CEO Corner: Sammy Hagar’s Unconventional Red Rockin’ Road To Success

Sammy HagarPhoto Credit: Leah Steiger

For our latest CEO Corner feature, where Haute Living goes one-on-one with the world’s top CEOs, we’ve highlighted Sammy Hagar, who has been recognized as one of the best and most accomplished lead singers and songwriters in rock music for more than four decades. From breaking into the industry with the seminal hard rock band Montrose, to his multi-platinum solo career, to his ride as the frontman of Van Halen, Chickenfoot and his latest best-selling supergroup The Circle, whose upcoming album, Crazy Times, is out Sept. 30, Hagar has amassed 25 Platinum albums on sales surpassing 50 million worldwide. Along his journey, he has set the tone for some of the greatest rock anthems ever written with songs like “I Can’t Drive 55,” “Right Now,” and “Why Can’t This Be Love” and earned the highest respect of the music industry with a Grammy Award and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Since launching his flagship Cabo Wabo Cantina, he’s turned a lifelong passion for great food, music and spirits into a thriving and iconic lifestyle brand that now encompass top-shelf labels, Cabo Wabo Tequila (sold in 2008), Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum, Sammy’s Beach Bar Cocktail Co., and Santo Tequila, as well as several restaurants. Never one to hit the brakes, Sammy’s also expanded his successes into publishing, TV, radio and beyond, including five seasons of his hit TV show “Rock & Roll Road Trip with Sammy Hagar” and as host of “Sammy Hagar’s Top Rock Countdown,” a weekly syndicated radio show broadcast airing on 90+ US stations. He’s also a #1 NYT bestselling author and dedicated philanthropist. Now, are you ready to rock?

Sammy Hagar Photo Credit: Larry Marano.

What is the secret to your success?

My secret to success is probably no secret. I believe in hard work and a great product you actually truly believe in. It makes it so much easier to convince people it’s a great product, and you stand behind it. Otherwise, you better be a good actor.

What is your number one business do?

This is tough. I believe you have to start with a great product and not just put your name on something for the money. I think success comes with passion and hard work. And the way you have passion is by believing in your product, hopefully that you created and invented yourself. If not, it has to be a product you believe in. So, you have to have a great product that you truly love and believe in.

Sammy Hagar
Sammy with his Beach Bar rum

Photo Credit: Leah Steiger

Number one business don’t?

Don’t put your name on something you don’t believe in. Plain and simple.

How does one become a CEO? What was your path like?

 Well, I became a CEO by accident, by default, or I don’t know to put it exactly, but I never intended on being a CEO. And the only reason why I am a CEO is because I own the company, and I started it myself from scratch. Otherwise, I don’t believe in titles. I’m not a CEO type. I do things differently, and I think it’s part of my secret to success. I don’t follow any basic standard patterns that you can go to school and learn about. I follow my gut, my heart, my mind. A lot of times, I even doubt myself, but my gut keeps saying, “Nah, go ahead and do it.”  I kind of stumbled into it, there you go.

Sammy Hagar
Hagar with his Santo tequila

Photo Credit: Leah Steiger

Let’s talk about your brands. Do you dedicate the same amount of time to each?

No, I don’t. And that’s exactly what I mean about not being a conventional CEO. A conventional CEO would wake up at a certain time in the morning and go to work at a certain time, probably put on certain clothes, and I don’t do that. When I have a great idea for one of my brands, I don’t care which one it is, that’s the one I work on that day and maybe that week. And I have great people around me; that’s another key to success, finding great people to go with your great idea. And you put real time in, you don’t just punch a clock and say, “Oh I got to work on (3:55) speech or cocktails today.” No, it doesn’t work like that, for me. The people that are hired to do their jobs as publicists and the COO of Beach Bar Cocktails, or the president of the sales guys. The sales guys have to go out every day, and they have to sell your products. And hopefully they have the same passion as you, and if they do, that helps them knowing they’re working for the guy that created it, cares about it, and stands behind it 100%.

Which of your products do you support the most?

