There’s an old saying: “Business and family don’t mix well.”
The combination can be disastrous — yet so many people attempt to do it, thinking it will work. And most often it doesn’t.
But occasionally it does. And in some cases, it works extraordinarily well.
Take the Mariani family.
In 1919, John Mariani, Sr. — a Connecticut native of Italian heritage — founded Banfi Vintners. Over 40 years later in 1963, John, Sr. named his sons John, Jr. and Harry as his successors. The brothers would eventually turn the company over to their children, Cristina Mariani-May and James Mariani, who today run Banfi, one of the world’s leading wine merchants, as co-CEOs.
The two represent the third generation of family leadership in the company. And, despite that — or, “perhaps because of it,” says Mariani-May — their wine business has been enormously successful.
The company has ranked as North America’s leading wine importer for more than three decades.
So, how have the Mariani’s managed to make it work?
We spoke with Cristina Mariani-May, a mother of two and Banfi’s co-CEO who divides her time between Montalcino, Italy and Long Island, New York.
Business Insider: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
Cristina Mariani-May: Growing up in the family business, I traveled all over the world with my parents, who were restless nomads. I learned about food, wine, culture, art, and relating to different people.
When I was at Georgetown University, I studied art history and decided to study in Italy. Although I’d worked on Capitol Hill during college, it was during my junior year abroad that I realised I wanted to join the family wine business.
Upon graduating, I started working at Banfi in Events and Marketing and covered the U.S., learning our operations and organising wine promotions. I loved interacting with the Banfi team and gained an appreciation for the market and for our customers. In this role, I really learned how to grow brands that truly connect with our consumers. I later went back to Columbia for my MBA. I think the MBA helped give me confidence and solidify my education.
Today, as co-CEO, I apply a combination of my education and my experience in the family business. I’m looking forward to continuing to promote and be the face of Banfi.
BI: Tell us about your co-CEO, James Mariani.
CMM: James, my co-CEO, is my first cousin. I am very fortunate in that James has an extremely strong skillset in strategic planning and analytics. He has been working at Banfi for many years and together, we have a lot of experience in the industry, success, and ideas to improve for the future. He is very dedicated, passionate, and trustworthy. These are values that a family business needs, and I’m lucky to have a partner that shares these same family values.
BI: Do you think Banfi has had so much success in part because it’s a family-run and family-owned business?
CMM: Absolutely! The wine business takes patience, passion, and a long-term commitment. I think families are best able to bring forth these values. Also, the wine business is one that thrives on stories — behind every bottle is a story of place and family. As a family-owned business, we are positioned to tell the colourful stories that help bring our wines to life.
BI: Do you see how mixing business and family often doesn’t work out?
CMM: Yes, of course. Business is a delicate dance, as are families. Figuring out how to make it work takes dedication, but the rewards are tremendous if it all comes together.
BI: Why do you think the family-business combination has worked so well, for so long, for Banfi?
CMM: Listening to and respecting one another and what we bring to the table. We all contribute different strengths, but we have a shared goal. At Banfi we are all dedicated to success and to making the best wines. Having a team and business that is passionate about their work and shares these goals has to start at the top.
BI: Do you plan to keep Banfi in the family?
CMM: Certainly, that is the goal of many family businesses, to pass it on to the next generation. We want to leave them a company that is more successful than the one we inherited.
BI: What’s the hardest part about running a business with family members?
CMM: Never escaping business discussions, even during downtime with family members. The business always seems to percolate in our conversations, so we have to be careful to keep it in balance.
BI: And what’s the best part of running a business with family members?
CMM: I feel blessed to share my life’s passion of family and wine all together. It’s a strong bond to experience your family members not just as father, mother, or cousin, but also as business partners.
And also, to work with my father as a partner is a tremendous privilege. Sharing a glass of wine with him while overlooking our beautiful vineyards is one of my life’s greatest moments.
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