Marysville vintner puts his passion into his new line of work

John Bell, owner of Willis Hall Winery in Marysville, is making an increasingly popular choice for budding entrepreneurs — entering the wine-making business.

There are more than 650 wineries in Washington state, and the state is the second largest premium wine producer in the country.

Bell, a former Boeing Co. employee, found a passion for making wines and turned that passion into a business, launching Willis Hall (www.willishall.com), six years ago. His company’s grapes come from more than 25 vineyards in Eastern Washington.

We recently spoke to him about being an entrepreneur in this growing and exciting industry. Here are the highlights from our conversation:

Question: What’s the best thing about being in the wine business?

Answer: In all businesses, but perhaps more so in the wine business due to the conviviality of the product, relationships are the best things. When you find after a while that your customers have morphed into being your friends, you will know that what you’re doing is successful. If your bank account reflects that, too, then you’ve arrived.

Q. Why did you decide to start your own winery?

A. After having worked at Boeing for over 31 years, my job had changed into one that didn’t utilize my experience or provide a further career path that appealed to me. The corporate culture there had changed over the years into something that clashed with my personal values. So I wanted to find employment that would be exciting and fresh and that would revitalize my desire to provide a product that would be of value to people. My love of the study of wines and my early success in amateur winemaking led me to contemplate starting my own commercial winery, which I did in 2003.

Q. What do you enjoy most about owning your own business? What do you dislike most about running a small business?

A. I most enjoy being the guiding force behind my business’ operations. I love using my insight and experience to solve problems, which includes foreseeing and circumventing them before they manifest. There’s a lot of satisfaction in that.

I most dislike the feeling of confinement associated with all the governmental restrictions and onerous reporting requirements associated with operating a winery. Laws dating back to Prohibition still govern much of the wine industry in Washington, and state Liquor Control Board interpretation of these rules is sometimes nonsensical and strongly adverse to the success of small business.

Q. What advice would you give a person contemplating entrepreneurship?

A. In a word, balance. Balance your natural enthusiasm with a healthy but measured dose of realism. Don’t let dreams of success blind you to the hard work necessary to succeed. Study the market for your business thoroughly, and be adroit in addressing the inevitable surprises that will spring up.

Q. What are the most critical skills, knowledge and attributes required to successfully run a small business?

A. Know your business. Be intimately conversant with all the details of your business — everything from the conception of your product or service, to the detailed definition of it, to the creation of it, to the marketing of it, to pounding the streets selling it, to keeping all the books and paying the taxes. Do all of these things yourself for the first part of your business life. That’s the only way you can truly know your business. You can outsource the less-liked stuff later, if you wish. But you can’t make good business decisions if you don’t know your business.

Q. What is stressful about being a small business owner? How can one minimize that?

A. Stress comes from fear of the unknown. Since there will always be the unknown, the best thing to do is to address your fears. A good start is to know that your business will be successful. Don’t visualize it; don’t believe it — know it. Then with that as your starting point, work your tail off to make that happen. If you know that your business will be successful, then you have nothing to fear.

Q. What keeps you awake at night?

A. The lonely train whistle less than a mile from my home. Well, OK, sometimes a loss of perspective about what’s truly important causes me to dwell on adverse business situations. That comes with the territory of being human, I guess. But a nice glass of Willis Hall wine and a good night’s sleep usually get me back on track.

Q. If you had to do it over again, would you still be an entrepreneur? Why? What would you change?

A. It’s too early to tell. My business is going through some really tough times right now due in no small part to an expensive and protracted land-use battle with Snohomish County. Had this situation not arisen, I’m sure I would have answered “yes” to this question. But this battle has killed my business plan, and recovery will take years. Other than that, the only thing I would have changed is that I would have found a wise mentor to whom I could go for advice and comfort. Help in bad times and celebration in good times.

Pat Sisneros is the vice president of College Services at Everett Community College. Lynne Munoz is director for the School of Business Design. Please e-mail your comments to entrepreneurship@everettcc.edu.

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