How a former CEO and entrepreneur found his footing again in the foothills of Tuscany’s Maremma region.
Photos and text (c) Bettina M. Gordon
TUSCANY, ITALY – There is a place in the hills of Tuscany that will take your breath away. Sure, there are hundreds of places that can do that in this gorgeous region of Italy, but this one truly is unique: I am talking about the “Degustation Terrace” of the Valdonica vineyard, where the wind rushes towards you from the lowlands of Maremma, blowing the scent of sea salt, wet soil and ripe herbs up the hill and right into your nostrils.
If you spread your arms the breeze will tug at your hair and fill your shirt. And it will evoke a strange sensation of deep gratitude towards one man whose vision made it possible that you can stand here today with your white shirt all blown up in most unflattering ways. Your face will break into a big smile because… you can’t help it. You just have to happily smile because words like tension, stress, urgency or vanity are not part of the Valdonica vocabulary. And that’s a Doctor’s orders.
The Doctor is Martin Kerres, the man with the vision and enough perseverance to turn a 200 acre wilderness into a winery and guest residence, and his former CEO existence into a fulfilling and life-loving experience.
In December 2005 Martin left Ameos, the hospital management company he had founded and which employed 6,500 people at the time of his departure, to re-invent himself as a human being, business man and father-of-three who is in love with a man now. Sipping one of his Valdonica reserve wines with me, Martin Kerres was refreshingly open and frank about the trials and tribulations of the last seven years and the lessons he learned when he decided to uncover his personal truth.
If you plan to visit Tuscany read my story on Valdonica and Maremma here.
Bettina Gordon: Dr. Kerres, I swear to you I almost teared up standing in the clearing between the olive trees back there. What’s up with this place?
Martin Kerres, MD: I call it the Degustation Terrace, because of the wine tastings I love to do there. It is my holy place. Seriously, for three years I looked for a property to buy all over southern Europe but when I stood where you were standing before I started to cry. I literally had tears streaming down my cheeks because I was completely touched. I knew this is it. I signed the purchasing contracts shortly thereafter even though the whole property was about 200 acres larger than the 2 acres that I had looked for.
Bettina: Are you an emotional man?
Martin: I allowed myself to become one in recent years. Throughout my career as an MD with an MBA in hospital management, and subsequently an executive for Accenture in the hospital industry and founder of my own company, I was regarded as a tough businessman. Even my own three children judged me as a most successful business man, but I never was as close to them as I am now.
I don’t pretend the last few years were easy but they brought me much closer to my kids. It was when I became vulnerable and fragile that I truly connected with my children and forged new and meaningful relationships. Goethe said that when we are imperfect is when we create closeness. I can attest to that.
Bettina: Why did you leave a high-paying position and a successful international career behind to start over in a small town in rural Tuscany?
Martin: On December 27th 2005 I stepped down from my position as CEO of AMEOS, the company I had founded. From the outside it looked spontaneous and I guess it really was. My stepping away from the company was a reaction to a personal betrayal I experienced.
I had brought a man into the company that I considered a friend and who I trusted. I brought him onto the executive board. When I found out that this man had been blackmailing me with the board and the financial investors, it was a huge shock to me and very, very painful. The fact that a friend could stab me in the back like that took away my joy and I stepped out immediately. So me leaving my company came as a result of a complete shock rather than a long developed plan.
Did you indeed never seriously entertain the thought of leaving before?
Well, like everybody else I would sometimes say that I could live without a career and a big job but I never planned to actually leave. Planning this drastic move would not have worked for me, I might never have done it. It was such a profound choice that really came out of the shock of having been betrayed like that.
In a strange way, this man did you a favor because he put you onto a new path. How do you feel about him now?
Actually I feel sorry for him now because when you do something like that you do it because you don´t feel good enough about yourself to play fair. Such behavior comes out of an inferiority complex, of feeling not good enough and thus behaving like a bad guy. I don´t envy anyone who lives in such a spirit. I think this mindset is pervasive right now.
Many people don´t follow their spiritual values but rather fight for their piece of the cake by any means necessary. They hang on with all their might to money, power and status because they are so scared to lose it. This attitude and these actions drag our whole economy down. If I were president Obama, I would pass a law that says that half of the board members of large companies have to be women and half of them need to be under the age of 40. This would bring great innovation to the US economy and, of course, to Europe as well.
What did you do immediately after this decision, when the phone stopped ringing, when people did not come to anymore for decisions and when your own sense of importance was maybe lessened?
It was very difficult. It was like falling into a black hole without seeing the ground. The values that I had held until then became more and more nonsensical to me.
