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Company leader stays in good spirits

Robert Sands admits he is a glass-half-full kind of guy.

"Most of my day is a good day," Sands says.

The 51-year-old is president and CEO of Victor-based Constellation Brands Inc.

Constellation, founded in 1945 by the late Marvin Sands as Canandaigua Brands Inc., began as a small bulk-wine producer based in Canandaigua with eight employees.

In 2009, Constellation had sales of more than $3.77 billion. It operates some 50 wineries and other facilities, has roughly 6,600 employees worldwide and sells or markets products in nearly 150 countries worldwide. It ranks as the world’s largest wine firm.

The firm ranked 16th on the most recent Rochester Business Journal list of manufacturers with 634 local workers.

The company has a portfolio of more than 100 consumer brands across the wine, beer and spirits categories. Major wine brands include Robert Mondavi, Clos du Bois and Ravenswood. Major beer brands include Corona Extra and Corona Light, while its spirits business includes brands such as Svedka Vodka, Black Velvet Canadian Whisky and Paul Masson Grande Amber Brandy.

Sands, who goes by Rob, became CEO two years ago, replacing his brother Richard, who remains Constellation chairman. Marvin Sands was their father.

Rob Sands is excited to be part of a business that has such an impact on people’s lives.

"We make a product that people have a passion for and enjoy," he says. "Very few other companies can say they have a product as intrinsically exciting and fun to be a part of."

Sands grew up in Canandaigua and attended school there until high school, when he transferred to the Harley School.

The family business
As a youth, he was unsure about whether he wanted to take part in the family business or what career path he wanted to pursue.

His father took the business from a bulk wine venture to one that focused on brands, which provided better margins and profitability. By the time Rob Sands was a teen, the company had been taken public and was logging roughly $50 million in annual sales.

In "Reaching for the Stars: The Making of Constellation Brands," a book released in 2008 by Richard and Rob Sands with Paul Chutkow, Rob Sands admits to being the epitome of the spoiled child.

"There were no rules in our household for me," he states in the book. "Dad never punished me. Never. And he could never say no. He always gave me everything and anything I wanted, including a bright yellow Lotus Europa sports car."

Sands studied philosophy at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, Saratoga County.

During his summers he worked at the winery in Canandaigua, moving hoses, cleaning the inside of tanks and chipping out crystallized sugar from the inside of tank cars.

"It was very dirty work," he says.

Sands considered pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy until his senior year, when he determined it was more practical to study law.

After receiving his bachelor of arts degree in philosophy, Sands attended Pace University School of Law in White Plains, Westchester County. He earned his juris doctorate in 1984 and took a job as a full-time associate at Harter Secrest & Emery LLP in Rochester, where he had worked part time during his law-school years.

While Sands’ father wanted him to join the business-Richard already was working there-he also wanted his children to pursue other professional interests and work in an arena other than the family business. The same was true of Richard, who received a Ph.D. in social psychology before joining Constellation, and their sister, the late Laurie Sands M.D., who died of cancer in 1995.

After practicing law for two years, Sands took a great interest in the family business, which was growing rapidly through acquisitions.

He joined in 1986 as general counsel overseeing the company’s legal affairs when the firm was acquiring Widmer Wine Cellars in Naples and the Manischewitz wine brand, owned by the Brooklyn-based Monarch Wine Co. At the time, the company president was Sands’ brother Richard, seven years his senior. Monarch had sales of some $200 million and roughly 300 workers.

"It looked like it was going to be an exciting thing to do, which it turned out to be," Sands says.

Leadership roles
In 1993, Sands was appointed executive vice president and general counsel. He was promoted to CEO of Constellation International after the company’s acquisition of the United Kingdom’s Matthew Clark PLC in 1998.

From 2000 through most of 2002, he served as group president over both the U.K. operations and Canandaigua Wine Co. He was named president and chief operating officer for Constellation Brands in December 2002. He also serves on the board of directors.

His training as a lawyer helped prepare him for the corporate world, he says.

"There are very few educational processes that are as geared toward, and teach people, critical thinking, as a law school education," Sands says. "It served me well."

Richard Sands agrees that a background in law prepared his brother for the family business, especially with the legalities that go along with acquisitions and the highly regulated alcohol beverage industry.

