Michael Moyer is the Director, Wine and Viticulture Technology at Lake Michigan College (LMC) in Benton Harbor, Michigan. LMC boasts the only school of its kind in the Midwest to teach both grape growing and wine making. The operation, run by students, produces small batch wines. The program operates out of the new Welch Center, a new facility celebrated in an August 27 ribbon cutting ceremony.
Steve: Your history is fascinating. Please tell our readers a little about your entry into the wine business.
Michael: I attended the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. We had a study abroad program, and I opted to go to Dijon, France. At the time, all I knew about was mustard. I knew nothing about burgundy. I lived with a family there, and like most native French, there was a great deal of wine consumed. My first day there, the father took two five-gallon cans to town and filled them from big tanks. One red wine, the other white. This was their everyday wine. He had nicer wine in the cellar for guests and special occasions. I visited many wineries and barrel tasted many wines. I was hooked. When I returned home, I decided to enter the grape and wine program at the University of California – Davis. I began working in wineries in California and then Washington. I worked seven years at Walla Walla Community College, and then spent 5 vintages making wine for Figgins Family Wine Estates, producers of Leonetti, Figgins, and Doubleback (Doubleback has their own winery now). I met the folks from Lake Michigan College while they were visiting Leonetti. They enticed me to consider working for their new grape and wine program. I was intrigued, but expected Michigan wines to be apple, cherry and sweet. They sent me a case of fantastic wine from three southwestern Michigan wineries and I was impressed. They were making high quality wines. I accepted LMC’s offer, and here I am!
Steve: What does it mean to you to be a transformational leader?
Michael: This is all about transforming the perception of Chicago wine consumers. This means transforming the way we do things in southwest Michigan, from vineyard selection and management to bottling our final products. I am passionate about the potential of southwest Michigan, and the opportunity to make world class wines is tremendous. This takes humility and requires teaching and coaching. You must be open minded and willing to try new ideas.
Steve: Tell me about a time when this was particularly challenging or rewarding for you. What was the situation, what did you do, how did it work out?
Michael: I was surprised at the culture here. Here we were conducting fund-raising events for our grape and wine center, and the organizers would not pour Michigan wines. I found myself repeating and reinforcing the notion that if we are trying to raise funds to raise the profile of our region, we ought to promote our own products. I had a few arguments about this but continued to “beat the drum” to bring folks along.
Steve: How did you clarify the purpose of your transformation?
Michael: We are consistent about our identity and our mission. We repeat this at every opportunity. This requires a great deal of education, communication and repetition. It also requires us to focus on making quality product.
Steve: In what ways did you experience cross-functional dysfunction, and how did you address this?
Michael: The leadership of LMC has generally been very supportive, but there were some exceptions that made it difficult. In addition to showcasing local wines, we also made it difficult for new students to engage with the program. College leaders were not convinced or aligned with the purpose of the program. We have resolved this with more repetitive communication.
Steve: Were there cultural attributes that made the transformation easier or more difficult?
Michael: Within LMC I have a great deal of support. My leader lets me do my job. She recognizes that she doesn’t know everything and lets me be the expert in the room. I also have great support from local industry leaders.
Regarding the area wineries, however, there was some vocal opposition to us selling our wines – those that came from the program and made by the students. Some viewed us a competitor, not collaborators. If you look across the most successful wine regions of the world, it’s about cooperation and working together to market a region. It’s not about one winery being better than another. We have a huge opportunity to make a name for southwest Michigan. We need to work together. This is improving, though we have a way to go.
Steve: How did you enroll others in the transformation?
Michael: At LMC, I just keep doing what I am doing, and repeating the message. I help others realize the importance of our work. And I give them time to sort it out in their own minds.
About the area wineries, I don’t let the argument amplify. We can agree to disagree. I stay my course. I seek common ground where possible. Most are supportive.
Steve: Please comment on organizational challenges you faced, both structural and behavioral. (structural = team structure and make up; behavioral = trust, conflict, humility, etc.)
Michael: My mantra has always been to do what is best for the industry here in southwest Michigan. Sometimes I need to reflect on this and make sure I’m focused in this manner. This requires humility and introspection.
Steve: How did you become more of a coach?
Michael: I believe in what we are doing. I believe in the mission. I believe the best way to achieve the goal is to be collaborative. Get along. Agree to disagree, but don’t be disrespectful, and operate from that platform. We must recognize that if we’re going to put southwestern Michigan on the map, we are dependent upon each other.
Steve: If you could give one piece of advice, what would it be?
Michael: Be a good team player. Invest in the right people. Take care of them. You get what you pay for – extra investment goes a long way. Organizations sell themselves short when they skimp.
Dedicated to your profitable transformation,
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