Leadership Lessons from History, Technology, Wine, Rock & Roll and Satellite Stalking: Gary Mortensen, CEO of Stoller Family Estate, Shares a Different Path.

Gary Mortensen CEO, Stoller Family Estate
Gary Mortensen
CEO, Stoller Family Estate

Tuesday evening Gary Mortensen, President of Stoller Family Estate, founder of The History Engine and FonWallet Transaction Solutions, Inc., and ACG Portland Board Member came to the Peer Growth Event podium as raconteur.  Perched comfortably and casually on a high stool Mortensen energetically told the tale of his unusual career which has taken him full-circle back to the winemaking industry and the former turkey farm he knew in his youth.

From Sokol Blosser in 1998 to Stoller Family Estate by way of entrepreneurial ventures in IT, documentary filmmaking, and the preservation of US war veteran history, his journey might leave a casual observer to wonder how such disparate endeavors could lead to success.  But as the evening unfolded, a clear path connecting the anecdotes emerged.  Here are some key quotes and observations.

 “… so, you have an 11 year inventory cycle…”

There are some simple, universal principles that apply to every business everywhere.  Wrapping his mind around his first real job at the young and struggling Sokol Blosser, Gary looked at the growing inventory of wine and immediately knew they had a sales problem with a product that would not sell by word-of-mouth.

Twenty three years later, the Stoller product would definitely sell itself but Mortensen knew volume was the way to overcome the overhead of growing great wine and building the first LEED Gold Certified Winery.  He marched the company through five years of stunning production growth from 9,000 to 41,000 cases.  Mortensen estimates “40% of Oregon wineries are losing money” and asserts, “You need 30,000 cases to be profitable.”  He expects the industry will go through much consolidation in the coming years.

“… the No. 1 winery in Oregon – Most were laughing or scoffing – A few leaned forward – Guess who made the cut… We only want Owners.”

The ratio of engaged to unengaged employees is broadly accepted as correlated with corporate success. Mortensen calls them “Owners and Renters.”  Describing a company strategy session sizing up his new staff at Stoller, he looked for signs of engagement and gave evidence of an impatient preference for those who will make a difference over those who would impede – Engagement is not just important in big companies.

“You have to be disruptive – If you are not disruptive, others are passing you by.”

Only a very astute scholar of people and culture as well as a daring disrupter conceives a plan to combine the public’s appetite for outdoor popular music concerts with a vineyard’s need to move large inventories of not-very-good wine. Mortensen’s unorthodox plan quickly and serially solved the 11-year-inventory-cycle problem while the young winery learned to produce wine the public would seek on its own merits.

Gary also imagined naming a blend of left-over white varietals “Evolution #9” to suggest a Beatles song, tapping into the same popular music culture and making that barrel-cleanup a best seller year after year? – “I wish I had asked for royalties on that one”, he laments.

Readers have been kept wondering about the “Satellite Stalking” bit.  Those with young adult children may remember the “Big Bang Theory” episode when Harold and Raj reposition a government satellite to help them find the address where the contestants in America’s Next Top Model are staying? – This popular TV program episode concept may have come from Gary Mortensen. – Gary shared an account of a visit during his IT years to a secure government facility.  His efforts to connect with and understand his government clients were so effective that, before he knew it, they were showing him satellite imagery of a European city that they were using to shop for real estate near the home of their favorite Rock music icon.

In Gary’s Linkedin Summary he writes, As a historian, I believe it’s also about how we remember and learn from those who have gone before us.”  Indeed, it would appear in his passion for history and in his leadership he reveals himself as a student of human beings. – Throughout the evening, Mortensen’s tale gave evidence of the success that comes from understanding people and fluidly transferring that understanding to practical, leadership application.