Stephen Bolger, ’99 (EXP-4), made his name in international management, first in industrial minerals and then in technology. But when Bolger and his wife lost their first child, a decision to align his career with something that had true meaning to him—and the emotional intelligence gained at Booth—led him to pursue his passion for wine in the heart of Bordeaux.
While at Booth, Bolger took a class focused on creative thinking, and what he learned there helped guide his career. After working internationally for years, and suffering that tragic loss, Bolger founded VINIV, a Bordeaux-based “experiential” custom-wine-making company that helps clients create not just a personalized product, but a story to tell for the rest of their lives.
I will never forget the class I took with professors John P. “Jack” Gould and Harry L. Davis. It was focused on creative thinking and getting a better understanding of “Me, Inc.,” which—when you’re a young rabble-rouser—gives you an opportunity to take a step back and think about what motivates you.
When we handed in a paper about our personal objectives, Davis called out a quote I’d used from photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, which said that in order to take a good photograph you had to put your mind, heart, and eye on the same axis. I find that that is so true when I think about what I chose to do professionally.
When I started out in international sales in industrial minerals, I loved the learning and travel. While traveling, my wife and I would run off to wineries to discover the landscapes, the people, and the wines. (My mother is French and I spent many holidays there, so wine was always around our home.)
As I moved up the ladder, I became responsible for the company’s international operations, including production facilities in Europe and Africa. I realized that I had an operational shortfall, and that’s why I sought out the MBA.
Henri Cartier-Bresson said that in order to take a good photograph you had to put your mind, heart, and eye on the same axis ... that is so true when I think about what I chose to do professionally.
A great thing about Booth was that it quickly gave me the "tool kit" required to operate in a field I didn’t initially understand well. It turbo boosted my ability to deal with the challenges that I had to address while growing an international manufacturing and sales operation.
While at school, I had many self-revelations, in addition to business learning. I discovered the importance of emotional intelligence and the humility required to know what I didn’t do well. This has constantly helped me to surround myself with the right people in all of my endeavors.
After my career in industrial minerals, I moved into technology, joining a London-based business with two graduates from my Booth program. Next, I was recruited by the four largest steel producers in Europe to run a technology consortium.
Then, a seismic event occurred: my wife and I lost our first child. It’s one of those things where the world slows down and almost completely stops. You start framing your life choices in such a way that you want them to have more meaning. And one of the conclusions was that I didn’t want to spend the next half of my career in any industry where I couldn’t apply my axis: my heart, head, and eye. That’s what led me to the wine industry.
VINIV helps individuals and corporations produce their own premium Bordeaux wine and live out a truly unique experience. We created a winery dedicated to small-lot wine production, sourced vineyards in the most prestigious appellations (Margaux, Pauillac, Pomerol), and our technical team—my partners at Château Lynch-Bages—guide our clients throughout the wine-making process. Then it’s up to my clients to decide the style of wine they want to produce and their level of immersion in the overall experience. For example, they can choose to work the vineyards, participate at harvest, refine their barrel blend, and create a brand and label that is a true reflection of their wine story.
So far, VINIV clients have come from 26 countries; they include bankers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, celebrities, and heads of state. Sixty percent return for another vintage. I love the relationship with clients because wine usually brings out a number of meaningful stories and memories. It’s a product that generates emotion, and our clients come to Bordeaux to learn; they’re saying, “Shock me. Give me the behind-the-scenes information about how the Bordeaux wine world works.” And that’s the sweet spot. That’s what I love to do.
—As told to Gretchen Kalwinski