WineDirect Admin
July 16, 2009 | General | WineDirect Admin

Leadership | Lessons I’ve learned from Marvin Sands

Richard Sands, Chairman of Constellation Brands, just published a book called Reaching for the Stars (the making of Constellation Brands). I ordered a copy, but haven’t had the chance to read it yet. 

However, the book did get me thinking of Marvin Sands, Richard’s father, and the founder of Canandaigua Wine Company,(CWC) which became Constellation. I had the good fortune to work for CWC in the early-to-mid 90’s. During that time the company grew from $70 million in sales, to over $1 billion. In those years, Marvin was the head of the company, though Richard was running the operation.

Over the course of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work for capable leaders, poor leaders, and one great leader. That was Marvin. My favorite quote on leadership, which I’m told came from Abraham Lincoln, is “Leadership is getting people to do what you want them to do, because they want to do it“. That was Marvin’s genius. He made you feel important and empowered.

I started at CWC as a Product Manager, and eventually made it to V.P. Marvin treated me the same at every level. He would stop by my office, and ask how things were going. He’d ask about my wife by name. He’d ask about projects I was working on, citing the specific project. He would ask my opinion, and make me feel like what I had to say mattered.

I have two stories about Marvin that demonstrate his knack for getting the most out of people:

One time, I was in a meeting with him, and several others, and we were debating an issue (I can’t remember the specifics). The conversation got heated, but Marvin just listened, not speaking. Finally, after everyone had the opportunity to state their case, Marvin spoke. He summarized the issues, and then endorsed the position of one of the attendees. He never said, “this is what I think we should do“, instead he said “I agree with ____________“; which of course ended the debate.

After the meeting, I asked Marvin why he stayed quiet so long. He said he knew he would have a chance to speak when he felt it necessary, and he’d prefer to let others get credit for the answer. All leaders have an ego, they wouldn’t be in a position to lead without one. Marvin, however, didn’t let his ego lead his actions. He didn’t need to prove how smart he was, or to be right. He simply wanted to get the best out of those he worked with.

The second story goes to a meeting I was not at:

It happened before I was at the company, but I’ve heard the same story from multiple sources. In the late 80’s, CWC had introduced a wine cooler called Sun Country. The product had a couple of good years as the category grew. CWC then decided to make a significant push to be a market leader. They hired Ringo Starr as their spokesperson. This was the same year that Gallo launched Bartles & James, and Seagrams hired a young actor starring in a TV series called Blue Moon; the actor’s name was Bruce Willis, and he helped make Seagram’s the number two brand.

Sun Country fell behind the other leaders, and for the first time in it’s history, CWC lost money. Marvin called his V.P.’s to a meeting. He started be recounting the financial details. He then said, “In most companies, people in this room would be replaced. I’m not going to be that kind to you. All of you are responsible to our stockholders, and all of you will turn this loss around, and return value to our owners.“ That became the rallying cry at the company, and as they say, the rest is history.

My wife has a favorite quote, “Children don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care“. The same can be said for employees. When you worked for Marvin, you knew he cared about you, and cared about his company. As an employee there, you couldn’t help but care, as well.


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