Category Archives: Business

Winery Profits, Vineyard Management and Winemaking

success

Future of Lodi AVA

This has been an illuminating couple of days at #WBC16. I think I have an initial feel for a few of the major issues facing the Lodi AVA. First, the wine industry potential here has no limit. The terroir is capable of producing interesting enough wines to support a solid run at the premium wines category, but the local farming culture is actively impeding progress.

Multi-generational wine growing families dominate large swathes of the region, bringing a focus on farming science to the local wine industry identity. I spoke with a large sampling of wineries here and almost all ownership either originally started as growers, still have a fruit supply contract, or have a family history in farming. This is an AVA where large production wineries dominate the local economy with bulk wine and large production labels in the $10-20/btl price range. There is a clear local perception of Lodi’s current market position, but a few have a vision for the future and entry into the premium and ultra-premium categories… where double digit growth in the industry lies. The cost per ton of bulk wine grapes sold for volume production has been stagnant here, whereas the cost of quality fruit for small production labels has been rising. Some here with a head for business and a marketing sensibility, see the profit potential in a change of approach.

These factors are just the background for the Lodi discussion. The real issue is the identity crisis being caused by conflict between farming science and premium winemaking philosophies. Fruit production concerns here, not the winemakers approach, are driving the final product. Napa, Sonoma and parts of the Central Coast have already moved past this barrier. These other regions have developed production environments where the winemaker’s vision is effectively incorporated into the vineyard management strategy. This evolution has not reached Lodi yet and the battle for the identity of Lodi AVA is solidly underway.

Winemaking Strategies and Vineyard Management

I attended a short panel discussion during the conference that was focused on viticulture in the area. The ideas expressed… were hard to believe. In a world where Lodi is striving to be relevant in the premium wine category, this one discussion put the region back a decade. The panel asserted that quality wine could be produced from vineyards managed to deliver 10-12 tons of fruit per acre. One of the individuals on the panel was adamant! I wrote an article last year related to a similar topic that applies: Is a Trained Palate Necessary to Produce Fine Wine? I was referring to winemakers in the piece, but it can also apply to vineyard managers as well. I have tasted wines comparatively from fruit harvested at 2 tons, 4 tons and 6 tons/acre. There is a very noticeable difference. As a common theme across all Napa/Sonoma winemakers I have interviewed – none of these wineries sourced fruit from vineyards producing over 5 tons/acre. So, this panel is telling me Lodi vineyards can produce quality fruit at 10-12 tons/acre… AND dropping fruit does not increase concentration of flavors?

Team Commitment to Quality

In the premium and ultra-premium categories today there are many techniques in use that have an impact on vineyard management strategy. The goal is to enhance structure, balance and complexity in the final product. Here are a few:

  • Multi-Pass and Small Block Harvesting
  • Small Lot Fermentation and Blending
  • Extended COLD – Soak, Maceration and Fermentation.

I explained some of these techniques in a previous blog post at: Why Do Wines Taste So Different? These represent winemaker driven strategies and are the hallmark of an ultra-premium mindset. Very few of these techniques are in use currently in Lodi. The changes required in vineyard operations to adopt these methods is not consistent with a farming driven approach to wine growing. If winery operations teams can’t move thinking in this direction, bulk wine growing will continue to dominate the region.

Profitability and Perceptions of Success

How do Lodi wine professionals measure success in the wine industry? Does that vision conflict with profitability?

It is clear to me, many of these Lodi wine growers measure their success by their ability to produce reasonable quality at the highest yields. Profitably producing fruit under a 10 year contract with Gallo at $600-800/ton is the picture of that success. My imagination is just not captured by what it takes to be profitable producing 500,000 cases of wine. There is definitely more than one approach to running a profitable winery, but from the wine service perspective, achieving high quality and acclaim is the definition. That quality has typically come from single vineyard designate, estate wine production. I think there are many students of winery operations that could deliver quality at 3-5,000 cases… and struggle to make a profit. What is truly impressive is a 10-25,000 case winery developing demand at a premium price point and driving healthy profits! Notable success in the Wine Industry should be measured by producing highly acclaimed premium and ultra-premium wines, while delivering a serious return on investment.

Is Change Necessary in Lodi?

