she and her dad "butt heads every now and then".

Half a century after a young George Fistonich leased two hectares from his father on land at Mangere and made port and sherry, he is still in the neighbourhood. Wooden barrels he once stacked in a paddock now fill a temperature-controlled hall in Villa Maria's $30 million state-of-the-art winery.

From being a one-man band, Fistonich has created a family-owned enterprise which has 250 staff on its payroll and produces around a million cases of wine a year from all its brands. The output makes Villa Maria one of New Zealand's top 10 producers in the billion-dollar industry. Company exports go to over 50 countries which this year Fistonich - together with his wife Gail - has been visiting as "brand ambassador".

He says his globetrotting convinced him the company's push into sustainable organic production is utterly correct - just like his prescient embrace of screwcaps a decade ago, now an industry standard.

In five decades at the wheel, Fistonich in effect created Villa Maria twice - firstly from scratch as a 21-year-old, drawing on lessons he absorbed from his father Andrija and the Henderson Croatian community (he hung out with the Babichs, and drank wine in tea cups in a Queen St cafe.)

The rebuild occurred when he picked up the pieces after putting the company into voluntary receivership following a brutal price war which pushed it to the brink.

Fistonich says the financial collapse was a dreadful time. Corporate raider Brierley's had muscled into the wine business and held Corbans, Cooks and McWilliams through its subsidiary Magnum Corporation. Serious price-cutting driven by big players Magnum and Montana ate into Villa Maria's ability to pay its debts and advance deposits to growers for the 1986 vintage.

In October 1985 ANZ Bank, waiting for interest on its loans, told Fistonich it was going to pull the pin. But having come this far, Fistonich was not going down without a fight. He persuaded the bank to delay the receivership by two weeks, a shrewd move which allowed the company to wave around a clutch of trophies earned at the Australian Wine Awards on the very day it went under.

Headline writers sympathised with its plight. The New Zealand Herald put the bittersweet moment on the front page with story pitched as 'Success on a sad day for winemaker.'

The day before, Fistonich had assembled his staff from all around New Zealand to break the news. "By doing that everyone had a plan. They called on every wine shop and retailer and said we were going to battle on. We didn't lose any staff and our sales went up."

Within 12 months, the company had paid it debts and turned around its fortunes. The winemaker says the experience reminded him of the value of loyalty, he discovered the benefits of walking and got into meditation. "I came out a lot stronger and fitter."

Amid its golden jubilee hoopla, the question of succession at Villa Maria arises. Three senior executives report to the company patriarch, a leaner structure than the nine or so who used to do the job. Fistonich says he tried a few years ago to recruit a CEO but could not find a suitable candidate. So he remains MD, chief executive, company muse and keeper of the Villa Maria flame. "I like to keep my finger on the pulse."

Sir George Fistonich

Born: November 23, 1939. One of four children of Croatian immigrants Andrija and Mandica Fistonich.

Career: Left De La Salle College at 15. Completed building apprenticeship before leasing five acres from his father in Kirkbride Rd Mangere to make wine. Villa Maria was registered in 1961. Ports and sherries were followed by dry white hock.

George was the first winemaker, and won his first awards at the 1963 Royal NZ Easter Show. Villa Maria's brands include Vidals, Esk Valley, Thornbury and Te Awa.

Family: Married Gail Kirkpatrick in 1961. The couple have three children.

Best of times: September 2011 when Fistonich won the IWC Lifetime Achievement Award in London.

Worst of times: October 1985 when the company went into voluntary receivership

- NZ Herald

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