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Q&A with Sue Bachorski, COO/CFO of Saka Brands, Napa Valley’s first cannabis infused wine

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Sue Bachorski is a bigwig in the alcohol sector, having spent nearly three decades as a Senior Operations and Finance Executive at Constellation Brands, Inc. a Fortune 500 company and one of the largest and most respected beer, wine and spirits companies in the world.

Most recently, Sue served as SVP, Operation Services, Global Wine & Spirits, and in a big move, left Constellation Brands in February to join House of Saka, Inc., as COO/CFO. Saka is the producer of the first and only alcohol-free, cannabis-infused beverages made from select vineyards within the iconic Napa Valley appellation. We were fortunate to sit down with Sue to ask some key questions.

AW: 30 years at Constellation Brands, that’s a tremendous tenure! Tell us about your journey at that company; how did you move up the ranks to attain the SVP position?

SB: In a nutshell, it was a fantastic and crazy wild ride!  I started when the company had $150M of gross sales – it was over $8B when I left, that’s a lot of change! I moved up by demonstrating ability and taking risks.  I took several assignments in new geographical areas, or moved to newly acquired divisions and startups, each time taking on more responsibility. I became known for taking on difficult areas or assignments and ‘making it happen’. I was a SVP/senior management member of either Wine & Spirits, Beer, or Corporate for the last 18 years of my career there.

Why did you decide to leave Constellation for House of Saka?

I decided to leave Constellation when they announced the downsizing of their W&S business about a year ago.  It seemed like an appropriate time to take an “adult gap year”. It’s been a fabulous year, but there is only so much travel and volunteer work I can do before I want to get “back to business”.

What excites you most about the cannabis infused beverage category and taking on this new role at House of Saka specifically?

I’m excited about such a growing a growing category.  This brand is beautiful, very high quality, and Cynthia and Tracey (founders) are such brilliant and kick-ass women – that all adds up to a lot of opportunity in my opinion.

What scares you most about this brand new industry?

To be honest, I don’t scare easily. I think there will be a lot of learning and growing from the industry in general as it becomes more mainstream. This will likely result in changes to ways of working (regulatory, licensing, sales, etc), but that is to be expected in my opinion.  We will need to be girl scouts – “be prepared”.

You’ve gone from working in a huge, global company in a fairly mature industry with a deeply socially embedded product to heading up a key area in a new start-up in an industry that is still rife with stigma. What do you feel will be your biggest challenges in making this transition?

Thirty years ago, the wine business had much more stigma as a ‘sin’ business than it does today. Although cannabis does have a lot of stigma, particularly in some parts of the country, the sentiment is moving quickly. I think one of the biggest challenges will be keeping up with how quickly the category moves.

As a mature, polished businesswoman, what key leadership skills do you think you can bring to the table to help House of Saka, and the industry as a whole evolve?

I have a lot of experience with developing support systems for letting Sales and Marketing do their jobs. Business processes, technology solutions, and integrating various ‘back office’ functions. I think we are still in the infancy stage in cannabis for making these kinds of improvements and streamlining processes, but it is something I can be a leader on in thinking for the future.

What will success look like to you, 2 years from now?

House of Saka is the example used for how luxury products in this space succeed.

Do you feel the wine/alcohol category will be impacted by cannabis as a product category as a whole, and wine in particular?

There are some very different schools of thought on this topic, and much is written about it.  Personally, I do believe there will be some impact as people come to realize you can have a luxury wine experience without the alcohol and a fraction of the calories. As people make healthy lifestyle choices, I do feel there will be an impact on the alcohol beverage business.

How does making such a big change at this time in your life feel?

It’s fantastic!  This is so much different than a large corporate organization which has plenty of resources, both people and funds. This is growing something from a seed (pun intended) into a flourishing brand and house of brands. It’s exciting to be a part of something like this.

From a diversity and inclusion perspective, are there any best practices you can pull from the alcoholic beverage industry that could help create an inclusive and diverse industry from the get-go?

The cannabis industry has a larger percentage of entrepreneurs that are women than the alcohol beverage industry. That in and of itself is exciting. There are, however, very different issues with regards to diversity and inclusion in cannabis vs. alcohol. Minorities have historically been disproportionately targeted and imprisoned for cannabis, and it continues to this day.

The need for new processes and standards to ensure there is an equal and fair amount of opportunity for everyone will continue to be unique to this industry.  I look forward to being part of whatever it requires to advance this industry to a place that is free of any more imprisonment, as well as freedom for those currently imprisoned as cultivators or users of this plant.

Have you had any mentors in your career and do you engage in mentoring at this stage in your career? If so, how have either impacted your life?

In my early career in alcohol beverage there were very few women to see as a mentor. I have been lucky enough to have a few senior men who saw potential for me to take more risks, led by example, and urged me to achieve more. In the last ten years in particular, I formally and informally mentored a number of women. I think it’s a great resource for both the mentor and mentee – I rarely came away from one of those conversations without thinking I had learned something as well as helped another woman.

How do you care for yourself physically and mentally?

I have two outlets – exercise and friends.  I have a fantastic posse of friends, many of them for twenty plus years. We rely on each other when we need help, just to vent, or for a good laugh and a great time. I also believe that sweating is the best way for me to deal with problems or stress.  Hiking, the gym, pilates, spin – anything physically tough to clear my head.

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Leslie Andrachuk

As a bilingual pioneer in global digital publishing and marketing, Leslie is happiest when creating new things and inspiring her teams. She is passionate about changing biases that hold women back from realizing their true power and is grateful that at this point in her career she has the skills to make real change.

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