Well, I’ve got to say, I hate to go back to my original brand, but Cabo Wabo is my first successful brand. It launched a successful restaurant chain. It, well I hate to call them a chain, but a few restaurants around the world. And Cabo Wabo tequila became the number two premium brand and basically the beginning of celebrity brands, especially tequila. I’m really proud of that. You know, 1988, to be able to write that song with Eddie Van Halen, Cabo Wabo, and to go on to create a fantastic cantina in Cabo and then Vegas and then Lake Tahoe and so on. I’m the most proud of that, outside of my music, because my music is really a brand as well. Sammy Hagar is a brand. You know, what does he do, well? He sings and plays guitar and goes out and puts on concerts and makes records and does TV appearances and blah, blah, blah. So, I would say that’s probably number one, but the brand, but that’s a brand that was born. Cabo Wabo was invented, and I invented it, and I’m very proud of it.

Sammy HagarPhoto Credit: Leah Steiger

What moment in your career are you proudest of?

Oh geez, that’s really a tough one too, I have to say. Once again, going to Cabo in 1979, ‘80, and going again the next year for my birthday. And then decided that I wanted to buy a house down there, so ‘83 I bought a house, a condo, and later built a house. And anyway, just having that vision. In Cabo, getting off that plane for the first time, I’m going, “Wow.” I couldn’t leave there for a week because the plane only came once a week and left once a week. And there were no telephones, no TV sets, no newspapers, no nothing. And dirt roads leading to a place called The Twin Dolphin, which is no longer there now; it’s the Montage Property. And falling in love. I mean having the vision to say I’m going to build a cantina and start a tequila brand; I’m going to buy a house; in this little place where they had about 600 people. I’m proud of that vision. That was way ahead of its time. And scary, looking back now, I probably wouldn’t do that today. You know, a young man in his late 30s, early 40s; yeah, let’s give it a go.

How do you keep your brands evolving?

Well, my taste, all my brands are built on taste. It’s built on, when I say taste, even the design of how I like my furniture to look, how I like the lighting to be, what colors I like on the walls, what the food should taste like, what kind of drinks I’m drinking, what kind of music I’m listening to. So, that evolves naturally as you get more experienced in the world. So, you know, my brands evolve with me. Cause I’m hands on. I, if I walk into the Cabo Wabo, hadn’t been there for six months, and I look around; I go, “Wow, why did we put that up there?” And my manager will say, “Cause you wanted it up there.” And I think, “That ugly old thing? That ugly old painting? Get that thing out of here.” Your taste evolves and my taste in everything gets more refined with time. You start with all these colors and all these crazy artifacts and things. And then pretty soon you go, “Eh, get rid of that, and get rid of that.” You clean it up and the same applies to my palate. The food, you know, you’re starting off with, “Let’s make a hamburger, with lobster and potato chips and all these things and pile it up.” And then pretty soon you go, “Let’s just get back down to a real simple, great piece of meat and some really good pickles, some nice salsa.” And that’s how everything evolves. Same with my brands: the tequila, the rum, the cocktails. I believe I’ve got Sammy’s Beach Bar cocktails down to a perfect, fine taste. I couldn’t imagine changing anything except maybe putting more calories by making it have more flavor, but at 130 calories and 5.5% alcohol, I think it’s nailed. It’s perfect. I can’t see that evolving much. We get some other flavors going, absolutely. We’re releasing a mojito and a pina colada, which are phenomenal because they work. You know, certain things work with a bubbly, sparkling rum beverage. And those are two of them that do. So, that’s how I keep things evolving.

Sammy HagarPhoto Credit: Leah Steiger

What do you do when something doesn’t succeed?

