On the Trail with Bill Foley

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As a new home owner in Las Vegas and bi-monthly resident in the desert city, I felt it was important to start off on the right foot and get to know some of the members of the local community. While I've so far met my fair share of bartenders, sommeliers, restaurant owners, and retailers, there was one man in particular I wanted to sit down with, mainly because he's in a similar situation to myself (although I'm short a few billion dollars). American businessman Bill Foley is the principal owner of the new Las Vegas Golden Knights NHL franchise, but he's also the owner of the Foley Family Wines portfolio, an incredible consortium of properties that includes Chalk Hill, Chalone, Lincourt, Roth, and Sebastiani, to name a few. Therefore, he's a man constantly on the move between the heart of California wine country and the bright lights of Sin City (something I'm hoping to do on a more regular basis) managing some of the state's most important wineries, while dealing with the daily requirements of a pro hockey team. Not only did I want to pick Bill's brain about his path to success and for advice on Las Vegas, I wanted our customers to get to know him as well. His accomplishments, even without all the financial success, are staggering both in their scope and their diversity. He's truly a fascinating character and someone who is passionate about wine, community, and adventure. I had quite an enjoyable visit with him. Our recent conversation is below:

David: I think you’ve got to be in the running for the world’s most interesting man. Dos Equis made a big mistake when they hired their new guy. Your biography is unbelievably intimidating. I think it’s the most incredible I’ve ever seen, no joke. Can you talk a little bit about how you got to this point in your life and the road you took to get here?

Bill: I went to West Point as an undergraduate, but I transferred to the Air Force because I wanted to fly jets. However, my eyesight had deteriorated during my last year at West Point, so I ended up being stationed at the Boeing Company in Seattle in what they call the Air Force Plant Representative Office. I started off as an industrial engineer—I had a really good engineering background—and eventually I became a development engineer, so I was working on all these terrific Boeing programs like the short range attack missile, which was the precursor to the cruise missile, Minuteman III, and Burner II—a second stage spy satellite booster rocket. Eventually I became a contracting officer because I helped save the government a lot of money. By the time I left as a captain after four years, I had personal authority to sign a contract up to a billion dollars. I was about twenty five years old at the time.

David: You see what I mean? This is crazy talk!

Bill: So I then went to law school at University of Washington. I had an uncle who was a lawyer and I had admired his career, plus I wanted to learn a different way of thinking. I was an engineer as a undergrad and I got a masters in business at night while I was in the service, but I wanted that different thought process that you get from being a lawyer, using the Socratic method when you go to class. I practiced law for a while, but I had always wanted to be in business. I moved away from law when I did a leveraged buyout of a small title insurance firm back in 1984 and that was the basis of our public companies today. I think we paid twenty-one million—we borrowed seventeen million and we put down about four million. I owned about 51%; I begged and borrowed all the money to make the investment. I got it from my family, we put a mortgage on our house, whatever we could do to raise money, we did it. That group of businesses today now has a market value of about sixty-two billion. 

David: Now when does wine start to enter the picture? Did you get into wine as an investment opportunity, or was it originally a hobby that turned into a business?

Bill: Originally it was a hobby. I got into Pinot Noir and Chardonnay back in the mid-eighties. Once I start getting interested in something I tend to go all in. I went to Burgundy several times, visiting every domaine I could. I went all over Northern California as well, but I was interested in those two varietals in particular. Then in the late nineties after we moved to Santa Barbara from Newport Beach, I saw the opportunity to do something I had been interested in for some time, so I got into the wine business in a small way. We bought the Curtis Winery from the Firestone family and renamed it Lincourt, then I created Foley Estates out in the Santa Rita Hills. We bought a horse farm, planted it with vineyards, then built a production facility. That’s really where it started. Then in 2008 and ’09, I decided to start investing in wineries and vineyards and that’s when I really got serious about it. We got pretty embedded up here in Northern California, buying Chalk Hill and Sebastiani. We created the Roth brands and Lancaster. When I think about it, I’ve never done anything that ended up being small. I always keep building and growing it. 

David: I think it’s simply natural for any company to grow when it creates a product of quality like your wineries do. Chalk Hill is one of my favorite California Chardonnays. That’s a great property with a perfect location. If you’re able to give a place like that the right kind of love, then success is destined to follow, don’t you think?

Bill: That’s a good example of a distressed property and a distress sale. We bought it during the summer of 2010 and I’m only now finished investing in the property. We went in and ripped out a bunch of distressed vines, replanted them, rebuilt the winery and the production facility, rebuilt the tasting room, re-did the pavilion, and then we built the Roth facility across the street, which was originally an old fermentation building. We created a winery inside of that. Now we have two wineries across the street from each other and Lancaster just down the street. So we’ve cornered Chalk Hill Road a bit in terms of winemaking. It’s a great location. Chalk Hill Chardonnay is my favorite, too. If I’m drinking Chardonnay, then I’m drinking Chalk Hill Estate Chardonnay—period. 

David: What do you think brought that wine to the level it is today, besides your investment?

Bill: When I got here, the wine had gotten away from its roots. They had been filtering and fining. When I took control of the winemaking back in 2012, I said: we’re going back to the original model. It’s going to be unfiltered and unfined, we’re going to touch this wine as infrequently as possible, and we’re going to go back to the style that Ramey helped to create in the mid-nineties. I believe we’ve done it. If anything, the vineyards are in far better shape now than when I bought the property. We replanted what was the Founder’s Block parcel, which used the clone developed at UC Davis back when phylloxera was going crazy through Chalk Hill. We are the only location that has this Founder’s Block clone and we’ve just replanted it with resistant root stock and grafted on the clone. It’s going to be beautiful. We started this program about four and a half years ago and we’re just now getting production. I’m telling you: the wine is unbelievable. 

