2000 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"You can do anything in the world you want to do if you are willing to set a goal, work hard, and pay the price."
Arthur Ciocca was born in the late 1930s in Tarrytown, New York. At that time, the community was largely populated by immigrants or first-generation Italian families. Ciocca's father, the town's general doctor, often accepted barter payment in lieu cash from his poor patients. Ciocca's mother, the daughter of an Italian immigrant, dedicated her life to the support and care of her family. Looking back on those years, Ciocca says that dinner and breakfast were the only times the entire family was together. "My father was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but he was always home for dinner. Our whole family life seemed to evolve around the dinner table."
Ciocca's maternal grandfather, an Italian who came to America at the turn of the century, also had a major influence on him. A blacksmith with no formal education, Ciocca's grandfather owned a two-acre farm near Tarrytown, where he raised chickens and had a goat for milk and cheese. He also had a vegetable garden and grew grapes for wine. Ciocca spent a lot of time there, helping his grandfather in his home blacksmith shop and learning how to make wine. "He was insightful and wise in many ways," says Ciocca, "and told me stories that usually had lessons hidden in their context, such as: Get a good education, look out for number one, and stay out of trouble. But his continual lesson to me was that in America you could do anything you want to do if you are willing to work hard and keep focused."
In high school, Ciocca had long commutes to the only Catholic high school in the area, which required him to take three public busses. At that time, he was working in heavy construction during the summer, and throughout college he did clerical work in a bank. Ciocca attended College of the Holy Cross, where he enrolled in a four-year Navy ROTC program. Following graduation in 1959, he entered the Navy. Ciocca remembers his service as an excellent leadership experience. He performed his naval duties during the day and attended graduate school at night, earning his MBA in three years.
In 1963, Ciocca accepted a job with General Foods in San Jose, California. Shortly thereafter, however, he was promoted and sent back to corporate headquarters in White Plains, New York. After three years, he felt a need to move on. He wanted to get back to the West Coast and took a job as a sales promotion manager for Spice Islands in San Francisco. Three years later, he became a brand manager for E & J Gallo Winery.
When Ciocca went to work for Gallo, wine in America was breaking out of the cottage industry phase and becoming more market-driven. "Ernest Gallo was a great role model," says Ciocca. "I worked with him on a regular basis. He was an extraordinary entrepreneur and business leader who set high standards." In 1974, Ciocca was approached by the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of New York to become president of their ailing subsidiary, the Wine Group of Coke New York. "I knew what needed to be done to make the company profitable," he says, "but I wasn't sure I wanted to do it. It would be an overwhelming grind for more than two years. Still, I was motivated by the challenge."
Ciocca and his managers went to work, and within three years the company was making a reasonable return on investment. Unfortunately, it was too little too late and the parent company put the company up for sale. "It was devastating news," says Ciocca. "We had worked day and night to get things turned around and this was a morale-crushing blow." Rather than give up, however, Ciocca made a bold move. He invested all the money he had and made his own bid to buy the company. Since then, The Wine Group has grown 25 times its original size and includes the brands of Franzia, Concannon, Almaden Corbett Canyon, Inglenook, Foxhorn and many others. Arthur Ciocca has served as the company's CEO and today serves as chairman of The Wine Group.
A self-described entrepreneur, Ciocca says he is passionate about the subject. "I spend a great deal of time and effort supporting and helping other entrepreneurs." When asked to define the term, he says, "Entrepreneurs are people who have a vision and creativity who are willing to venture out of the comfort zone and take risks. It's what drives this economy and what this country is all about."
An avid fitness enthusiast, Ciocca was badly injured in 1995 when he was struck head-on by a car while riding his bicycle. "This accident taught me a great deal," he says. "I was on the edge of life there for a while, but I believed I could make it. I set the goal that I was going to get better and I didn't let anything get in the way of that. I worked hard and set fun goals, such as being able to walk a golf course and swing a club in six months." He did it in five. Ciocca says his accident made him realize how much he would have left undone if he had died from his injuries. "It motivated me to get working on things that had less to do with work and more with giving back to life," he says. One project he and his wife Carlyse are working on is setting up education funding for future entrepreneurs.
Ciocca says he feels a real sense of responsibility to prove he is worthy of his Horatio Alger Award. "It's a great platform from which to communicate to young people that there is a tremendous amount of hope and promise for them in this world," he says.