A Letter of Truth from Five Years Ago

I wrote this April 4th, 2014, right before I began my job at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. I still hold these things to be true and look forward to helping you build your road map to success.

Here we go again…another four years, another life change. After a three month long interview process that was intense and grueling, I’m on my way to a new job, a new experience, a new level of commitment to my career. There are so many people who really have no clue about what I do, what I sacrifice, what I strive to make happen. Striving to be the best is not easy; even more, it’s not about being perfect either. It’s quite the opposite actually, you have to be ok with knowing you are human, and totally flawed. Humility and integrity are not overrated, and my idea of being at the top is not a solo thing, in fact I already know who I want in my circle as I keep growing my career.

When you get into the wine industry there is no manual. There is no “how-to.” There is no training. It might not be Wall Street, but it is sink or swim. When you get into this industry you are jumping in with sharks who are your friends, who will drink with you and play with you but want your business. The competition is fierce and you will never know enough.

The best way I can describe getting into the wine industry is to take yourself to a large foreign city. Then travel 4 hours outside of that city into a small town where English is barely spoken, then try to make a living for yourself by convincing everyone else you should be there – in their language. It’s the most terrifying and exciting time you’ll ever have in your career – the first 6 months are a whirlwind of names, languages, prices, deals, and confusion…and of course let’s not forget, alcohol is a factor. Never will you have such a high, or will you create bonds with people you never expected. You instantly become part of this club that everyone really wants to be a part of, but not everyone can belong to.

And now, after 8 years and almost every job you can hold at my level, I am going into a whole new world. I am going into the National Accounts world…essentially I am calling on corporate buyers for some of the biggest restaurant chains in the world.

“Holy shit, how did that happen?”

It feels like just yesterday I was the bright eyed, Hawaiian shirt wearing hostess at Islands. Now Islands is one of my accounts, along with Cheesecake Factory, CPK, Wolfgang Pucks, Kings Seafood Company, BJ’s Brewhouse and Kimpton Hotels just to name a few; strangely many places I had actually worked in my 20’s, and now my life has come full circle and I am reunited with these restaurants in a whole new way.

Often I am asked, how did I get here? And until now, I used to shrug my shoulders and say, “mainly hard work.” But now with this new job I am taking on, I look at things differently. While the company I’m going to work for means nothing to most people, in my industry it is considered the best of the best. They are the most respected and admired, and the hardest to get in to – told to me by people who work for the company and who don’t. I beat out over 70 people for this job, and I’ve never even done what the job description was looking for.

I’ve learned a lot over the years, and have had countless discussions with people about their careers and being ambitious in today’s world. After some thought, I came up with this (starter) list of what I believe helped get me to where I am today:

  1. Find yourself role models. This may sound silly, but in a society that admires people like the Kardashians and god knows what else, having someone who you respect and want to be like, is important. Seek out the best in your industry and ask them for their time. Be respectful and thoughtful, and when they do finally give you their time, make sure you ask intelligent questions. The top people in your industry are well informed not only about their day-to-day business, but their industry as a whole.

  2. Be an expert on your industry. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in your own daily minutia. When you are doing a job, especially if you are a sales rep, your whole world is wrapped up into a small 5-mile radius of your territory. Expand your span of knowledge about your industry. Know what’s going on with your competition locally and nationally. I’m constantly amazed by the how little people know about what is going on beyond their first touch. I read three trade publications every morning that give me information about what’s going on globally, as well as check CNN, and it’s still not enough. The fact that I knew information about my future company without them having to tell me showed that I was invested and well informed. The saying “knowledge is power” is a popular saying for a reason.

  3. Set goals for yourself. It sounds trivial right? But how many of us go by day by day without ever really accomplishing anything? When I was a sales rep, I was 100% commission – kind of a scary thing if you think about it. I had no guaranteed paycheck. So with the help of my manager I created a yearly goal, then I broke it into 11 months, and then from there day by day. When I woke up every day, I knew the exact dollar amount of wine I needed to sell that day to hit my goal. Why 11 months you say? Because then in month 12 it was like giving myself a bonus, and it gave me a chance to bake cookies for my top accounts (which I still do to this day).

  4. Learn your gatekeepers and treat them kindly. You know how in the entertainment industry the guy who worked in the mailroom is now the biggest agent, or the PA is now an award-winning director? Same thing in my industry – the hostess is your next buyer, the dishwasher your next chef. Learn these peoples’ names. Acknowledge them always and treat them kindly. People will remember your actions long after you think they will.

  5. Practice kindness and positivity. Sounds simple right? The last I checked, complaining and being negative flows off our tongue effortlessly. Stopping for a moment everyday to think of what is actually good is an active effort. As strange as it sounds, it doesn’t come naturally. To this day, it is something I practice on a regular basis. The added benefit; it tends to eliminate people who are negative or want to bring you down.

  6. Manage people. You might be great at it. You might suck at it. You might not be meant to do it, or it could be your calling – either way there is nothing that will teach you more about how others are motivated and how you handle success as well as resolve conflicts.

  7. And on that note, know that sometimes you will have jobs that you don’t want to do. So often people have no idea what they really want to do with their careers because they don’t try everything. At this point I can now say, I’ve been a waitress, a restaurant manager, a wine buyer, a sommelier, a wine sales rep, a district manager, a supplier, I’ve managed four states for sales, and I’ve dealt with every major distributor in the industry. Some of it I’ve LOVED; some of it I can say with 100% certainty I don’t want to do again. I know it’s this well-rounded background that made me stand out as a candidate for my new job; I’d done every position and excelled at them. Not because I was meant to do every position but because I looked at each position as the opportunity to grow and learn.

  8. Trip. Fall. Pick yourself up. Trip again. Its gonna happen. Sometimes you’ll exceed your goals for the month by 100cs or a few thousand dollars; sometimes you’ll be pronouncing the Premier Cru’s wrong. It’s all part of the process.

  9. Know when to sacrifice and work the extra hours, but also know when it’s time to put work away. I’m in a unique position where I work from home (when I’m not traveling). There are certain nights I could very easily work away on my laptop in front of whatever show I’ve taped, but I made the conscious effort to “leave the office” and take some time for myself. There are things I’ve had to miss because of work travel, but I have also made it a priority that when I’m home I want to have quality experiences balanced with quality tv time (I won’t give up my Vampire Diaries)…

  10. Also remember to have outside interests and surround yourself with interesting people. Admittedly, I’m a workaholic (such a dirty word). I love what I do and I love my industry, but it’s through my outside activities (like Adult Color Wars) that have brought some of the most wonderful people into my life. It makes the adventure of life that much more rewarding and I am constantly learning from the people I meet outside of the wine world

  11. Don’t be afraid to start over, be afraid of not starting…I began my career at 29. It took me a LONG time to find the right fit, but now that I’ve found it I feel like the possibilities are endless.

  12. Maintain your humility and integrity. Whatever your motivations are for getting to the top, keep in mind that your ego makes a strong impression. What kind of impression do you want to leave on people? I got to where I am with a lot of hard work yes, but I’ve also had a lot of love and support from friend and family along the way. Admittedly, I like to be at the top, but I like to be surrounded with other who are inspiring and great and big thinkers like me. Whatever your job may be; no matter how big or how small, it is a part of your legacy that you will leave behind. Kindness is free, and the truth is, no one likes an asshole. It’s your choice how you will be remembered.

So that’s it. That’s my wisdom. It might seem trivial. It might seem simple. But it’s worked for me, and I think I’m in a pretty damn good place…I’ll see you at the top.

Jennifer ThomasComment