By Jay Mehta ’22
Jon Sebastiani ’12, Founder & CEO of Sonoma Brands Capital
Moderated by Professor Stephen Zagor, Columbia Business School
About this session
Jon Sebastiani ’12 took the audience through his journey joining his family’s businesses and expounded on some of the successes and challenges he faced. He shared practical relational advice for those thinking of joining their family’s business and what to look out for, as well as some career advice from his experience launching his own private equity fund after his family sold their business and he graduated from CBS.
Jon began by sharing his and his family’s story. Jon is in the fourth generation (“G4”) in his family’s wine business, which began when his great-grandfather immigrated from Tuscany, Italy, and started one of the first wineries in Sonoma and Napa Valleys in California. The business grew until it became the second-largest winery in the US.
Jon grew up as part of the family business, starting from working in the vineyard since his childhood days. He grew to appreciate the legacy of his family and the heritage of their business, and Jon’s education in the consumer goods space began from this early age which would later serve him well in his career.
After many years of working together, Jon’s father decided to leave the broader family business and open his own winery. When Jon graduated from college, he joined his father as president of one of the business’s branches. He entered this role mostly due to the right timing and the right need—the business was growing and needed the help that Jon could provide. Jon commented that in retrospect he wishes that he had worked outside the business for a few years before joining to make sure that that was the path he wanted to pursue, but the timing was such that the business needed Jon’s help as he was graduating. He worked for the business and gained good experience, but then the business was sold.
After the business was sold, Jon decided to go to CBS to pursue his lifelong dream: to work in early stage private equity. Right before starting at CBS, Jon founded his first company called Krave, which he sold in 2015 to Hershey’s. Jon credited his success in launching the business partially due to his extensive experience in the consumer space, having mastered running a business in the CPG space and being involved in his family’s business for his entire life.
Ultimately, this expertise led Jon to found his current company, Sonoma Brands Capital, a private equity fund that is focused on the consumer space and “building brands consumers love.” Jon shared that he has a deep list of mentors in the private equity space where he feels he can come and share his personal space. A few quick tips for brands that Jon invests in are that they should ideally exist in markets that have more of an oligopoly type of structure, that are authentic in their messaging and mission, and that have some sort of “founder magic” or a founder with some kind of personal advantage over others that might start a company in the same space (for instance, Jon’s own experience starting a consumer goods company after he grew up watching how to operate a business in the space).
Jon candidly shared some lessons he has learned from his experience working with his family. He commented that emotional connectivity with family is a treasured asset, and that can be compromised when families work together. It is something that family members should keep in mind when considering joining a family business. Additionally, Jon shared that his belief that it can be very helpful for family members to work outside the family business before joining it, both to gain skills but also to assess whether joining the business is the right move for both the family and the new member joining.
We were lucky to have such an honest conversation with Jon Sebastiani about his and his family’s story and his broad experience working both with his family as well as outside of the family’s business, and we look forward to seeing which new companies Sonoma Brands invests in and helps to grow.