Is the agricultural flavor of the local area what defines Lodi? Yes. Can the local industry be profitable with offering fruit by the ton, bulk wine and $10-20/btl wines? Yes. Will the area draw attention from the wine trade around the world and move producers here into the premium and ultra-premium categories? Resoundingly – no. What is the future of Lodi wine production? I guess, we will all wait and see…

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Changing U.S. Wine Landscape: Will producers, distributors & retailers pivot?

Big-Data_-cartoon

2015 wine consumer data is revealing new pressures on the U.S. wine industry. These trends will create business opportunities and confuse brand strategy for years to come. We are already seeing several of these changes beginning and I believe the others are inevitable:

The strong dollar is affecting currency exchange and making it easier for European producers to compete in the U.S.

Climate change is altering micro-climates in many regions around the U.S.

Demand is slowly migrating from table towards premium wines.

Major growth in the sale of sparkling wines for every day consumption.

Changing state wine distribution laws are making it easier for Direct-to-Consumer (DtC) business models to reach the consumer… and consumers are showing a DtC preference.

The Millenial Generation (born 1977-1995) has become the largest wine consuming age group, just surpassing Baby Boomers and bringing with it changes in demand and buying behavior.

U.S. off-site wine purchases are continuing to grow, driving greater sophistication in the wine buying community and increasing demand for wine education.

On-site beverage revenue growth is likely to follow and bring a more demanding clientele with it.

The expected growth in on-site beverage revenue (as a percentage) will increase the need for improved business skill-sets at smaller venues and individual outlets.

Sources:

Ship Compliant ™ & Wines & Vines ™ – 2016 Direct to Consumer Wine Shipping Report

USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, Global Agricultural Information Report – EU27 Wine Annual Report and Statistics 2015, February 24, 2015, GAIN Report Number: IT1512

Rampant Misconceptions

Premium wine sellers are focusing on the Baby Boomer age group, mistakenly thinking it is still the largest wine consuming demographic. This oversight will generate a window for new business opportunities with producers, distributors, off-site and on-site marketers who understand the changing demographic within the wine drinking community. In the next decade, the dominance of Millenials in the wine consuming public will grow (demographic data has shown – as we age, per capita wine consumption rises). In order to understand these changes. it is important to understand how Millenials buying habits differ from Baby Boomers.

Millenials tend to:

Be more adventurous in trying: unfamiliar grape varieties, labels and experiment with imports.

Drink sparkling wines daily, rather than just on special occasions.

Be less single varietal focused and prefer blends.

Be willing to spend more per bottle of wine when they drink, but prefer craft beer and cider.

More per bottle spending, means likely more discerning palates.

Sources:

  1. U.S. Wine Marketing Council – October 19, 2015, “MEDIA ADVISORY –
    Wine Market Council Releases Latest Research on the Online Wine Shopping
    Behaviors of Wine Consumers”
  2. U.S. Wine Market Council – March 24, 2016, “U.S. Wine Marketing Council stands by their 2016 Consumer Research on Millennial Wine Consumption Habits”

Crystal Ball?

So what to make of all this data? I believe:

  1. Distributors will have to make choices: add more value than simple logistics (education, more direct marketing, etc.), spend more money on lobbying to influence state beverage laws, or downsize.
  2. Producers will be able to dramatically improve profitability through establishing and growing the DtC channel. Producers will need to change focus to blended wines (similar to Europe). This should enhance AVA focused labeling and marketing.
  3. Current small volume markets will grow. Over 50% of DtC wine shipments are to 5 states. Huge opportunity for producers to develop new markets.
  4. Off-site re-sellers like grocery stores and on-site re-sellers like restaurants will become EVEN MORE focused on beverage as a percentage of their revenue.
  5. Demand for wine educators and trained wait staff will continue to grow.
  6. Growth in the premium segment will increase economic pressure on the largest wine producers… bringing EVEN MORE consolidation.
  7. Increasingly educated buyers will be more willing to shop at warehouse stores with larger selections and less personalized service.
  8. Changing climates will drive big swings from vintage to vintage in production. Examples:
  • 2015 Sonoma County: 36% drop in pinot noir crop.
  • 2015 Washington State: 8% drop in cool-climate Riesling crop, with 12% increase in warm-climate Cab Sauv… causing a net 2% growth in Washington State wine fruit production.

