“I find it odd that People have started referring to me as an Entrepreneur” - Keith Saarloos, April 2012 By John "RANG'ER Neal / by Saarloosandsons

This will teach one of the smartest guys i know (Jeff, Kris, Matt, Clif, withstanding) to interview a unpredictible knucklehead (me) for a Masters Course Presentation at USC in Entrepreneurship.
What follows is his presentation. (sorry about the subject matter)
 
“I find it odd that People have started referring to me as an Entrepreneur”
- Keith Saarloos, April 2012
Interview of an Entrepreneur : Keith Saarloos
Saarloos + Sons – Family, Farming, Vineyards and Wine.
USC EMBA LA XXVI
Theme IX – Entrepreneurship.
Submitted by : John Neale
Spring 2012


Hello Folks, welcome to God’s country . . .
This is what the locals call “God’s Country” and pretty much everyone that visits agrees.The weather is basically perfect all of the time, the scenery picturesque and it’s a place with many entrepreneurs . . . some are entrepreneurs in denial. I drove out to Los Olivos in the Santa Ynez valley to meet with one of them – the enigmatic Keith Saarloos of Saarloos + Sons. He’s part of what many consider an old world privileged industry but far from the stereotype. Saarloos + Sons, operating as a private company, are a farming and wine making family.
Saarloos + Sons – The (generational) back story . . .
The Saarloos family story starts with Gil Saarloos, who as a 13 year old depression era kid of Dutch heritage packed his belongings, leaving Iowa and moving west to California on an adventure. Eventually Gil became a farming supplies salesman, meeting and becaming a business partner with a chemist named Tasman Ezell. The pair started a business then known as Ezell Laboratories developing various solutions for dairy farmers that helped them improve profitability and another related business selling dairy farming supplies called Ezell Sales.


Over time, with the decline of the dairy industry in Southern California, the business morphed into a landscaping and nursery supplies business with Gil’s sons, Larry and Harvey taking the operational reigns. 
Along the way, Keith (Gil’s Gransdon, Larry’s son) manned a third party logistics and shipping venture that enabled the landscape supply business to more effectively move stock around their own stores and also engaged in shipping truck loads of products to many other stores including the emerging big box outlets like Home Depot. The logistics business utilized many innovative methods including being first to ship to store shelves, shipping by the truck load and taking a percentage share of difficult, bulky item revenues as well as novel but effective methods to get product onto shelves faster such as hiding gift vouchers among the load so the storemen would unload their trucks first. After a long and successful period the family sold the businesses to Central Garden and Pet Supplies and moved to the Santa Ynez valley some 13 years ago.


Saarloos + Sons – Today . . .
Today, the Saarloos + Sons is primarily a grape farming and wine making operation with approximately 200+ acres of farm land in the Santa Ynez valley, revenues are confidential. Approximately 20% of the annual harvest is used to produce Saarloos + Sons labeled wines with the remainder (around 150 tonnes) sold for between $2k and $4k per tonne to various winemakers to crush, ferment and sell under their own labels.
Why interview Keith Saarloos . . . . why would you care ?
I was first introduced to Keith well over a year ago by Kris Parker, USC classmate and good friend. Keith and Kris are both friends and business associates with the Fess Parker business.
Keith oozes energy, it’s infectious and dramatic. It’s inciting . . . it’s clear in talking to Keith that he values action, immediate action. Chatting with Keith, Kris and another of their friends regarding a long contemplated venture Keith urges action repeatedly and emphatically emploring creation of the sales problem . . . in this case
“brew so you have to find a way to sell then repeat, repeat, repeat . . . .”
In his mind the final destination need not be known in order to set off. The course need not be fully planned and plotted.


The Saarloos wine making business is growing ;
- employing “dynamic pricing” for more popular vintages rather than simple list pricing, 
- employing digital marketing through Twitter, Facebook and the company’s own website.
Keith has twice addressed undergraduate classes at USC’s Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the invitation of Faculty Member, Albert Napoli. Among other things Keith addresses the class on working hard, paying your dues, staying humble, being creative and chasing dreams.

Frankly, I also just wanted to know if Keith was a charming snake oil salesman with the gift of the gab or something else.


On winemaking and doing it differently . . .
The wine making industry is full of stereotype. Fine gentrified individuals in plaid jackets with leather elbow patches. Wine is, well, daunting to some, many a connoisseur using the industry vernacular, pomp and ceremony to exclude others. Saarloos + Sons use a basic appealing premise to “pitch” their wines. They make it welcoming and they don’t do tasting notes. Keith and the tasting room team can joust the technicalities of acidity, tannin, flavor and blah, blah, blah with the best of wine snobs.
It’s not their philosophy, not their pitch and not their style. Their different approach opens the way to a group of customers previously put-off by industry norm behavior.

