By Kimberly Horg
A family man, an entrepreneur and a visionary, are a few words which may describe Napa business owner, Jeff Doran. He grew up in Oakland, California and graduated from California State University at Hayward as a Philosophy Major, but ended up working for Breuners Home Furnishings in the 1970s.
“After climbing the bottom rungs of the corporate ladder, I began to appreciate how the integration of good design played well with my artistic interests, but still provided me with a long term business opportunity,” Doran said. “I became a Department Manager of the Design Studio in Sacramento, but wanted more opportunity than the company could provide.”
In the later part of the decade, he decided to relocate to Napa with his wife Nancy, where they had two children, Ross and Tara, and began his road to success by working at Allen and Benedict Home Furnishings. Several years of hard work paid off; he moved up the ladder becoming the President and sole owner of the company.
Allen and Benedict Home Furnishings closed in 1994 to make way for the Factory Outlet Stores. Longtime customers patronized our business on the opening day of the close-out sale. That was a very difficult day,” he said. Doran says, although it was a difficult time in the home furnishing business, he had a unique opportunity to change careers and try his hand at real estate development. Having officially left the home furnishings business, he had the opportunity to buy real estate in Downtown Napa. He grew his real estate business in the good times and changed its corporate name to Napa Valley Development.
He knew that even though downtown Napa was experiencing a difficult time, it had great long- term potential. So, instead of relocating his furniture store, he chose to buy the JC Penney’s store and lease it to Thomasville Home Furnishings. Eventually the Northern California Thomasville group closed the store due to financial problems. This endeavor left Doran with a 25,000 square foot store in a struggling, downtown neighborhood, with no prospective tenants. Instead of throwing in the towel, he decided to put on his thinking cap. He had a large store with little inventory and limited capital, so he made lemonade out of lemons by opening an antique collective. The dealers supplied the bulk of the inventory and eventually grew a strong customer base.
It was not too long after this, in 2004, when he recalls having a “aha moment” after leaving a city council meeting. He knew the Neighborhood Antique Store was going to close, and remembers looking down the street and imagined a thriving hotel on the corner of First and Franklin Streets.
“Rents always seem to be going up to meet expenses, but my hope was that an upscale hotel in Downtown Napa would justify higher rents, provide more foot traffic and give new life to a bedraggled downtown,” he said. “Despite the cities initial objections, we managed to problem-solve our way to the grand opening.”
He eventually partnered with LodgeWorks in Kansas City and the controversial, 5-story AVIA Hotel on First Street opened in 2009. The hotel is now operated by Hyatt and was rebranded as the ANDAZ Napa.
“With limited capital all our business endeavors had their difficult moments. However, success is only one, good idea away,” Doran said.
Simultaneously with his “other” career, Jeff developed another passion. “Living in the Napa Valley and appreciating fine wine, a good friend and I decided to make wine in a small backyard shed,” he said. This eventually led to the formation of Rocking Horse Winery. He dabbled for a couple years until he had a good year in the furniture business (in 1986) when he could afford to buy equipment to make wine. He grew his production to 6,000 cases.
His first corporate office was a desk inside his furniture store, but after 20 years and expanding wine sales to 28 states and multiple, off-shore countries, the Rocking Horse property was sold. He came away with a greater appreciation for the sacrifices and capital necessary to enjoy all the industry has to offer.
A fond memory he has of Rocking Horse wine was at an exclusive restaurant in Washington DC (when he was in the process of selling it). “I walked through the front door and there was a 5-liter bottle of Rocking Horse Zinfandel. The owner proudly came up to me and said, ‘you see that bottle, see that table just behind your bottle? That is Ted Kennedy’s table,’” he said.
Besides his business ventures, Doran has served as President of the Napa Chamber of Commerce, the founding Chairman of the Retail Committee, Chairman of the Agriculture Committee and Chairman of the Legislative Action Committee. He is a past Director of the Napa Valley Economic Development Corporation, the Kiwanis Club of Napa, Sunrise Rotary, and the Executive Board of the Business Education Partnership. If that wasn’t enough, he served as a liaison to the Downtown Merchants and Professional Association
on special projects.
“I was fortunate to have very positive experiences in all my business endeavors,” he said. Doran says a personal mantra of his is “protecting the village.” Not only is he a member of the community, but has a genuine belief in making Napa a place to call home. It is apparent throughout his business endeavors as well as his local involvements.
“Napa is a story about its people, lifestyle and genuine authenticity. Our many friendships, sense of community and the willingness of others to give generously make Napa a very special place,” Doran said.