It's Wednesday morning, and the 60 employees of VinoPro have assembled in its Santa Rosa, California, office for the daily 10:30 a.m. "quarterback meeting." In the front row are 13 new hires, in training to do direct telephone sales on behalf of wineries. Projected on a big screen is the bearish and somewhat haggard face of CEO and founder Jeff Stevenson, who is Skyping in from a rental villa in Italy, where he's taking a working holiday--"working" meaning tasting as many Italian wines as he can. Stevenson is not the swish-and-spit type of wine taster. "If my eyes look a little red, it's because I got shitfaced last night," he announces by way of greeting.
After Stevenson signs off, VP of sales Donnie Varner announces that today will be a "Mario Kart" day. Each salesperson will start with three helium balloons tied to his or her desk, symbolizing the three lives allotted to a player in the Nintendo racing game. Selling $750 worth of wine lets you pop a co-worker's balloon; selling $1,000 worth earns you an extra balloon. At the end of the day, the sellers with the most balloons win the top prize: a special wine tasting. The veteran reps have played this one before; Varner's explanation is for the newbies. How they react--excitement? fear? all-out aggression?--will determine whether they thrive or wash out in a hurry.
Competition is everything at VinoPro (2015 revenue: $4.5 million). Stevenson and Varner have devised a devilish array of contests, games, and gimmicks both to winnow out the misfits and to keep the reps at their desks. There's a Wall of Fame with a running tally of the biggest individual daily hauls. There's Darth MotiVader, a video board that shows who's gone the longest since making a call. At the start of every quarter, reps choose their desks anew, in order of the previous quarter's sales totals. If the games pall, no matter: VinoPro had the highest score for financial benefits in our Best 50 audit.
"You have to have a certain personality to work here," says Brittney Fernandez, who evidently has it. Her big private office has a primo view of the duck pond, proof of her chart-topping Q1 sales haul. New reps begin with a single account; churn in the first 90 days is brutal. For the survivors, however, retention is high, and the rewards are ample. Top reps typically earn $70,000 to $120,000 in base pay plus commissions.
And there's the wine. Hang around the office long enough and someone will hand you a glass of something tasty. It's hard to sell wine before lunch, so as an inducement to finish strong, Varner often ends the day with a working happy hour. Like bowling or darts, performance improves with a light buzz, he swears.
Fortunately, showing up worse for wear after a late night is no sin at VinoPro. Just don't let it affect your sales, unless you like sitting by the bathroom.
Correction: Art accompanying the print version of this article misidentified the time-off and on-site health benefits that VinoPro offers to its employees. Its unlimited time-off benefits are unpaid, not paid vacation days, and while the company has an on-site gym, it does not have an on-site health clinic.