I work my ass off. I roll up my sleeves higher. I put on my work boots, and sometimes I have to put on a hard hat with a light on top so I can stay up all night and keep working on it. That’s what I do when it doesn’t come immediately. So far, I’ve only given up on the bicycles and the Red Rocker clothing line because it was such a brutal business. When I had Red Rocker clothing, sports casual wear, when you would come out with something new, like I came out with these flannel sweatpants and flannel shirts, you know that all the grunge guys were wearing up in Seattle at that time. And they were wearing my clothes, by the way. The next year, I went to the trade show, and everybody had the same thing. I’m going, “Oh my god. I just came up with that last year, and they already ripped me off.” So, I thought, “You know what? I can’t keep up this pace because I’m a musician.” I was in Van Halen at that time; I was on tour 130 shows a year, making a record. I just didn’t have time to keep with that one, but I haven’t quit anything else for a long time.

Sammy Hagar
Cabo Wabo Cantina in Cabo San Lucas

Photo Credit: Cabo Wabo Cantina

What tips do you have for business owners?

The more time you can put into it, the more you think about it all the time… You have to delegate some things, but some things you can’t. The only thing that separates Santo, my tequila with Guy Fieri  from other tequilas, is we’re hands on and we will insist on not using smaller agave and anything under six years. It’s too bitter; then you have to add sweeteners to it. And we don’t want to add anything. Then we’ll taste it and we go, “Mm, it’s a little bit too hot, you know. Can we aerate it a little more?” It’s really about your taste. So, whatever you’re doing is about your taste. You don’t want to imitate someone else because you think everyone is drinking a certain kind of tequila now.    Tequila that has chemicals in it; got coloring in it; or it has sugar to make it sweeter and glycerin to make it smoother. And people say, “Oh, that’s a trend man; that’s what people want to drink.” Well, those are people that don’t really like tequila. They’re people that just want to drink tequila and act like they’re cool, but they’re going, “Yeah, this is good; oh it’s so smooth; it goes down so easy.” Tequila doesn’t do that. Tequila is harsh. It doesn’t have to be really harsh; you can smooth it out nicely, but for me, it’s got to all be natural. I want to taste the agave, and feel that, “Whew, yeah!” So, that’s the advice I’d give to any business owners is you know, do your own thing, man. That’s what’s going to make you different. You’re not going to copy The Beatles and be The Beatles. You’re not going to copy, you know, Van Halen and be Van Halen. You’ve got to figure who you really are and what you really want to sing about and what you really want to do or what kind of taste you want.  

Sammy Hagar
Cabo Wabo Las Vegas

Photo Credit: Cabo Wabo Cantina

What is the greatest luxury in life?

The greatest luxury in life, I’m sorry to say is a friggin’ airplane, okay? Having your own jet is the biggest luxury in life for me. If I didn’t have that, I would not be able to go on tour the way I do.  I can go out and do select shows here and there. Fly out and do them with my band. Otherwise, I’d be on the road in a bus. I’d be wore out. It wouldn’t be worth it for me anymore. It’s like my friend Rick Springfield once said, “I get paid to travel, you know, when I’m on tour.” That’s what he figures he’s being paid for, to travel. ‘Cause it’s the worst part of the whole thing. So, you get your own jet. Well, now I can say, “Well, it’s not so bad.” I can do business meetings in Dallas and turn around and come back to St. Louis the next day and do a show. I met Warren Buffet one time and he lives very humbly as we all know. He had a hole in his shoe, and his socks didn’t match. And when I was talking to him, and he said, “You know, the only luxury that’s a must for me is to have an airplane.” You know, we all hate the carbon footprint  and all that. But he said, “I have to have a plane. If I didn’t have it, I couldn’t do what I do.” And I thought, “He’s right on.” I really feel the same way. If you’re really an active businessperson or an active entertainer or just an active traveler, or world traveler, whatever you want to be, that is the ultimate luxury. It is. I have homes in beautiful places, and I could really care less if I stayed in a hotel instead. I’ve got money in the bank. What am I going to do with it? Well, I’ll buy a house, and my kids can have it. And you know, there’s all these things that you can do, but they don’t mean much to me. Peace and love. Over and out, Sammy Hagar, at your service.

Sammy’s Beach Bar Cocktail Co.Photo Credit: Sammy’s Beach Bar Cocktail Co.