Standing Firm

By Matt Villano

For 330 years and 11 generations, the Nolet family — creators of Ketel One vodka — has managed to stay at the top of the global spirits industry.




















Carl Nolet Jr., is a successful CEO, but he’d be a terrible baseball player.

It’s not that he lacks tenacity. the 53-year-old has worked in his family’s spirits business since he was a boy, holding just about every job at the firm (including copper-polisher). It’s also not a knock on his competitive spirit — the Dutch executive (who is president and CEO of Nolet Spirits) absolutely loathes losing.

The reason Nolet would struggle at baseball is simple: From a very early age, he’s ascribed to a family philosophy that is, effectively, one strike and you’re out.

Carl Jr., who represents the 11th generation of his family to own the company, cites a lesson from his dad: “Always look forward. Backward is where we learn from, forward is where we’re going.

“We have a one-strike rule, which means that everything you do, you do with integrity, sincerity, passion, and commitment. Everything must flow through your entire body. If it doesn’t, you’re not doing something right.”

This one-shot-or-nothing approach — though admittedly intense — has paid huge dividends in the roughly 330 years the company has been in business. Here in the United States, the Ketel One brand of vodka became a sensation in the 1990s and has remained a favorite among mixologists, restaurateurs and guests alike. Spirits magnate Diageo bought a 50 percent stake in the company in 2008; the agreement gave Diageo the right to market and distribute Ketel One but the Nolets retained ownership of the brand rights. Since then,  the Nolets have added Nolet’s Finest Gins and the Ketel One Botanical line — both innovations indicative of the family’s pursuit of excellence.

All together, Nolet Spirits netted $17.35 million in sales last year.

Considering the legacy, considering how many years and generations the firm has existed, one can only imagine the pressure on Carl Jr., to perform. Yet he has not wavered from the tenets his father taught him all those years ago.

Contributor Matt Villano recently sat down with Carl Jr., to understand the secrets to the company’s success.

Let’s start with the basics. How did you rise to the role you have today?

I have worked in nearly every role at Nolet Distillery, to better learn all the intricacies that come with operating a distillery and crafting the beautiful spirits we produce. I’ll never forget my first job working for our family business and how eager I was to get started. I started at Nolet Distillery polishing all the copper in the distillery.  I got right to work scrubbing the copper with a towel and cleaning solution. It was here I learned my first lesson: ‘If you don’t know what you are doing, ask.’ The chemicals from the cleaning solution ended up dyeing my hands green. The color didn’t come off for days! From that story, I learned that if you don’t know how to do something, ask someone who does. I also learned that you [should never] assume you know what you’re doing, [and to] seek advice and guidance from those who have gone before you.

Having worked with my family to build Ketel One Vodka from the ground up, I was extremely humbled when my father entrusted me to grow the brand and build the company in the United States in 1992. I traveled across the country to educate bartenders about my family’s vodka and its sophisticated taste. If an account wanted to purchase a case of Ketel One Vodka, I would not sell the buyer the product until he or she personally listened to our story [about] how Ketel One is.  The bartenders then went through the ‘Ketel One Vodka Taste Test’ and experienced firsthand ‘The Four Fs’ of Ketel One Vodka: Fragrance, Flavor, Feel and Finish. This education process is also something my father taught me.

Today, I am intricately involved in every aspect of our company. I’m very fortunate that my role still allows me to travel the country and personally connect with talented hospitality and retail staff, and the many great salespeople that all help sell and love our Ketel One Vodka, Nolet’s Finest Gins and Ketel One Botanical.

How are the company and its brands perceived differently in different cultures? How much does that impact evolution and innovation?

My family places quality and taste above all else, and Nolet Silver Gin, along with our Ketel One Vodka and Ketel One Botanical, reflect these priorities. As a company and family, we work to ensure that our products and brands are available to a global audience. Our Ketel One Vodka is distributed worldwide, and we are currently focusing on building our Nolet gins in the U.S. market. I like to say that ‘seeing is believing.’ Up until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the doors to our Nolet Distillery in Schiedam, Holland, had always been open to visitors around the world — since the late 1970s, in fact. The doors will be open again, and when that happens, we will continue to invite consumers to experience for themselves all the care, attention and expertise fully on display for everyone to see. We invite everyone to come and experience for themselves exactly where our family has been crafting spirits for over 330 years.

As a family business spanning so many generations, how different is your approach to leadership and company stewardship from previous generations?

There’s a lot of pressure to uphold the legacy of a 330-year-old company that prides itself on excellence and perfection. My family operates on an ideology of 'Try not to make mistakes.' This is just like the one-strike philosophy, and it’s the best piece of advice our father has given my brother, Bob, and me. His aim, which influences our decision making today, is to aim high, do everything correctly and not make mistakes along the way. Like my ancestors before me, I had to start at the bottom of the family business. In our company, you earn your responsibilities and work your way up. That’s how you get to know the entire process. I learned every aspect of the business before I moved to America in 1992 to build Ketel One Vodka. My family launched Nolet’s Finest Gins in the United States in the fall of 2010. In 2016 I was promoted to president and CEO of Nolet Spirits USA. I earned that title. It wasn’t just handed to me.