Over the past 25 years, the two have worked closely together and developed a complementary style, Richard Sands says. While he leans more toward the mathematical, financial and transactional roles, his brother excels in the legal, structural, and sales and marketing arenas.

"Rob has a nice way of holding people accountable to their goals and objectives," says Richard, who also describes Rob as a great brother and wonderful business partner.

Some may not get a full picture of his brother upon first meeting, he explains.

"Rob can be seen as very serious, but what they don’t realize is that underneath he has a great sense of humor," Richard Sands says. "He’s a funny guy."

More of a night owl than an early morning person, Sands arrives at the office around 9 a.m. but stays into the early evening.

The job involves a lot of travel, with Sands on the road at least once a week. The trips are often short, such as going to New York City or Chicago for the day or to California for a couple of days. But with offices around the world, he spends roughly every other month in Europe and visits operations in Australia and New Zealand at least once a year.

On his trips, Sands spends time with Constellation employees, customers, distributors and retailers.

He describes his days at the Victor headquarters as a series of "meetings, meetings, meetings" with various members of the management team.

Some of those meetings take place at a large table on the balcony outside his office where, on a clear day, one can see Canandaigua Lake. Another private conference room is off his office, which features furniture and art by local artists, including Wendell Castle and Martine Lepore.

Besides the family photos around the room, prominent items include an aboriginal drum from Australia and a large telescope by his desk.

The sophisticated decor continues throughout Constellation’s headquarters and includes large paintings, many by local artists, and elaborate yet modern lighting fixtures.

A dining area, which the company uses for work and community events, has a bar stocked with Constellation’s offerings, but Sands stresses the company’s promotion of responsible consumption of alcohol beverages.

His current favorite is a Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, which recently graced the cover of Wine Spectator magazine.

Sands does not have to look further than Constellation’s vision statement to describe what he loves about the job.

"Constellation’s vision statement is ‘elevating life with every glass raised,’" Sands says. "It sounds ethereal, but it really describes what separates working here versus other places."

He is not the only one enthusiastic about the business, he says, noting that people who come to work for Constellation rarely leave.

"We have such a great product that contributes so much to the enjoyment of life that it makes work a fun place," Sands says. "We aren’t just making widgets here."

Keys to leading
When it comes to leadership style, Sands says there are a few tenets he finds important.

He believes leadership by example is critical, as is finding the balance between the minute details of the company and the big picture. Teamwork and collaboration are keys to success.

"The CEO needs to lead by example, the CEO needs to set the vision for the corporation, the CEO needs to be involved in setting strategy, the CEO needs to make sure the company has the best people, and then the CEO has to be able to delegate responsibly and let people do what they need to make the company successful," he says. "And that’s basically how I perceive the job."

While there are not many bad parts of the job, he, like other company leaders, does not like decisions that can negatively affect others, such as last year’s decision to reduce Constellation’s global work force by 5 percent.

"We don’t take those decisions lightly," he says. "Fortunately, they are few and far between."

M&A focus
Over the years, Constellation continued its acquisition focus and underwent some divestitures, as well.

Notable acquisitions include buying the Robert Mondavi Corp. for $1.03 billion in 2004 and acquiring Canadian wine company Vincor International Inc. for $1.3 billion in 2006 and Spirits Marque One, which owned Svedka Vodka, in 2007.

Since taking over as CEO in 2007, Sands has been focused on "premiumizing" the business, or focusing on wines priced at $5 to $15 a bottle. Because of that, Constellation has sold some of its lower-priced offerings. Last year, the firm entered into an agreement to sell its Almaden and Inglenook wine brands to the Wine Group LLC. Later in the year, the company announced it would sell some of its wine as-sets in California, Washington and Idaho to a California-based private firm.

To further streamline operations, Constellation announced the realignment of its U.S. distributor network, which consolidated more than half of its U.S. wine and spirits business to one distributor per market. Company leaders said the move aimed to improve organic growth, create distributor teams focused exclusively on Constellation’s portfolio and improve the coordination of marketing and promotional programs to support the brands.

More recently, Constellation said it is considering options for its Australian and United Kingdom wine operations, which could include a merger with Australian Vintage Ltd., creating a stand-alone company in which Constellation would hold a non-controlling interest.