These vintage to vintage changes in available fruit will add volatility to pricing and may make it difficult to capture year-to-year fluctuations in fruit costs. Source: Wines and Vines, 02.10.2016 – “California Wine Grape Tonnage Falls” at: http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=news&content=164654

May You Live in Interesting Times!

The ancient Chinese curse may be very apropos here. Growth in both successes and failures are on the horizon for the wine business. No, it will not be overnight, but the next 5-10 years could drastically change the landscape.  I am quite curious to see where all this change will take us…

Many of these ideas represent my personal conclusions drawn from a wealth of new marketing data released this year. I hope you enjoy my crystal ball!

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Predicting the Future of Wine Programs and the Restaurant Trade?

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Why is a cartoon commenting on the impact of changing technology showing up on a wine blog… I selected it, because a changing landscape is all too familiar where technology is concerned. Wine consumption is changing in the U.S.. Can the industry adapt?

Predicting the Future of Wine Service

I have been meaning to write this post for a couple of weeks now, since Shanken News Daily published some interesting data. It appears a changing U.S. consumer profile is transforming the wine industry. Shanken recently published information from the U.S. Wine Market Council. It holds some fascinating insights into the challenges coming for wine marketing in the very near future…

  • Frequent drinkers (>1/week) are now 13% of all U.S. wine drinkers and 35% of all wine sales.
  • Millennials now comprise 36% of all U.S. wine drinkers nationwide compared with Baby Boomers at 34%.
  • High-end wine buyers (defined as those regularly purchasing bottles above $20 retail) now account for 36% of frequent drinkers, compared with just 21% five years ago.
  • Frequent drinkers are consuming 18% more wine now than they were two years ago, while occasional drinkers are consuming 8% less.

These are trends to note and they carry a clear message ( I believe):

  • Millennial consumer data shows them to be more adventurous and willing to explore wine more thoroughly (previous Shanken News data).
  • Frequent drinkers now comprise more than 1/3 of the market.
  • Frequent drinkers are spending more per per bottle.

Looks like a recipe for major change…

Can On-Premise Food & Beverage Adapt?

Mark Norman (industry consultant)  recently wrote a nice piece (link: Sales at Restaurants Plummeting?) regarding this and it had me thinking. Restaurants will definitely be hurt. Per site beverage revenue must increase to support lower margins and increased inventory. There will be no other choice, if they wish to maintain a successful beverage service. This changing consumer demographic is a clear indication: wine distribution’s typical approach to restaurant sales will need to change AND restaurateurs will need more training and knowledge to cater to this new group of consumers. The pressure will be on and it won’t just be about improving wine knowledge and acquiring a broader cellar with a more diverse price offering. The more important differentiator is likely to be business skills. Better marketing, inventory management, ROI and cash flow analysis will be key indicators of quality restaurant wine programs. Interesting times are coming!

Future of the Certified Sommelier

I don’t have a crystal ball, but I don’t think it is too far-fetched to think we will be seeing CS, MBA on biz cards in the coming decade. Somm exams should start including more business related content. As this new group of consumers starts driving larger restaurant wine inventories, more sales volume and lower profit margins, it will justify the need for improving business operations and accounting skill-sets. I like where this is going…

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Passion and the Human Endeavor

Life Speaking
I recognized long ago that I am a little different.  I work hard to find passion in all the major endeavors in my life.  Without it, I am lost, unfulfilled, totally aimless.  The marketing and business development fields can be cold and calculated, but I am unable to function this way.  When I craft a message, it must resonate with me FIRST, then appeal to the market… being able to enthusiastically engage with clients, groups, an audience… comes from inside and passion is the key driver.  Often I am terribly misunderstood by co-workers and clients, thinking I am a hard-charging, aggressive businessman.  I am truly just passionate about what I do.  I BELIEVE strongly in a well-crafted point of view with an associated message.  This relates to both my career and my pastimes.

Why Start a Blog?