In a family business I believe it is extremely important to have full transparency, and different silos to communicate with each other. Every Monday morning, we have an executive meeting, and there are several family members in that meeting. We sit here for several hours discussing every item. Everybody is involved. For us as a family, success is 95% preparation, 5% execution. The more we communicate, the more we prepare, the better equipped we are. I don’t want surprises at this point in my life — not with the business.

How does the company leverage and ride cultural waves and adapt its products (or its product marketing) accordingly — or does that not matter because the company and brands are so established?

We have established brands, growth brands and innovation brands in our product portfolio. Every batch of spirits distilled at Nolet Distillery is tasted by a Nolet family member before it is approved for bottling. That’s the ‘Nolet Family Guarantee.’ People are always looking for great quality and great taste. That’s what Ketel One Vodka and Nolet’s Finest Gins offer. Consumers want to support authentic brands that have a deeply rooted heritage like the products we produce. This authenticity is what makes our brands stand out from competitors and enhances the reason why consumers believe in our products.

Painstaking care is put into the quality of our products to ensure that they will stand the test of time. Consumers don't just buy what you do, they buy why you do it. We believe in the importance of corporate sustainability practices to help the planet the best way possible. This is accomplished through minimizing our company’s footprint, working on green initiatives, and investing in charities that make a difference. To preserve clean air around the Nolet Distillery in Schiedam, Holland, my father — the 10th-generation owner, Carolus Nolet, Sr., he’s 80 — leveraged [several] energy-saving measures in the early 1980s. In the years that followed, he successfully installed an underground thermal storage system to cool the distillery in the summer and heat the distillery in the winter. Additionally, in 2005 Carl Sr. built the 141-foot-tall De Nolet windmill that generates green electric power, producing a portion of the energy needed to operate the Nolet Distillery. Our family is continuously looking for new opportunities to generate green energy that supports the distillery and advances the town of Schiedam. In 2016, at the Nolet Spirits USA headquarters in Aliso Viejo, Calif., we installed a 124-kilowatt solar system on the roof that includes 360 panels. The system provides approximately 75% of our energy needs for the office.

Above all else we’re not afraid to take risks. My father challenged my brother and me to come up with our Ketal One Botanical product, and that was definitely a lesson. We were not gin people, and we made the mistake of thinking we knew it all immediately. We thought we would get struck by genius and figure out our own dialed-back version of juniper berries to flavor the product. We really struggled. For months. We were in a place we could not get out of. Our dad sensed that both my brother and I were getting frustrated. He helped us realize we had taken a wrong approach. I’ll never forget this. He made us face the mirror, take off lab coats and stare at ourselves. He told me, ‘Be you. Think, taste, smell.’ All of a sudden, it came to us. The scent of rose. We thought, ‘Goodness gracious, if our gin could smell like this, could you imagine how many people could love it?’ That set us on our way.

What's next for the company and its brands? Do you anticipate new product development and new market entry, or is the strategy to continue protecting and preserving legacy?

We are seeing that more and more consumers want out-of-the-box spirits as they experiment with cocktail making at home and are becoming more creative. With that, our brands incorporate a variety of botanical offerings to help differentiate from other spirits in the market and create never-before-seen spirits. We launched our Ketel One Botanical varietals a few years ago, to honor the consumer movement into conscious living. Ketel One Botanical is a spirit crafted with real passion and real botanicals. Conscious of the cultural shift towards mindful living, my brother Bob and I were determined to create a delicious alternative to wine and a thoughtful offering for those seeking an easy drinking experience with a fresh taste. Ketel One Botanical is vodka distilled with real botanicals and infused with natural essences. It has no carbs, no sugar and no artificial flavors. And we recently introduced the Ketel One Botanical Vodka Spritz, a convenient, craft experience that’s inspired by what we created with Ketel One Botanical. The Ketel One Botanical Vodka Spritz is fit for a variety of occasions from moments of relaxation with family, to spending a day at the pool or park. Our family is continually innovating to meet consumer needs and we’re obviously not done yet. There’s more to come from the Nolet family in the future.

And in terms of the next generation, it’s up to them. I’ve told my oldest son he can decide when he wants to step in. There are a few others who are interested in being a part of the business, including my daughters. I might be the president and CEO, but my father is still involved, which means I still report to him in a sense. We’re all in this together. That, as you know, is the beauty of a family business.

Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in Northern California. He's mostly a brown-spirits guy, but when he drinks vodka, he almost always drinks Ketel One

Article categories: 
Jan/Feb 2022

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