Mike O’Connell never envisioned himself owning a winery. So how did he end up the proprietor of Grayson Cellars whose Grayson Chardonnay just received its 10th straight Best Buy and whose Block 9 Pinot Noir was rated the best California Pinot Noir under $25 for the third year in a row, both by The Wine Advocate?
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Industrial and Operations Engineering in 1993, O’Connell worked briefly at Cummins Manufacturing before returning to The University of Michigan to earn an MBA at Ross Business School. It was after graduating from Ross in 1997 that he was asked to run Mario Andretti’s winery in Napa, California. The invitation came from Andretti’s partner in the winery who O’Connell had met when he came to speak at an event at Ross.
When he first started his own company, O’Connell kept the planning simple. “I had a spreadsheet of financials to know how much capital we needed but spent no time dealing with office space, org charts or anything along those lines. We bottled some wine and I got out a pen and paper and started calling potential customers to see if I could send them samples. I still have those hand written notes today,” he says.
During his time at Michigan, O’Connell says IOE’s Professor Andrew Crawford was an important influence. O’Connell was part of a group of alumni who established the Andrew S. Crawford Award for Entrepreneurship Excellence in memory of Professor Crawford who founded IOE’s entrepreneurship course and taught it for 15 years. The award recognizes a top student in IOE 424 each semester. “Recognition at that stage in someone’s life goes a long way,” O’Connell says. “I wish Andy were here today to see how much entrepreneurial focus there is on the engineering campus. He’d be humbled to see what he started.”
He also notes that John Birge, then the IOE Department Chair, giving him the chance to serve as an IOE graduate student instructor when he was in the Ross program was a wonderful opportunity. And, in fact, his time at IOE as an undergrad helped prepare him for his time at Ross.
“A lot of those business classes [taken as an undergraduate in IOE] gave me a different perspective than I would have gotten in other engineering programs,” he explains. O’Connell says he was able to test out of many of the first year requirements at Ross because of the business focused courses he’d already taken in IOE which allowed him to explore a wider variety of classes during his MBA program then he might have been able to otherwise.
O’Connell says one invaluable concept he carried from his time at IOE into his work at Grayson Cellars is operational efficiency. “We started 11 years ago with a winemaker, my wife, and me. Today we sell wine in 50 states and 12 countries and it’s still just a winemaker, my wife, and me.”
Grayson Cellars focuses on doing what’s critical. “I figured out the three things that we need to do well to be successful and I spend my time on those things,” O’Connell says. Those three things are watching the company’s margins, making sure the product is top quality, and ensuring that customers believe in the brand.
“It’s been that focus that has prevented our business from getting more complicated as we’ve grown… Part of it is that what we do, we do efficiently. But, we’ve also decided not to do a lot of things. We don’t have a tasting room. We don’t have an event center. Part of operational efficiency, to me, is also knowing what not to do at all,” O’Connell says of his strategy.
In addition, he emphasizes the importance of time spent out of the office. “I also spend two hours each week by myself out of the office thinking about the business. My best ideas have never surfaced staring at a screen.”
To that end, he encourages his fellow entrepreneurs and budding entrepreneurs to try something that may seem a bit unusual, a week-long training session at SEALFIT that aspiring Navy SEALs attend. He says the program, which he participated in and now sometimes returns to as an instructor, helped him to focus on the moment in front of him and on controlling things that he could control.
“As an entrepreneur, it’s very easy to get stressed and to and let your mind think about a million different things… and part of the SEAL program is you can’t think about what’s not in front of you at the time. “ In addition to helping him at work, he says the lessons of SEALFIT also helped him compartmentalize and not bring his work home with him.
O’Connell hopes others will challenge themselves by attending the program and will see its benefits. “It’s amazing how mentally tough you sometimes need to be as an entrepreneur,” he says.