I have a PASSION for FINE wines.  No, not the less expensive stuff that I and so many other people drink daily/weekly, but the wine that reflects the talent and/or art of the maker and evokes emotion when enjoyed.  I am a formally trained and certified Sommelier (some test that was, whew!).  Hopefully – with the knowledge to investigate effectively topics within the industry that are relevant and interesting.  So, please join me on this journey, as I delve into the wine industry and try to capture the stories of the people and their vision behind the labels.
very-controlling-person-new-yorker-cartoon

Finding an Audience

When starting a Public Blog, most choose to write about a pastime, or profession, but just as important as choosing the topic – is deciding the context.  Will the audience, or writer drive the content?  Can a writer control the direction?  Am I being a control freak by tailoring an approach to topics I find interesting?  When I first started this blog a few years ago, I thought it would be written for the average consumer and I would “bring wine education to the masses”, but I soon realized I was developing an audience among industry professionals and a large percentage were from outside the U.S.  So, as the readership grows, I have re-assessed and decided to step with both feet into wine writing with a different purpose in mind.  I am writing now for a range of readers beyond the casual wine drinker: Wine Enthusiasts, Wine Collectors, Winery Managers, Wine Distribution, Tasting Room Attendants, Somms, Wait Staff, Chefs and someday perhaps Winemakers.  If the typical wine drinker finds the deeper dive of interest too, then so be it.

The Message

In keeping with the audience, moving forward, this site will focus on the wines and wineries associated with the top 10-20% of consumer dollars spent on bottles over $20USD.  For anyone who has read a few of my posts, it is fairly obvious that is where my interest lies.  So, I am just aligning the blog more closely with my interests and hoping the readership continues to grow and finds the content worthy of the time spent reading it.

Thank YOU

I appreciate all of you that have stopped by this site in the past year, or two and found something of interest.  It is difficult to feel justified as a writer, unless someone is reading your words.  I can accept that committing to this direction for the blog may not have the potential to find the largest audience, but it DOES follow my passion.  A trade-off that seems well-made…

HAPPY HOLIDAYS and BEST WISHES FOR A HAPPY, HEALTHY NEW YEAR!

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A Wine Experiment – Naked Wines: The GOOD and BAD in the Wine Industry

What is Naked Wines?

Naked Wines is introducing a revolutionary concept to the Wine Industry.  The premise is to provide crowd source funding to bankroll winemakers, so they can focus on the winemaking and consequently offer lower prices to the consumer.  The company was founded in 2008 in the UK. The strategy includes a website where:

  • Consumer members preferences are tracked
  • Consumers can interact with the winemakers
  • Consumers can offer reviews and feedback on the wines

This captures the advantages of social media and the internet and brings it to the wine industry.  The concept also effectively brings the winemakers closer to their customers, allowing them to hone their craft and tailor the product to meet demand.  The “Angels”, as the investors / members are called, are required to submit $40 USD/mo. to provide seed money and then in return they receive discounted prices on the resulting wine when released.  Naked Wines interviews and accepts winemaker members upon application based on qualifications, experience and training.

Visit and Interview

During our trip to the Northern California Wine Country, I stopped in to talk with Kirsten Bragg the tasting room manager for Naked Wines in Sonoma County, CA.  The following information was offered by Kirsten and has not been verified:

  • Roughly 1,500 winemakers are involved from around the world producing less than 1000 cases of wine each
  • 30,000+ “Angels” contribute to the program

According to Kirsten, the growth has been mercurial and forced them to begin a waiting list to allow the organization to keep pace with demand.

Understanding Winery Costs

Before you can understand the Naked Wines philosophy, it is important to get a feel for typical boutique wine production costs (around 5K cases produced).  These numbers do not reflect table, nor cult wine production costs, but somewhere toward the lower end of the average small winery.  Estate Wineries and Larger Producers (>50K cases produced) have very different cost structures.  Here goes some rough numbers that were taken from several reliable sources:

  • Nor Cal Quality Fruit $4 / bottle cost

  • Oak Barrels – $1 / bottle cost

  • Mobile Bottling & Bottle – $2 / bottle cost

  •  Overhead, Equipment, Debt Service (Sonoma)- $5 / bottle cost

  •  Salaries – $4 / bottle cost

  • Sales & Marketing – $2 / bottle cost

Total Cost per Bottle: $ 18

In the Naked Wines business model, Winemakers may be sharing Overhead and Investment, consolidating Salaries and leveraging joint Sales & Marketing costs – picking up advantages that could drive bottle cost down to $13/btl in this example.  Keep in mind, these numbers are all speculative and just to illustrate a point…  This data is relevant in order to provide a perspective on Kirsten’s comments – when she says, “We are looking to produce wines that will sell in the $15 – $20 per bottle sweet spot in the market.”

