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North Bay Business Journal

Monday, May 24, 2010, 1:15 am

Most Influential Leaders in the North Bay: Neil Foster

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    This is the third installment in a series of profiles of the North Bay’s Most Influential Leaders. Nominations are welcome at www.northbaybusinessjournal.com.

    Previously profiled:  James A. Andersen, Dante Benedetti, Russell A. Colombo, David I. Freed, James B. Keegan, Brian Kelly, Thomas B. Klein, Gary D. Nelson, Steve Page, Lawrence Simons, Matt White, Jim Adams, Rachel M. Dollar, Rob McMillan, Al Coppin, Daniel J. Duckhorn, Mark Idhe, Stan Mead, Dave Siembieda and Iver Skavdal

    Neil Foster

    Neil Foster

    Title: President

    Company: M.A. Silva Corks USA

    Company address: 3433 Westwind Blvd., Santa Rosa 95403

    Phone: 707-636-2530

    Website: www.masilva.com

    Staff: 30

    Residence: Santa Rosa

    Professional background: Entrepreneur

    Education: Purley High School, London, England

    Age: 46

    What do you see as the essential role of a leader in the current environment? Leadership is one of guidance and direction, inspiring people to use their unique abilities to achieve the most for themselves and the company. I work to help the staff feel passionate about everything they do. Much of being a leader is inspiring desire to learn and put knowledge to work. I find building feelings of confidence and security is especially important in these difficult economic times.

    I also help my staff and colleagues to recognize the value of their involvement to the community. Most of the skills we develop at work can be applied directly to advancing public good. Team building, education and strong communications create the foundation for so many important nonprofit and community-minded causes.

    What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in your industry? The cork industry has evolved over the last 15 years. Cork once completely dominated the closure market, but it eventually became threatened by growing interest in cheaper alternatives. Today, cork has regained the support of fine winemakers as the closure of choice. This is in part due to the significant investment the cork industry and my company have made in technology and quality control. Today we consistently meet far higher standards than were in place or obtainable even within the last five years and most certainly 15 years ago.

    What advice would you give to young emerging leaders? My advice to young emerging leaders would be to lead by example, focus on becoming an excellent listener and surround yourself with the best talent you can find. Find your passion both in your vocation and in support of the community. Since your people are your greatest asset, spend time building the best team you can and then offer the resources that let them excel both professionally and personally. From the very start, give back to the community. The energy you gain from helping others more than makes up for the time you spend away from the job. Organizations like the Boys and Girls Club and so many others need people with strong leadership and organizational skills.

    What’s the best advice for weathering today’s economic environment? It is extremely important in today’s economic environment to understand the sources of expense and inefficiency. Simultaneously manage costs while building efficiency. Support your most important asset, your people. Invest in new, well-vetted opportunities and make sure everyone in your company is selling.

    How do you think your business will change in the next five years? Our business is passionate about delivering quality and outstanding customer services. I believe this foundation is set, allowing us to continually grow our sales and market share. Our ability to deliver our services will evolve through the use of online services and support. As a truly sales-driven organization, I expect our company to build tighter partnerships with our customers, which will lead to greater efficiency and more customized solutions. We will further implement our energy-saving and sustainability initiative.

    What is a decision you wish you hadn’t made? What did you learn from it? Promoting people outside of their abilities. People vary in ambitions and talent. Each person measures success differently. A great entrepreneur not only focuses on business success but also success of each member on the team. With this consideration in mind, you can build the best organization, achieving more at every level and every person.

    What is your most memorable business experience? Presenting my business plan in Portugal and negotiating the start of my business led to the creation of my company. Finalizing the deal by shaking hands with my dear friend and partner Manuel Silva will always remain the most significant event in my career.

    What is your greatest business success? I realized our business goal of having our own building after five years of business. In 2006, we moved into a custom-designed, state-of-the-art, 30,000-square-foot cork facility.

    What was your toughest business decision? Over the years we have been presented with opportunities to increase our volume significantly but at the cost of large margin reductions. In turn, this would pressure our organization to cut corners, leading to a fundamental change in our customer service model. Although rapid volume increases create temptation, I am pleased I made the right long-term decision to remain a quality- and service-focused company.

    What would your friends be surprised to find out about you? I owned my first business, a bar restaurant in Spain, at 21 years old, shortly after crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a 55-foot sailboat. My wife, Renee, and I met while working on the 150-foot motoryacht “Attessa” in 1992. This yacht was in the movie “Indecent Proposal.”

    First job: First full-time job was as a clerical assistant on the special calculations team for a firm of consulting actuaries in England.

    Most admired businessperson outside the company: Richard Branson

    Current reading: “Shantaram,” by Gregory David Roberts

    Most want to meet: Tiger Woods — to ask, “What were you thinking?”

    Stress relievers: Spinning and working out

    Favorite activities outside work: Spending time with my family, flying, fly fishing, golfing and snowboarding

    Additional comments: A very important part of my life is serving on the board of directors for the Boys & Girls Club of Central Sonoma County. I hope to help provide the opportunity to every girl and boy in our community that wants to be at a Boys & Girls club that opportunity.

    I am fluent in Spanish and have found that this has been the single most important tool in my life, opening many doors and giving me the opportunities I enjoy today.

    I recently started another business, outside of M.A. Silva, that is providing glass wine bottles to the wine industry: Vertical Glass & Packaging.

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