12/23/2014 08:26 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

Women in Business Q&A: Michelle D. DeFeo, President Laurent-Perrier U.S., Inc.

Michelle DeFeo's extensive experience in the luxury wine and spirits arena spans every tier of the marketplace, from retail sales to managing the U.S. business of the world's fifth largest Champagne brand.

In her role as President of the wholly-owned subsidiary, Michelle is responsible for growing the U.S. business, setting and implementing strategy for the sales team and national distributor network, as well as raising the overall awareness of Laurent-Perrier in the U.S.

A native of New Jersey, Michelle is a long-time Francophile, having studied in France's Loire Valley, where she first experienced fine wine. After a short stint in international banking, Michelle decided to follow her passion and launched her career in the wine industry. In 1995 Michelle joined a leading U.S. wine and spirits importer, and subsequently held sales and consulting positions for a California distributor, several wine and spirits marketing firms, and Laurent-Perrier, when the U.S. subsidiary was established. Prior to stepping into her new role at Laurent-Perrier, Michelle was Vice President of the Champagne, wine and vodka portfolio for Rémy Cointreau USA, where she managed seven national brands. A graduate of Rutgers University, Michelle also holds an M.B.A. from Columbia University.

With more than a decade of experience working with Champagne brands, Michelle is considered a specialist in the category and is frequently invited to lecture on wine and spirits marketing at leading universities. In addition, she has published and is quoted in a number of industry and national publications.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I was taught from an early age to be self-sufficient and accountable. That's translated into a very hands-off management style. I like to empower my team to do their jobs, then get out of their way. At the same time, having been the oldest of four siblings in a household where both parents worked full-time, I developed a strong nurturing instinct. I really enjoy mentoring, and am especially proud when I get to watch mentees proverbially leave the nest, spread their wings, and fly on their own.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Laurent-Perrier?
Over the course of my career in the wine business, I've pretty much done it all, from setting up tastings, to selling wine in a store, to presenting wines to restaurants, to negotiating deals for thousands of cases at a time. Having such varied experiences is crucial to me being able to do a good job as president. I started in the trenches and worked my way up, and the grunt work is every bit as valuable to me as my MBA.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Laurent-Perrier?
My challenge and highlight are connected. I wanted to build a team at Laurent-Perrier that shared the same goals and values that I did. This took over 2 years of interviewing and restructuring. The new team members had the requisite skill set, but they were also chosen because they're the kind of people I want to work with: honest, friendly, upbeat and fun. The corresponding highlight is that now, every day, I work with a team I love and of whom I am immensely proud.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
My advice is to become educated and savvy about the business of wine. Learn as much as possible about finance, operations, and marketing in addition to becoming an expert on the wine that's in the bottle. Focus on being a great businessperson, keep relationships professional, and you'll have an advantage over many people in this industry, both female and male.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
You don't get what you don't ask for. Too often we accept the status quo without question. I've found on so many occasions that just asking for something - or asking for something to change - yields a positive outcome that was simpler to obtain than I could have imagined. It's well documented that women find it harder to ask for things than men; we need to get over the fear of being told no or of being perceived as pushy. We all have the right to ask for what we want and for what we think will make ourselves and our businesses better.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I used to work insane hours and check my phone incessantly on nights and weekends, but I've learned that the law of diminishing marginal returns is very real. I'm much more effective when I'm refreshed and happy, so I limit my working hours to a maximum of 12 per day and when they are over, that's it. I turn my phone off and stop thinking about work for the rest of the day. It took some getting used to, but since I started doing this I've noticed an improvement in my productivity as well as in my overall sense of calmness in and out of the office.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think that too often we're afraid to speak up out of fear over how we may be perceived. We're conditioned to care too much about what other people think of us. I'm not suggesting that we be more abrasive or difficult - just not to worry if other people think we are when we feel that we're doing the right thing.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I've been fortunate to know many people who enjoy sharing what they've learned in their careers and their lives with me. One of the best parts of being in this business is that going out for a drink on occasion is actually part of the job. I've had innumerable great discussions over a glass of Laurent-Perrier that have helped guide me and formed who I am as a person and as a professional.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
More than any bold-faced names, the women I admire the most are the ones in male-dominated industries who advance and succeed in spite of the obstacles. The wine and spirits business is one such industry. While it has become more hospitable to women over the two decades during which I've been in it, women are still way outnumbered, especially at the executive level. But I'm happy to say that the new generation of women entering the industry seems indomitable, so I'm optimistic that we'll see more women in leadership roles in the coming years.

What do you want Laurent-Perrier to accomplish in the next year?
We've been growing significantly for the last five years, and I'm hopeful that we'll continue to do so next year. The more people we introduce to Laurent-Perrier, the more glasses of it we pour, the bigger the groundswell becomes. People want quality and authenticity in everything in their lives, and Laurent-Perrier fits that bill perfectly.