This Business Philosophy and Why it Leads Down the Path to the Dark Side

So, nothing wrong with that thinking… “know thy market” (first rule of marketing), but it does take some wind out of the high-minded, lofty vision of “freeing the winemaker to express his/her art” (paraphrasing here).  I like the whole idea, in theory.  This concept establishes a form of Co-Op for winemakers, funding the business by allowing consumers to dictate the successful producers based on their feedback and the demand.  Great stuff! Only, the whole thing goes awry, when you begin to target a price point.  A few reasons:

  • Limiting Winemaker Creativity?

Let’s say, a Winemaker wants to make wine requiring a technique called “extended maceration“, or perhaps barrel-age in French Oak for 12 months.  These ideas add cost to production and would not fit into the “sweet spot” price discussed above. Perhaps, the Winemaker wants to contract for fruit from a grower and dictate yield per acre, harvest timing, or block harvesting fruit at different times.  These approaches add cost to the fruit and require a long-term commitment to a specific vineyard.

  • Unwittingly Dictating Your Own Demand?

Let’s go in another even more important direction. What if offering wines in this specific price range attracts consumers who prefer simple, easy drinking table wines. Nothing wrong with that… but won’t that skew the majority of “Angel” reviews towards that preference and deliberately dictate where the crowd source funding will be spent… on the making of easy drinking table wine?

Are Naked Wines Good?

I tasted several of their wines from different winemakers: sparkling, reds, whites.  All reasonably well made. All generally enjoyable, but nothing that stood out as above average.  Which (unfortunately) is about what I would expect from this approach to making wine.

How Could the Concept be Improved?

There is so much more potential for this idea than is being realized.  In its current form, this Co-Op will inevitably continue to produce reasonably priced, consistently average wines.  I typically choose to purchase wines that are interesting and different, or of exceptional quality and am willing to spend more than $20/btl to access my preferences.  That type of consumer would not be attracted to this model and is the primary limitation of this business approach.  Their community of “Angels” is large enough to begin breaking into individual focus groups and then maybe… it could attract a more representative cross-section of wine consumers.  Is that important?  Certainly not to the success of the business, but if you view wine drinkers as a community (I do), it definitely excludes an influential segment.  Personally, I know I would enjoy feeling part of the production of the wine I drink by offering winemakers my consumer tasting notes, feedback on various techniques used and suggestions on modifying structure, balance, texture and flavor profiles.  This is what internet marketing does best, build relationships and brand loyalty between producers and their customer base.

Added after publishing, from reader feedback…

Business Models

Yes, these kind of creative business ideas are fantastic for the wine community, but with concepts like this that have such broad potential to influence the entire industry and are exclusionary in practice… not sure that is a good thing.  Nothing wrong with targeting a price point in your business model… but perhaps I was personally disappointed.  When I discovered the inherent circular logic driving the demand and consequently where the money is being invested, it was disappointing.  Maybe this piece will not achieve its objective – to provide a viewpoint that broadens the concept further to include the premium slice of the market – but it is worth the effort.  Viewing wine consumers as a community may not be a very popular concept from a business perspective, but I think it has some merit from a marketing point of view.

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Wine Marketing – The Gap Between Europe and the U.S.

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Can European Wine Producers Access the Mainstream U.S. Market?

I have two acquaintances from Europe on a work visa here in the States.  It is always interesting to hear their perspective on wine.  They view wine very differently than the majority of my U.S. friends.  When I am looking for someone to explore and appreciate the complexities of Northern Rhone, or Burgundy with me…  it is rarely my U.S. friends.  Decades of high Robert Parker scores have been driving demand for high alcohol, big oak and rich mouth-feel and have skewed the high-dollar U.S. Cabernet market towards palates that have been trained to demand it.  I know, because that was mine back in the day.  It’s all good though.  I have come to enjoy both the big & bold and lighter complex styles.  Although I must say, the wines that fill that special place for me are often the more balanced lighter wines of Italian origin.  With such major differences in style preference between here and there, can a wine executive from Europe having grown up with a different wine sensibility…  truly understand the American consumer?

