Full name: Karen Theresa Fistonich
Fun Fact: “My first Chairing role was at University as Chair of the Monty Python Appreciation Society . This was with a group of friends who were avid fans and I just joined in for the fun!”
So, over half a century ago, your father, Sir George Fistonich started what was to become Villa Maria. Step forward to today and you’re heading things up as the chairperson (and doing a whole load of other things ‘on the side’ by the looks of it). Did you always know you’d go into the family business?
As I understand it, you pursued a successful career in banking and completed a BA in Psychology. Could you tell us a little about your backstory and how you got to today? Sounds like quite an exciting career trajectory…
When I graduated from University I had no clear idea what I wanted to do, so I entered the banking world as a Graduate Recruit for ANZ. At the time there was no obvious role for me in the family business; I was not a winemaker or a viticulturist and I considered myself too reserved to go into sales, so if I thought about it at the time, I couldn’t see where I would fit.
Also I had a need to prove myself outside of the Family Business for my own confidence. For 10 years plus I pursued my banking career. The banking world gave me a wide variety of work experience and allowed me to be involved in International business, computer banking and training. I took a break to travel for a year, which included working a vintage in France.
In the early 90’s export markets started to grow so my father was travelling more and before his first big trip of 6 weeks away I went to the airport to farewell my parents. Dad worried about what would happen if the plane went down, so he took me by surprise by handing me his keys to his office filing cabinet and giving me a quick rundown on the senior staff I could rely on. What a relief when he returned safely 6 weeks later!
My father soon realized there had to be a better way of preparing me for such an eventuality and discussed with the Board whether to invite me to join. It was agreed that my banking background was a useful skill set to add to the board mix. When I attended my first board meeting, it was a bit intimidating. I was a good 20 years younger than the next director, and the only female .
Once I started a family I left my banking career but continued as a Villa Maria director. This was approximately 20 years ago. As the family grew up I started to add other directorships to my portfolio including Auckland Theatre Company and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (our Government’s international business development agency). These are both wonderful organisations I’m very proud to be associated with.
What’s the ‘family business dynamic’ like? As I understand it, your father is still involved and your husband works in wine too? Also, do you see your kids going into the industry as well, do you want them to?
My father is still hands on as CEO. He focuses on management and I focus on governance so it’s been a good split , however I do get involved in operational matters when I can add value. It means sometimes we will butt heads but we always talk the next day! To balance the family dynamic we have a good board with 2 independent directors. I have a cousin Fabian Yukich, who works within the business and is on the board as well.
My husband also works in wine and we live on a vineyard – it’s great to have a common interest and we sometimes travel together on business which saves costs!
It’s too early to tell if the kids will go into the business. We put no pressure on them and hope they find their own path – if it takes them back to the family business that will be a bonus. Needless to say in the school holidays they have done their fair share of wine bottling duties. My son is taking a break from his university studies in engineering and did a vintage last year and is now working overseas in hospitality.
What’s the greatest wine and/or wine drinking experience you’ve ever had? And your favourite of the Villa Maria wines?
When I travelled through France for the first time as a young newlywed , my husband and I were passing through a village in the Montrachet area and stopped for lunch at a local restaurant , we ordered a bottle of Montrachet and I remember being wowed-what a great chardonnay it was- the minerally notes really appealed.
It’s very hard to pick my one favourite of Villa Maria Wines , there’s such a great range and I like the variety of drinking Chardonnay one day, Pinot Gris or Pinot Noir the next. Right now I’m really enjoying our Reserve Chardonnay 2014 from Marlborough, a style reminiscent of that minerally French wine but a distinctly New Zealand wine .
What’s a ‘day in your life’ like? Could you give us an insight into the wine business?
My days are very varied. If I’m at the home office I will be answering emails , reading board papers and organising my 16yr old daughter’s sports commitments. If I’m at the Villa Maria office I could be catching up with senior staff to be updated on business plans, see if I can assist in anyway, and of course there is always emails to attend to and helping to host visiting distributors, customers or VIP guests.
As I am on 5 boards I will often be at another business office for a committee or board meeting , or travelling to another NZ city. If I’m lucky to be at the Villa Maria office at the end of the week , we will try a wine or 2 late Friday (just a taste with a few snacks to be responsible) and compare opinions.
What’s your greatest/most memorable professional moment been, so far?
A continuing source of pride is the recognition we get for our wines. Just today I found out that Villa Maria has once again been named New Zealand’s Most Admired Wine Brand and 4th in the World by Drinks International for the 3rd year in a row! It’s an amazing accomplishment for all of our staff! In many ways I see my role – and the role of the board – as helping enable our people to do what they do best.
