Judy Jordan, Founder of J Vineyards & Winery

Judy Jordan is a true trailblazer for women in the wine business. After graduating from Stanford University with a degree in geology, Ms. Jordan put her education and an entrepreneurial spirit to the test in founding J Vineyards & Winery in 1986 – and she passed with flying colors. Thirty years later, she built J into a well-known and nationally distributed wine brand. In spring 2015, Ms. Jordan sold J Vineyards & Winery to Gallo Family Vineyards & Winery – one of the largest in the world.

How do you think the shift in leadership in the wine industry to more women-owned businesses has changed the business?

My take on it – and this applies to more than the wine industry – is that owner gender is a little more peripheral now. In the old days, it was more front and center. What Madeleine Albright wrote about in her book comes to mind. She talked about the importance of “wearing the suit,” and her feminine statement was the pins that she wore. She didn’t feel comfortable having pictures of her family at the office – she wanted to be respected for who she was at the table. I think that you can bring your “whole self” to the table now. We can seamlessly integrate home and workplace values. In the workplace, we need to leverage business metrics. It was difficult for me to think that way, but you need to understand questions like: How are you going to make your welcome center profitable? What cuts do you need to make to overhead to be profitable? Lew Platt, former CEO of HP and one of my mentors, was a hard-charging, old-style leader in how he drove that company. The next generation has the opportunity to take those metrics and add the heart and soul – there’s no longer a wall between the two. The values from the home flow through to the workplace.

You negotiated the sale of your business to Gallo. What is your advice to women when negotiating for themselves?

Have confidence in yourself. If you have the experience, trust your experience. You should be at the table. The other piece of advice is to be yourself. I think women are still trying to figure out who they are at the table in tough negotiations, so we question ourselves. You need to sit down and be your feminine self.

You’ve hired a number of young women in your business and done great things for them. What counsel and advice would you give young women entering the business world today?

Learn how to be financially independent early. I think that our young women and young men are talented; they are going to do great things. However, if they don’t have that financial independence, then they can’t have as much pride in what they’re doing. I wish that when I was in my 20s I had taken more finance-related classes – and thought more about questions like: What is collateral? What is debt? It gives you strength and independence. Find your self-esteem and your passion, but learn how to be independent and hold onto that.

What was it like to be a business owner and a mother?

I have three stories. One of the times I got myself in a pickle was in 2001 when my daughter was in second grade. Her birthday is in the middle of March, and that year she wanted a leprechaun theme, so I dressed up like a leprechaun and brought green cupcakes into school for the party. J’s general manager was trying to reach me all day and couldn’t because I was at the party; eventually, he drove over and said the bank pulled our line of credit. We hadn’t hit our metrics for three consecutive quarters due to market volatility. That was a Wednesday, and I wasn’t going to be able to make payroll on Friday. These particular bankers had been with me for 10 years, but agriculture businesses are capital intensive and cash flow challenged by nature – there were times when I was just barely making it.I dragged my daughter to the bank in San Francisco, and we walked into the offices with our green cheeks. I met the head banker and said, “This is unfathomable. You cannot pull this line. I’ve been banking with you for 10 years. I know I’m not meeting my metrics, but I’ll get there.” He decided to reverse their decision and continue to back me. I thought it was because I was such a clever businessperson. It turns out he was just scared of the leprechaun lady coming in and threatening him.

Here is another story. I was negotiating with French owners of a building for J, which had a permit for half a million cases. I wanted to buy the building and was willing to pay the right price, but the only way I could meet with the sellers was if I had my two young children in the meeting because my childcare fell through. I was trying to negotiate, and my kids were running in and out of the room. I even had to leave to change diapers a few times. Understandably, the gentlemen weren’t used to this. There wasn’t much I could do about it; it was the way it had to be. In the end, I was able to get the deal done. One of the sellers is a godfather to my daughter, so it worked out in the end.

The last vignette also relates to childcare. One of the things I love about California’s agriculture business is our Hispanic communities. A great joy for me in building the business was really getting integrated into these wonderful families. I would always keep an eye out for them and let them know about opportunities, and they would always protect me and my family. Many of the ladies were like second and third and fourth mothers to my children. Because of this expanded community, I had the flexibility to sometimes shift focus to the business because I knew my children were in good hands if I needed to go to a business meeting or sell wine in New York. Looking back, it was truly one of the greatest blessings – having that support system.

You were recently featured in another BBH publication, Owner to Owner, and one topic you touched on in that interview was legacy. How do you think about legacy?

My family has Jordan Winery, and I have J. I really believe that if you come from a family that has a legacy, as mine does, you can still do your own thing. What I wish for my children is that they can be proud of the legacy of their mother or their grandparents but that they are their own first generation – that they have their own chance to fail and to be proud of what they themselves have accomplished. I think that’s a tricky thing with families who have generational wealth, yet there is a chance to be completely successful. Children should leverage their opportunities and experiences, but they should also find their own self-esteem by finding what they want to do and doing it well.

Today, I’m focused on using my entrepreneurial skills and the business acumen that I’ve developed to bridge to nonprofit work. I want to come up with entrepreneurial nonprofit models using my private sector experience. My dream is that as my kids get older, they’ll find their niches. As a mom, I want to be ready to follow them. I hope they’ll lead me to new acts that I can be a part of. I don’t want them to feel as though they need to come back and save the family business because mom is getting old.

Brown Brothers Harriman profiled Judy Jordan in the fourth quarter issue of Owner to Owner. Throughout the interview, we gleaned valuable insights from Ms. Jordan about running a business in a male-dominated industry, balancing being an entrepreneur and a parent and contemplating one’s legacy as a successful business owner.  Interview conducted by Seth Ward, Adrienne Penta and Jacob Turner, and article written by Jacob Turner.

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