Many Europeans Experience Wine as an Accompaniment to Food

Until 2010, I primarily drank wine before, or after a meal, but rarely with. Based on my friends, acquaintances and wine education events, this is the primary wine experience for the majority of Americans.  It wasn’t until my Sommelier training that I was introduced to the idea of wine as an accompaniment to food.  Too many U.S. consumers evaluate wines and make buy decisions based on tasting without paired food.  I don’t believe this is well understood by wine industry executives in Europe. The popularity of the big fruit-forward taste profile in the U.S. is a good barometer for this discussion.

Is There an Assumption of Basic Wine Knowledge?

There are a few points to make on this topic. Wine is a common fixture on most French, Italian and Spanish dinner tables, consequently children are exposed to wine at a very early age.  This leads to basic wine knowledge being assumed by many Europeans.  In addition, branding regional food and wine by city, or area name is well understood there. In the U.S., this is a confusing and foreign concept. Until another approach to marketing is developed, the under $50/btl. retail wine market here will continue to be an elusive target for European producers.

Many Europeans might cringe at the idea that the most popular food dish in America is probably boxed mac & cheese.  The foodie movement is a relatively new trend here.  Working with consumers in the U.S. means starting with people from the ground up and building demand with little steps.

Red Wine Health Benefits Comic

Are European Producers Targeting Only U.S. Collectors and Connoisseurs?

Importing marketing, or sales professionals from Europe is a thoroughly misguided idea… unless you are trying to target the 5% of the total market (by volume) that are the collectors and connoisseurs. I have had only a few experiences with Europeans in a sales role for wineries in the U.S.  They have all been French and were the singular worst experiences I have had during all my wine trips to California over the years.

Changing the American Wine Paradigm

The challenge in the American market is convincing the average consumer that wine is not just for special occasions and holidays… or… is not just a glass on tap (yes, most winebars are now serving on tap) with friends before, or after dinner.

Wine Wimp

Conclusion

The more I talk to people in wine marketing in the U.S., the more I realize how misguided many are… and how absolutely correct the winemakers usually are… winemakers and vineyard managers are just farmers at heart.  It is this wine for the “regular Joe” story that resonates with the average American Consumer. If wine is to gain greater market share here, it should be experienced as relaxed and fun, with no rules. Put together an effective explanation of why focusing on wine can make life richer… and there you have a marketing campaign that will have an impact in the U.S.

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Is Individual Contribution Still Relevant in Big Business?

Stop for a minute and consider…

 Vertical Management Structure is Dead

Having been in the business world for 30+ years, I have watched the changes. The days of vertical management structure are dead. I can’t even picture life without a cross-functional team… Can some of you remember your boss pulling you into his office and tasking you individually to deliver a result on a deadline? Aaah… distant memories. Today, goals don’t get assigned without group involvement – specialists working together to provide a unique contribution to the whole…

Is Experience an Asset, or a Liability?

Back in the day, the person that understood the whole picture was valued and may have spent a lifetime developing a deeper understanding of broader processes. Today, the average job tenure is 3-5 years. As a result, corporations are no longer able to leverage their investment in training. The organizational structure has evolved accordingly. The lack of focus on a specialty and its contribution to the team, may have an enormous impact on the team dynamic and potentially put the end-goal in jeopardy. The experience that is required today… is having had a role in successful team projects in the industry of your chosen career. NOT, the broader knowledge of the engineering, production management, marketing, account management, or even skill as a personnel manager handling direct reports.

Can Previous Generations Change Their Thinking?

I spent an entire career developing what I thought was a knowledge and skill set that was desired. I have had experience in every role in my industry, from front-line to back-office to executive management. The days of Tom Peters style business thinking are dead. Entrepreneurship in a broader organization is no longer a desired trait (fewer small businesses are being started today too). OK, so how do we re-invent ourselves?

 Specialization is the Key

Analyze your most effective traits. Ask yourself, in what role are you most successful? Stop trying to understand the bigger picture, focus on making yourself better at that one thing and hone your skills with different communication styles. While I will never fully embrace this kind of thinking, it IS the reality today and therefore the new path to a successful career!

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