Sands does not have to look far to find his business mentors. They include his father, who taught Sands the nuts and bolts of the business.

"He was a great interactor with people and had a way about him that inspired confidence in people," Sands says, adding that it is something he has tried to emulate. "I wouldn’t say I’m anywhere as good at it as he was, but it certainly was something that made him very successful and something I learned about."

Richard Sands may have influenced his younger brother the most, since the two have worked together for more than two decades.

"Richard is very analytical, and a lot of the foundations of what we believe are the goals we should be working to achieve were created by him and through our years of working together," Sands says. "I have adopted many of the same fundamental business principles that he and my father before him were responsible for establishing as the way we operate the business."

Community efforts
In addition to his business duties, Sands is almost equally committed to his philanthropic endeavors. The number of boards he has served on over the years is too extensive to list, but he currently is on the boards of Rochester General Health Systems, Thompson Hospital, Rochester Business Alliance Inc. and, as chairman, the New York Wine & Culinary Center.

Giving back to the community is a Sands family tradition. Among Marvin Sands’ community passions was the outdoor amphitheater he helped create at Finger Lakes Community College. In honor of their father, the Sands brothers were involved in an effort to revitalize the venue, which has since been renamed the Constellation Brands Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center.

Sands says community spirit is evident among many business leaders in the area.

"Most of the people involved in a lot of these same organizations are not only devoting time to their company, but they are committing to community affairs," Sands says. "It becomes one of your responsibilities as you become successful in business."

Sands lives in Pittsford with his wife of more than 20 years, Nancy, whom he met at law school.

The couple has a daughter, Lauren, 21, who is a senior at the University of Rochester and is applying to law schools. Their son, Mackenzie, 20, is a freshman at Nazareth College of Rochester.

Sands does not rule out his children one day joining the family business, adding that both have done work for the community relations group.

In his free time, Sands enjoys golfing, snow skiing and post-apocalyptic science fiction books and movies. A favorite author is Octavia Butler.

The family spends summers at a home on Canandaigua Lake, where he enjoys boating and water skiing. They also own a condominium in Del Ray, Fla., near where his mother, Mickey, has a winter home.

He also enjoys getting out into the community, often shopping at Wegmans on Saturdays and frequenting local restaurants.

Ronald Kirshner M.D., chief of cardiovascular services and cardiothoracic surgery at Rochester General Hospital, has known Sands for more than 20 years, initially meeting because their children attended school together.

Kirshner spoke of Sands’ intellect, saying he is able to size up situations more quickly than most. That was apparent when Sands observed one of Kirshner’s open heart surgeries.

"He was asking questions that people in the field for years couldn’t figure out to ask," Kirshner says.

While Sands is competitive and focused on winning in business, he has an air of humility, Kirshner says. He accompanied Sands to one of Constellation’s facilities in Scotland and was impressed that Sands knew people there well enough to address them on a first-name basis.

"He understands he is just another human being and doesn’t put himself above anyone else," Kirshner says, adding Sands is also family-centered, dedicated to his wife and children as well as his mother and brother.

Moving forward, Sands says, Constellation plans to continue its premiumization focus, targeting wines costing $5 to $15 a bottle, which make up the bulk of the firm’s portfolio. It continues to be the fastest-growing part of the business and the right strategy even in a difficult economic environment, he says.

As Constellation continues to grow, Sands says that the company’s roots are firmly planted in the community and that the region’s laid-back yet values-driven style has affected the way he leads his company.

"In size and reach, Constellation Brands is a global giant," Sands wrote in "Reaching for the Stars." "Yet in spirit we remain a small, family-run company."

Robert Sands
Position: President and CEO, Constellation Brands Inc.
Age: 51
Education: B.A. in philosophy, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, 1981; J.D., Pace University School of Law, White Plains, 1984
Family: Wife, Nancy; daughter, Lauren, 21; son, Mackenzie, 20
Residence: Pittsford
Outside activities: golf, boating, water and snow skiing, post-apocalyptic science fiction books and movies
Quote: "We have such a great product that contributes so much to the enjoyment of life that it makes work a fun place. We aren’t just making widgets here."

 

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