David: So you’re finally getting production on this incredible new project and all of a sudden a series of wildfires threatens to burn it all to the ground. How close were your properties to the recent events?

Bill: We might have some smoke taint on some of the red fruit, but in terms of damage we didn’t have any. The Tubbs fire got to within about a mile of Chalk Hill, but then the firefighters came in and we didn’t have any problem. We were very lucky. Because we wanted to help those who were affected, we contributed $250,000 to the Napa and Sonoma relief fund, but this all came right on the heels of the massacre down in Las Vegas, which we have been involved with raising funds as well.

David: I have a bunch of questions to ask you about Las Vegas seeing that you’re now the owner of the city’s NHL franchise—the Golden Knights—but since we’re moving in that direction now, what was it like there on opening night? I watched that game live on TV with my wife as we’re big fans now that we’re locals. We were pretty choked up. What you guys did having the players walk out for their introductions with the first responders was incredible. 

Bill: Boy, I’ll tell you, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. I thought it was a good idea to make our players available and they wanted to help. They went to fire stations, police stations, hospitals, the convention center where people were looking for their loved ones; it was pretty tough. These guys went through that whole process. We obviously had a completely different event planned for opening night, but we just reverted to this idea of honoring the first responders and having them escorted by each player to the center of the ice. I thought it was very moving. Deryk Engelland, who we drafted in the expansion draft, made an incredible speech. He’s lived in Las Vegas for the last eight or nine years, his kids were all born there, and he talked about being from Las Vegas and how affected he was. Apparently he was awake all night because he was so nervous about making the speech, but it was fantastic. Every game we now honor a different first responder as a prequel to the National Anthem. 

David: You guys did a big thing this past Friday as well, right? With one of the police chiefs?

Bill: Yes, on Nevada Day we honored the captain who runs the Clark County Sheriff’s Department on the Strip. He was in charge of the response team that went to the concert when the firing started. We gave him a check for a million dollars that our foundation raised. I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to do to help. But then the wildfires started! Can you imagine?

David: I felt bad because I originally made the request for this interview with your assistant right after the home opener when I was in Vegas at the time. But then the fires started and I knew between the shooting and the potential threat to your wineries, you must have been a nervous wreck. 

Bill: It was crazy. We were planning to go to Vegas that Monday after the violence, but I had called down and talked to a few people and every one was under such distress, so we decided to stay in Northern California until that Friday. Then the fires started that Sunday while we were gone. 

David: Were you drinking your own wine during the first game to help get through all the stress?

Bill: We have a suite at center ice where I sit in the first row with the GM George McPhee and the assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon. The people who are in the suite think I’m rather anti-social (laughs) because I’m down there watching the game instead of talking to them. But it’s so intense!

David: Well, you’re not really there to schmooze and booze, right? This is your baby! Your very own team going out there each night.

Bill: Exactly, and then we got off to that great start, so I’ve been really wrapped up in it. 

David: Explain to me how this all came about, will you? Owning a hockey team in Las Vegas…

Bill: I got directed to the idea of hockey in Vegas by the Malouf family. We went through the process of meeting with the league and they told me I needed to put down a fifty million dollar non-refundable deposit and assure them the arena would be ready on time. I told them: “I can’t put down a fifty million dollar non-refundable deposit!” So I called Commissioner Gary Bettman and he told me the league would allow us to have a season ticket drive, to demonstrate the viability of the market. We did that and within thirty days we had taken deposits on over ten thousand season tickets. Eventually we got to 13,500 deposits. The league saw that and allowed us to make our preparations. So far everything has worked out, other than the fact that all of our goalies are getting hurt.

David: Right! First Marc-Andre Fleury gets the concussion, then Subban gets hurt. Now Oskar Dansk is out after the Islanders game! Whose going in for the next game?

Bill: Our goalie’s name is Maxime Lagace. He’s from Quebec. We brought him in originally for a game after Fleury got hurt, but then we picked up Subban off waivers. So we sent him down to our AHL affiliate. We then brought up Dansk to be Subban’s back-up. Fluery and Subban should be back shortly. A concussion’s hard to figure out through. He wants to get back and play. He’s so bummed. Subban might be back first, however. We think we’ll get one of the two back shortly, but probably not on this road trip. We’ve got ten days of desperation ahead of us.

David: Despite all this, you’re at the top of the ESPN NHL power rankings! I always check it to see if they’re going to finally give you the respect you deserve.

Bill: They won’t give us any credit! Isn’t it ridiculous? You listen to the commentators and they say things like: “Well, they haven’t really played anybody yet.” We beat the Blackhawks, the Blues, Dallas, and the Avalanche. We’re beating established teams. These are not pushovers. 

David: It seems like the response in Vegas has been incredible. I see Golden Knights gear all over Summerlin when I go home.

Bill: It’s been incredible. It’s like the team is feeding off of Las Vegas and Las Vegas is feeding off this team. It’s become a symbiotic relationship. The town knows that we’re Vegas born and that we’re the first professional sports team to play here. Every night has been a complete sell out. 

David: So are you having a glass of wine to celebrate all this as you watch each game?

Bill: In the suite, it’s just water. Just water during the game. But immediately after the game it’s Chalk Hill Chardonnay or Lancaster Cab if I want a red. Those are my two go-tos. 

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll