For Rick Tigner, president of Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, dying his hair black and donning brown contacts, temporary braces and a cowboy hat just to gain insight into KJ as an undercover boss was a small price to pay for learning the real ins and outs of the wine operation.
His stint on the CBS show, airing this Sunday, January 29, in which he pretends to be a former grocery store employee from Texas named Jake Williams, exposes Tigner to the truth about a day in the life of a KJ employee, struggles included. He learns that vineyard manager, Laura Porter, finds communication with her Spanish-speaking crew tough at times, and Murhy-Goode tasting room manager and single mom, Savanna De La Cruz, is struggling to raise three kids with a health benefits-free job, and those are only two of the many stories he hears. He also tells his own.
“Everybody has a story. I’ve got my story…we’ve got the Jess Jackson story, and as a company, even before the show, we always wanted to know everyone’s story,” Tigner tells Wine Enthusiast Magazine in an exclusive interview. “We do have employees who have issues…[so the show] gave me an opportunity to work in the vineyards, in the winery, tasting room and integrate myself more than I had been.”
Tigner’s personal story is especially touching. He talks about growing up with a father in jail who ultimately died of a drug overdose, and the subsequent attachment he developed for Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates founder, Jess Jackson, who mentored him for more than 20 years until Jackson’s death from cancer last spring. Named president of the company two years ago, Tigner also confesses his fears about filling Jackson’s big shoes at one of the largest family-owned wineries in the world.
“People were asking ‘What’s going to happen to the company?’ I wanted an understanding of where morale is [through the show],” he says, before changing company policies for what he hopes is the better. Tigner tells us more about the enlightening undercover experience.
Wine Enthusiast: Did you come away from the show with a good frame of mind?
Rick Tigner: You want to make sure the direction that you’re giving at a company is actually being followed down to the front line managers, and the reality of our company is, most of it does. The passion our people have for the product is insane, as is the passion they have for working here. They bleed Kendall-Jackson. We have issues [and] every little event showed me some things we needed to make better.
W.E.: What’s happened since?
RT: We went out and hired a new training manager and implemented a management training program for new managers, but also for people like Marcos Guillermo [mobile bottling line supervisor], who have been with the company for a long time and still have career aspirations, who still want to do more things in this company.
We have over 200 employees participating in our language program. We have in-winery classrooms now, so that Spanish-speaking employees can learn how to use English as part of their working lives. We also provide junior college tuition payments and use Rosetta Stone, so people can learn online.
And then we asked ourselves ‘How’s our benefit package?’ Within 30 days of shooting, we restored the 401-K program. The morale of the whole organization, based on a one-week experience, went to a whole other level.
W.E.: What do you think consumers will take away?
RT: Doing the show, I confirmed the passion and commitment our people have. What makes us different from our competition? The answer is we have great land. Ultimately, the best food comes from the best places and hopefully the show will highlight that what you see on our properties is hillside, benches and mountains. I know the family’s commitment to investing in the quality of the vineyards that we own, which you see on the show, and that makes a quality product.
W.E.: What did it do for you personally?
RT: Jess [Jackson] built this company. He knew every dirt clot, he knew every clone, he knew everything, so because of the show, I now go down to our different properties, I go to truck driver meetings to find out why is it that some employees have issues because my job is to fix those issues. The truck driver meeting, by the way, takes place at 3 am. Jess taught me that a lot of CEOs want to fly at 30,000 feet or 10,000 feet, but to be a really good CEO, you’ve got to fly at 3 feet. There are times you’ll go up but if you never go down to 3 feet, you’ll never truly understand how the overall enterprise works. That’s what Jess was great at and my goal is to continue that vision.