Tony Hartl's enthusiasm is infectious, and he's a bit of a dynamo. In 1995 he founded Planet Tan. By 2008 the franchise blossomed to over 17 locations with 160 employees and average sales of $1 million dollars at each location. That same year, he sold the business and spent two years training to climb Mount Everest. These days he's pouring his considerable energy into a boutique winery in Argentina called Seed.
Always networking and forever on the move, Tony's curious mind and a no-limitations attitude is intriguing. I wanted to figure out what, exactly, makes him tick and why it is that his business ventures have more than thrived.Tweet It!
Christine Havens: Tell me a little bit about your background. How have your early experiences in entrepreneurship shaped you?
Tony Hartl: I had some real key people in my life that played a significant role in shaping me as an entrepreneur. The most significant person was my mother. She had this amazing work ethic and incredible values. While that might not have translated into an upbringing that would’ve been middle class, it provided me with an example and notion of community early in my life.
I'm from the Midwest; it was normal for people to sit on their porches in the evenings. It was at that time in my life, my mom—she was a single parent raising me—and my aunt Mary, who also lived in the same town would get together. Every night or every other night, my mom and aunt would sit out on the porch and talk.
My aunt was the only person I knew who had lived in a foreign country; she was always trying to learn something, always reading a book or taking a class. So I had my mom, an incredibly hard worker and I had this intellectual, cultured aunt, who married a man from Greece. I grew up with these two really strong women in my life, and I saw how they created a culture of caring and gratitude. We always shared what we had. Through them, I saw examples of giving and being connected to community.
CH: How did these early experiences help you in business? How did you cultivate a sense of gratitude following college?
TH: I surrounded myself with people that were wiser and more experienced. I would identify people—usually far older than myself—I was looking a kind of sagacity in my early mentors.
When I founded Planet Tan, I set out to build a team of super-talented individuals. They were all bright, driven and committed, all people I admire. It became this tribal, communal environment to work in; it was unique. In an odd space like tanning, where we received so much recognition, we went out of our way to help and nurture each other; that’s what our culture was really about.
CH: You sold Planet Tan, then what?
TH: When I sold Planet Tan, my identity, my whole routine and daily life had been wrapped up in the business. For fourteen years, I poured energy into doing something I loved. I felt needed, engaged; I felt good. Planet Tan was one of the best experiences of my life. It challenged me, and it stretched me to be a better human being.
Going to the mountains became the new trajectory. I discovered I was good marathoner; I had cardio endurance. I hired Jim Williams, the best climbing coach in the US. I'd gone to Mt. Blanc, I'd been to the South Pole to climb in extreme cold. Aconcagua was about training in high elevation; I was prepping to climb Everest.
I spent two years working on this project, and before I got started, it was over. Sometimes it's just not your day on the mountain; you have a cold, or you might have ascended too quickly. [At 7:52 AM, five days into the ascent and close to summit, Tony ran into serious trouble. His blood oxygen plummeted, and his lungs crackled as high-altitude pulmonary edema set in. The goal was no longer the summit; it was survival. Tony was evacuated by helicopter. His climbing partner, Alex Chang stayed behind.]
When I got up there, everything shattered. At that same time, there was a lot of serendipity.
CH: Wow, that's intense. How did Aconcagua lead you to think about producing wine?
TH: While I was recovering in Mendoza, I'd visit this little restaurant owned by Francis Mallman's girlfriend, and she'd talk to me. I would sit there and not really saying much; I was still licking my wounds. Every day I’d have coffee and lunch. I’d just gotten out of a nine-year relationship, I’d sold my company, my mom had recently passed away. At night, Alex and I would talk on the sat phone.
Eventually, she invited me to a wine tasting. By then Alex had made it down, but we had trouble finding the tasting, and neither of us is fluent in Spanish. We knew we were on the right street, but we had no way to communicate the address we were looking for. We were just going door to door. Finally, Alex was like, "just one more.” The door opened, and we were greeted with a big warm smile, "We were waiting for you."
At that moment I fell in love with the wines and the country. I ended up sticking around meeting cool agronomists and winemakers. And there are some incredible winemakers in Argentina!
It was all just timing, if Alex or I had summited, we would never have met any of those people. Eventually, we met Giuseppe. He was impressive, and he was up and coming with other wineries. We hung out with him, and immediately hit it off. He's someone I want to sit down and have a beer with. Like everyone on our team, he cares. He's sincere. All the people on our team are committed, they're about getting shit done. They're the kind of people I want to associate with personally, and of course professionally.
CH: What does the future hold for you? What are you most excited about when you wake up in the morning?
TH: I’ll be 49 next month; I never knew how happy I could be until I had my son. He’s my reason and purpose. While I’m here for this short amount of time, I want to make a difference in the lives of my family and in the lives of the people I love. Part of my happiness since selling Planet Tan has been figuring out taking care of my basic needs and the needs of those I care about. I’m stoked when I wake up, I make my son breakfast, it’s the start of a great day. I tell my son, "this is actionable love."
It all comes down to identifying projects you care about. Seed really fits with my passions. We’re now in the business of trying to create these magical experiences with our customers, and we’re doing good in the process. We’re filling our buckets up with gratitude and hope, and giving back with a sense of purpose. Whether or not Seed becomes a great success, the intention is still there, the effort is still the same.
As a child, books were my pathway. Books gave me hope; they still do to this day. I want to give the children of Mendoza the gift of education and the gift of hope.
With each bottle of Seed Wine sold, a child in Mendoza receives a new schoolbook. Seeds of education planted for the future of the region.
Christine Havens is a wine writer, graphic designer, photographer, and former winemaker who has become a Vivino featured user with over 38,000 followers largely thanks to her wine ratings. An early adopter, Ms. Havens has been sharing her reviews with fellow users since the app hit the US market in late fall 2011. She also frequently contributes articles and wine pairing recommendations to the news section of the app. In addition to her reviews, she currently writes for The SOMM Journal, Tasting Panel Magazine, and The Clever Root. She’s been quoted by various publications including Jancis Robinson, Wine Business International, Nomacorc’s wine industry blog, Wine Press Northwest, and has been a guest on WineVine.tvas well as Vin Village Radio. She’s also a Millésima Wine Blog Awards Finalist, a #wineloverspecialist, and is currently pursuing an Award in Wines & Spirits Educational Trust Level 3 Advanced Certificate. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon.
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