Sowing the Seeds
John Scharffenberger grows his businesses from the ground up
PHILO, CALIF.-On a frosty November morning, John Scharffenberger wanders head down over his 32 acres of Mendocino County redwoods and oaks. Whenever the lanky 51-year-old spies a fallen acorn, he picks it up and plunks it in his tin bucket. When he later lugs the bucket over to Fred and Ethel, they snort with pleasure. Scharffenberger has acorn-fed these two carefully selected pigs for almost a year. The black-and-white-spotted Fred and gray-all-over Ethel could very well be the porcine Adam and Eve of one of Scharffenberger's next big ideas-producing tasty, Spanish-style hams.
It will take another year of salting, drying, and curing before the results of this experiment can be tasted to see if his methods can produce hams rivaling the Serranos that are cherished by gourmets the world over. But Scharffenberger isn't anxious: "If it takes two years, I don't care." All his projects "take forever," he shrugs. "But they are fun and interesting."
Perfection. In a fast-food, fast-buck nation, Scharffenberger has become beloved by diners and respected by business people for growing his enterprises unfashionably slowly to maintain top quality. Scharffenberger Cellars champagne (he sold his interest in the business in the mid-1990s, but the wine is still made with the methods he pioneered) was recently rated the best nonvintage bubbly by the Wall Street Journal. And Scharffen Berger chocolate, which he cofounded in 1996 with chocolate perfectionist Robert Steinberg, is credited with helping launch America's fine-chocolate boomlet. Scharffen Berger (he added the space to distinguish the chocolate from the champagne) will sell more than $20 million worth of its silky dark chocolate bars this year.
Having two such remarkable successes in a brutally competitive field that sees close to 1,000 food brand introductions each year shows that Scharffenberger is a master entrepreneur, says the London Business School, which has invited him to teach entrepreneurship in early 2007. "For John, the pleasure is in the creation and early stages" of a business, says John Mullins, who leads the LBS entrepreneurship program. Scharffenberger has succeeded because "he has a real passion to change the world," Mullins adds. For his part, Scharffenberger says he hopes to pass on his philosophy by asking students: "How are you going to make" a new product? "How are you going to tell people why it is so good? If it is not good, maybe you shouldn't do it."
Scharffenberger's own lessons about how to transform the pursuit of something good into a business had an unlikely start at his childhood home. As a teenager, he was uninterested in business and occasionally annoyed his father with his beard and hippieish ways. George Scharffenberger, who died in 2001, bought companies such as Motel 6 and Home Insurance to build up the City Investing Co. conglomerate during the 1960s and 1970s. When tax laws and investing fashions changed in the 1980s, the elder Scharffenberger dismantled the company he'd assembled, returning billions to shareholders.
John Scharffenberger says his father was "too smart to ever give me money" for any of his ventures. But the elder Scharffenberger did sometimes talk about business to his six children, and he got them to help with his hobby of beekeeping. John also loved joining his brothers in ambitious gardening projects on the family's 18-acre home in Southern California.