On growth and taking risk . . .
Doing it differently, welcoming a new market of customers and making high quality wine just works.
Overall however, Saarloos + Sons pursues growth on a relatively conservative basis, aiming to achieve 12% growth year on year as a general rule. Goals are set at this level so that the company can achieve growth by taking appropriate “old school” risk.
Old school risk meaning minimal debt levels and not betting the farm. They don’t set outrageous goals because the view of their mission is multi-generational, it’s not a “get rich quick” or build to a liquidity event strategy. The Saarloos + Sons businesses are being built to last.
Keith Saarloos – winemaking entrepreneur ?
Los Olivos tasting room – guaranteed to be a welcoming experience

 

April 2012

“Entrepreneur - the term has been so ‘churched up’ . . . anyone who calls themself an entrepreneur, that’s straight-up bull$%@# !”
- Keith Saarloos

On structure and sage advice . . .
We chatted for some time on Keith’s role and purpose
in his organization as well as the role of others. The discussion covered the changing role of the entrepreneurial leaders in his organization. Gil’s move from salesman to company leader, advisor and mentor to his sons Larry and Harvey. Larry and Harvey’s relationship as operations and back office respectively. Keith’s introduction and Larry’s change to advisor and mentor to Keith’s role as what he calls “The Hub” i.e. the one who recognizes and puts to work the various complementary skills of family members and employees alike on the greater good of the organization.
 
Clarity of purpose and the benefit of learning from those directly involved in the business was a highlight of the discussion. Keith also talked of what came across as almost insatiable appetite to meet, interview, seek out advice and generally ‘chew the fat’ with all manner of individuals with knowledge or experience that might be of benefit – wine related or not.


What did I learn by chatting with Keith ?

1.Your dreams or someone else’s dream ?
I’ve never thought of the entrepreneur versus employee in these terms. It was kind of depressing afterward and somewhat distracting for a number of days after the interview – it might even remain an open question. Per Keith “If someone is paying you, your being paid to achieve their dreams. If you’re paying someone else, it’s to achieve your dreams”.
It just might be true and possibly also the answer to the conundrum of “employee discretionary effort” that much sort after effort category from employees. It seems that, at least in the case of this entrepreneur, discretionary effort is limitless in pursuit of one’s dream because Keith claims what he does never feels like “work”.

2. Stay committed but be prepared to change direction.
While being committed to goals is important being prepared to change direction and evolve your business is equally important. The shift from dairy farming focus to household landscape supplies is a good example. The decline of the dairy industry could easily have seen the demise of the family’s first business – a subtle tangential change in focus saw the business flourish.

3. Look beyond first appearances, seek counsel and be innovative. WORK LIKE YOU HAVE TO WIN!
One of the key moments Keith highlighted in the success of the Saarloos family farming and wine making ventures was buying a failing vineyard from another local grower and winemaker. The vineyard had been failing for a number of years with poor yield and the wrong grapes. The Saarloos’s bought the property after most (if not all) other suitors had rejected buying it. In negotiations they discounted heavily the value of existing vines eventually tearing out the existing vines and planting new varietals in three foot spacings (half the conventional spacing) as well as implementing many of the best successful practices of the many growers that Keith and family members interviewed over time. They Had To Win

4. Take opportunities to be creative and help others AND not just for money (although that is always good).
Your building both a store of good karma and by working on things outside of your own entrepreneurial pursuit you keep the mind exercised and creative. Keith has recently collaborated creatively on several projects with friends and fellow entrepreneurs. Currently under NDA’s with four separate companies related to creative input on several projects Keith also provides input as a contributor and sounding board to friends and fellow entrepreneurs on a fee free basis.

5. Old fashioned hard work . . . there’s nothing wrong with it AND it isn’t a bad thing. 
Be prepared to outwork those around you. The Saarloos family are farmers first. They are not engaged a new high technology venture although technology certainly plays a role in success with farming methods and marketing efforts combining a mix of both hard work and high tech. However, hard work is at the core of continued success.

6. An "entrepreneur" can never quit.
As Keith puts it … “You’ve got a job, you can quit. I can’t.” Being an entrepreneur takes commitment, if you don’t do the work there’s often no one else to.

The wrap-up . . .
Is Keith Saarloos an Entrepreneur ?
Seems like it, although the moniker is oddly uncomfortable, I asked him . . .
“Am I an entrepreneur ? I dunno. 
Charalatan – all talk, no action. 
Martyr – all action, no talk. 
Hustler –all talk and all action . . . 
that’s me,a HUSTLER.
I HUSTLE”
Keith Saarloos, April 2012.