Darioush Khaledi Featured

8:00pm EDT August 29, 2006
 Darioush Khaledi knows that companies — like fine wines — can improve with age. And he has the patience and the experience to grow both grapes and businesses. In his role as proprietor of Darioush, a Napa Valley winery, Khaledi waited years as the grapes were grown, picked, squeezed and stored in barrels. He waited longer still for the first vintage to be released, and his patience has been rewarded — the vineyard now grows seven varieties of grapes and brings in between $7 million and $8 million a year. Meanwhile, in his role as chairman and CEO of the 30-year-old K.V. Mart, Khaledi has updated the look of his 23 Los Angeles-area grocery stores. K.V. Mart, with about $250 million in revenue, operates stores under the Top Valu Market and Valu Plus Food Warehouse names, and employs more than 1,500 people. Smart Business spoke with Khaledi about how he makes sure his employees are having fun and maintains a company culture.

Enhance your leadership ability.
Ninety percent comes from (within) you, and then you can enhance it 10 percent. You can do that through a variety of courses and looking at the biography of your ideals.

It’s like playing violin; you either have (talent) or not. Of course when you have talent, you have to practice and you have to learn to do it.

Don’t micromanage.
My style is hands off. I encourage them to do things, to make decisions and make mistakes. You learn from it.

That’s the investment that you do. (But) they know if they make mistakes twice in the same manner, then they’re going to have to talk to me.

We have a self-pressure system. Everybody is in charge of their own department. They feel they own the work, that they are the entrepreneurs of their own department.

There is no pressure from above. The pressure comes from within.

Know your role.
If you ask me what I do as the CEO of the company, all I’m doing is keeping the culture and keeping people entertained and happy.

You have to always create excitement about growing. Employees like the company growing.

They see opportunity for their growth when the company grows. I’m constantly doing something in the company, either remodeling the store, finding new locations or talking about new formats.

Selling groceries is boring, anyway. That’s how I keep them happy, motivated and looking for growth.

Keep the culture at the forefront.
Unfortunately, there have been many, many failures in the past 10, 15 years of corporate takeovers.

I can give you many, many examples in our neck of the woods that because they didn’t respect the culture of the smaller company, they’ve ruined the whole company.

Make sure your employees are laughing.
If you are going to a party with a bunch of friends, you are excited while you are driving because you are going to meet all your friends and have fun together. It is the same atmosphere we have here.

We have six or seven meeting rooms; all of them have a glass door. When I pass by, I can see the meeting. I’ll open the door (and say), ‘I don’t hear any laughing. What’s going on? You are getting too serious for me.’

They like to work with each other as a team. It’s like a basketball team or a football team. They have fun together when they are playing.

Measure what’s important.
In the United States, the bottom line is 100 percent the standard. In companies in other countries, it is not 100 percent measured (by) just the bottom line.

When you walk into our headquarters, we have written on the wall, ‘We at K.V. Mart have two objectives, to make money and have fun.’ That’s all.

Treat people as more than employees.
The best advice I can give is to love your teammates. Trust them. Let them do the job.

Know your challenges.
In the wine business, there is not too much competition. We have a line of luxury (wines). Not too many wineries are in that (niche).

We constantly have inventory problems, not marketing. We are always in short supply with the demand. In eight years we have not been able to (meet) the demand. The biggest challenge that we have in my winery is expanding the vineyard so we can produce more wine.

On the grocery side we have 23 locations. Our biggest challenge is the competition. They keep opening stores. Twenty years ago, the only stores in the inner cities were our stores.

Now there are so many other independent (stores) and so many other supermarkets and new formats. They come up with new formats every month. That is my biggest challenge.

Take advantage of opportunities.
As long as we have room to grow, we’re going to grow. When we started (the winery) eight years ago, we only had 30 acres of vineyard.

Now, we have 90 acres of vineyard. I don’t work any harder. I never worked more than 30, 35 hours anyway. I usually come in the morning and by lunch, I go to the golf course.

The winery is more of a challenge because it is a smaller company with fewer resources and fewer layers of management, so I have to work harder. It’s a small company, but I like to produce something to be unique.

HOW TO REACH: K.V. Mart, (310) 816-0200 or www.kvmart.com; Darioush Winery, (707) 257-2345 or www.darioush.com