Where do you get your ideas?
I often get the opportunity to attend educational seminars through our business partners or through networks I’m a member of. I love listening to inspirational speakers and gleaning new ideas from their stories.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had, how did you overcome it, and what did you learn from it?
Now that’s a hard one , because my biggest challenge is currently a work in progress and I’ll be able to tell you more about it one day! What I have learnt from several challenges over the years is that we can come out the other side by being resilient and keep looking for solutions. I have also found out that my underlying motivation is to help others and that keeps me going when the ‘going gets tough’!
Who’s the person who’s most inspired you in your work – wine industry or otherwise? Is there anyone that you draw inspiration or strength from? Do you have any specific culinary influences?
My father’s vision for Villa Maria is very inspiring and his unwavering commitment to quality is a clear imperative for all that we do. Our board of directors are a great team and I draw strength from their support and dedication to our business which often goes beyond the call of duty.
I love good food, but never have enough time to cook and indulge this passion so it becomes more about eating out at great restaurants. I love Italian food, a great sun kissed tomato paired with a real mozzarella cheese just for starters ..followed by pasta or gnocchi with mushrooms. Add a glass of our Villa Maria Syrah and life is good!
What do you enjoy most and least about what you do?
If I’ve helped someone achieve their goal. If I haven’t been able to make a difference..
What advice would you give to aspiring wine professionals who’d want the kind of results that you’ve had?
Understand what your passion and motivations are; keep it real and authentic; personal success is dependent on the team around you.
If you weren’t doing what you do now, what would you be doing instead?
Running a café or bistro so I can indulge my passion for food. I would begin by doing a cooking class in Italy to enhance the skill set.
If you could get anyone to try the wines (fictional or real, living or dead) who would you pick and which of the wines would you like them to try? Assume that they go on to be your brand ambassador…
My father’s father, when he passed away when Dad was only 22 yrs old and Villa Maria was very much just a fledgling business and a one man band. My grandfather would be thrilled to see what his son has achieved and of course would be the best brand ambassador as a proud father.
One of my father’s favourite wine varieties is Merlot and I’m sure he would like to share with his father our Reserve Merlot 2013 from the Gimblett Gravels wine region and an exceptional vintage, very approachable and with lovely berry fruit and plum characters on the nose.
What’s your ultimate aim and goal for the business? If you could achieve anything with it, what would you pick? Money and reality are no obstacle, so shoot for the moon…
Our goal at Villa Maria is to continuously strive for outstanding quality in our wines. I would also aim to spread the word about the wonderful diversity and complexity of all New Zealand wines throughout the world .
We have fabulous Chardonnays, Merlot Cabernets, Syrahs, Riesling… the list is endless with many varieties that thrive in our maritime climate. If money is no obstacle I would bring our worldwide friends down to NZ and show them our wonderful wines and hospitality!
Where next for you and Villa Maria?
We’re hoping to start building a new winery in the Hawkes Bay soon. We have fabulous red wines from the Gimblett Gravels wine growing district and our winemakers deserve the best facilities to nurture those wines. For myself, constantly striving to get the right life balance, I need to find time for that Italian cooking class, with a glass of wine in hand.
And we always ask three customary ridiculous questions…
If you could swap lives for the day with any fictional character (and you’d be guaranteed to return to your life after 24 hours), who would you choose, and why?
Pippi Longstocking, because she is such a fearless , adventurous and eccentric little girl having lots of fun. Maybe I’ve chosen her so I can be a child again just for a day – a fun day and I wouldn’t be the shy girl who followed the rules that I once was!
If you had to become some kind of vegetable related superhero, which would you become, and what would you superpower be?
The Garlic Blaster – I blast nasty viruses away with one breath or with a kiss on the cheek!
You have acquired a pet T-Rex and are morally obliged to look after it. It is 13 ft tall at the hips, eats half a ton of raw meat a day, and likes taking long walks. What would you call it and what would you do to keep it entertained and housed?
‘Teddy’ – hoping the inference of soft and cuddly rubs off. Our dog Chrissie has an old wine barrel for her kennel, so Teddy the T-Rex has a very tall wine tank for his kennel . Teddy is entertained (or frustrated) by our local flight of swallows that keep fluttering around his head but are too quick to catch. Both Chrissie and Teddy love our vineyard walks together, Chrissie expertly dodging Teddy’s footsteps.