After this fateful day in 2005 I took some time to be in Tuscany by myself to find out what I wanted and essentially who I really was. I had taken some time off in the past whenever I made a huge change in my life. This time I took off three months, put myself into a different environment and lived a very simple life to try to connect to myself. I was scared because I had no monthly pay-check any longer, no status anymore and it was only me and the four horses on the property – so no power game anymore either.
How long did it take you to feel the ground underneath your feet again?
One whole year, all four seasons. Because in addition to my professional changes it also had become clear that my marriage was coming to an end. I felt emptiness in the marriage, but at the time of separation I had no idea that I would live with a man in the future. 2006 became the hardest year of my life, because it became my year of truth.
What is your truth?
On a professional level I realized that although I had not thought so, I had become very attached to the perks that come with being a powerful CEO in the corporate world: traveling first class and having assistants and secretaries to delegate to. I had totally bought into being important and having status, power and money.
I am not proud to admit it, but when I had to book my own ticket on the budget airline Ryan Air for the first time, it was really difficult. And when the money got tight eventually I had nightmares of not having enough food to eat. I started to live off my vegetable garden and hardly went to a supermarket because of fear I might completely run out of money. It was irrational and unfounded, but that’s what happened to me during the times I had questioned my decisions.
Did you ever regret leaving the corporate world and the income that came with it behind?
No, but at times I was unsure if I had made the right decision to turn Valdonica into a vineyard. I had enjoyed financial success in my career, but I am not a billionaire. I knew I needed something to sustain this property and to make it self-sufficient. That’s when the idea of growing wine came about and of turning the wilderness into a biodynamic wine estate.
You must understand I never had the dream to become a wine maker. I had no idea what that actually would entail. Initially I was totally naïve and thought I can just climb on a tractor and cultivate the land myself (laughs).
Bettina: You had a rude awakening?
Martin: Very much so. I lost a lot of money to the wrong team I initially hired to cultivate the soil and start the vineyard. It took me years to put together the great team I have now. I did not calculate the unforeseen expenses like needing to fence in the whole 10 acres that we use for the vine so that we can keep the wild boars out that would feast on the saplings – an expense of another $120,000 that I did not have in my budget.
I also did not foresee the emotional upheaval I would go through after turning my life upside down in 2006. I had intense days of feeling really shitty, of experiencing defeat, self-doubt and existential fear. It hurt. There are floods in this part of Tuscany from time to time – in 2006 some of the floods were caused by the tears I cried.
Do you like being a vintner now?
Yes! I get immense pleasure out of working with the land now. Growing wines taught me many life lessons. In the vineyards we don’t use artificial fertilizer, nor do we spray pesticides or use an irrigation system. We plant the vines and tend to them, but the bulk of the “work” is done by the vines themselves.
So I had to learn that I cannot control everything – especially not nature – which is still tough at times. I learned to let go. I learned to have more patience and have faith that everything will work out at the end. I learned to be more grounded and to go with the flow. And I developed acute senses: I now experiencing great sensations by inhaling the fragrances of meadows, by tasting the wines, touching the trees, listening to the bird-concerts and seeing different colors in nature. My senses have been flourishing.
You may have never had the dream of becoming a vintner, but you seem to have found an occupation that is satisfying to you.
Yes, it is and I am proud to keep this ancient art of winemaking alive. It was a huge honor for us when the local priest brought a group of students to Valdonica to show them what we do here. In other words, the Italians came to me, the Austrian CEO turned winemaker, to see how their ancient Tuscan traditions of winemaking and tending to the land is alive and practiced at Valdonica. That was an immense honor for my team and I.
What was your definition of success in previous years and what does success mean to you today?
Success for me was always achievement driven. Whenever I achieved a goal, I reveled in the success for a short time and then moved on to the next goal. Of course it was a success to become a partner at Accenture or when we bought another hospital with Ameos, but it was always about hunting achievements. When we are just achievement driven, where does it ultimately end? With our last breath? That can’t be; that does not make sense to me. I think it’s essential that we change from the achievement driven model to simply “being”. This was the huge step for me – and it took me that one first year.
Today I feel that success is not so important anymore, it’s my contentment that is important to me. It’s the little things in daily life, like a sunset or butterflies or a great conversation with my guests over breakfast that give me the sense of deep personal contentment. All in all, I am at ease and very happy in my own skin now and I would not want to go back to my old life.
However, do you think that the Martin Kerres of today could go back to a big company and be the equally successful CEO that you were seven years ago?
That’s actually a good question and one that I’ve been pondering myself. I believe I would be a much better leader now than I was seven years ago. I would be closer to my people: the employees, the doctors, the patients. I would encourage them to develop a sense of meaning. When my soul flourishes, I want the same for the people around me, so that we can inspire each other and create together.
I would be able to not only lead a successful company, but to lay a great foundation so that the sustainability of the company is possible for many years to come. So instead of a corporate culture of achievement driven goals, I would nurture the spirit of the company so people can flourish.
Especially the younger people can no longer relate to the achievement driven world that we felt comfortable in. For them the meaning of life is much more important. They also want to follow their values and if we don’t give them the space, they cannot do that. We need conscious business leaders to provide the platform for the young and super talented people to work and to create and to live their dream and meaning. Now that’s a much more powerful energy for a company than employees who are not passionate or satisfied with their jobs.
So could you actually see yourself going back to a corporation?
I would love to prove that conscious business leaders can beat the old success models and be even more successful by providing a flourishing platform for their people. Conscious business leadership is not only something good we can do, but something that can be very successful on many levels. So, yes, I would certainly consider it if the opportunity arises to work with people who share my values.
Let’s move on to your private life please. In your old life you were married to a woman, had three children and a traditional family life. Now you are in love with a man. Did you previously live a lie?
Even though I had dated women and men in my youth I knew that I wanted to be a dad and have children and I was scared to live a life other than what I was used to. And so it felt natural to be to committed to a woman. When I said ‘yes’ to my former wife when we got married, it was not a lie at all. I was absolutely committed to her and our union.
As you know, though, the majority of marriages end in divorce. We divorced for many reasons. Me wanting to express a part of myself that I had denied for many years is just one of them. I think living an authentic life is about coming out – in my case quite literally – as the person you really are, without pretending. Showing the world your true self and dealing with the consequences.
How did your children react to your personal truth?
Martin: I had been scared to death that I might lose them. So I spoke to each one individually, starting with my son Matthäus who was 12 years old at the time. I told him that I also love men. He simply answered: “It must be difficult to be different.” We had a really great conversation. Afterwards I hugged him and told him how happy I was that we could talk like that as I could have never have had a conversation that personal and deep with my own father.
That’s when my 12 year old son looked at me and said in earnest: “I am happy too, because I will also be able to have conversations like this with my own children one day as well.” I was blown away by how wonderfully my children reacted! When I showed up really vulnerable and scared, my children embraced me and we got really close.
Bettina: And your friends and acquaintances, how did they react to you coming out?
My ex-wife and I used to live in a beautiful large house outside Vienna, Austria and threw parties for easily 100 people or more. We had status within the society as a successful couple with influence. When we divorced and I came out, nobody was left among my friends. Gone practically over night with the exception of a few pre-marriage friends who remained with me.
What really surprised me though was the fact that at least half a dozen of the men I had known for many, many years confided in me that they had been in homosexual relationships for years while their wives and children had no idea about it. In fact, they attacked and criticized me for coming out and being honest about it.
It took me a while before I realized that they are not criticizing me for being gay, but for being open about it. They did not like my honesty because they were keeping up the lies and did not want to be honest themselves. Their big argument for not coming clean was “Oh, I cannot come out, because I cannot do this to my children.” Bullshit! They don’t have the courage to tell the truth even though it would be much, much better for their children and wives and their partners in the long run.
How did you meet your partner Karma?
After I left my job I suffered severe back pains because of all the tension I had accumulated in my body through the years. This is quite common actually: while I was under intense pressure at work my muscles were also under pressure, which actually supported the vertebra. When the tension was gone my muscles started to relax, which actually caused the pain. I needed to retrain the back-muscles that provide the support of the vertebra.
I went to southern India for an Ayurveda treatment and on the beach I met a young man who grew up thousands of miles away at the border to Tibet and Nepal. Karma had come to southern India because he had never seen the ocean. We met six years ago and have been living together ever since. My son and my two daughters Coco and Carolina truly love him as he had also opened their eyes to a different way of being than we are used to in the Western world. Karma is a Buddhist and he shares his Eastern philosophies with them.
Would this chance meeting have been possible if you had not made the drastic changes you did before?
Finding this man and finding love again would never have happened had I stayed in my old job. Where would I have met Karma, a man from rural India who had lived for years in a monastery? In a boardroom meeting? Next to seat 1A in business class? We would never have met and that is another reason I am grateful I left my work when I did. And, by the way, my back pains never came back.
What is your vision for the future?
I want Valdonica to be the bridge between people who might otherwise never meet. My motto is: diversity is inspiration. So once a week we have a dinner for 30 people in our wine cellar. Angela, who grew up in the village of Sassofortino here, cooks the recipes of her Nonna, her grandmother. It’s truly authentic Tuscan cuisine harmoniously matching the wines we produce here. And everybody can join in and cook with Angela.
The evening brings together people from very different ethnicities, religions and point of views. That’s the strength of Valdonica. It’s diverse, peaceful and welcoming. And I don’t even feel I own this place. I am the steward of Valdonica for a few years and sharing this experience with people, who feel the transformative quality of this place like you did up on the hill is truly contentment enough for me. That and hopefully breaking even in two years from now.