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Cover Story

Craig Hall: The Reluctant Entrepreneur

He never wanted to get into business. He thought it was boring, and not very noble. He was wrong.
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Craig Hall divides his time between the Napa Valley and his home base of Dallas, where his new Arts District tower just broke ground. photography by Eva Kolenko

[inline_image id=”3″ align=”” crop=””]He immersed himself in the industry, studying and becoming an expert in everything from farming methods to direct customer sales. Coming at his age and stage of his career, he says, the challenge has been exhilarating. Last year, Hall Napa Valley sold 54,000 cases and produced 95,000. (There’s a three-year inventory period for red wine.) The operation has grown to include 500 acres of vineyards and two wineries.

In Rutherford, a long tunnel in the winery’s underground cave is lined with hand-made 19th century Austrian bricks (a nod to Kathryn’s days as a U.S. Ambassador there during the Clinton administration). The tasting room at the end is lit by a stunning, grapevine-root chandelier that drips with more than 1,500 Swarovski crystals. Along Route 29 in nearby St. Helena, a large new visitor’s center is nearing completion. Original 2007 plans using a controversial Frank Gehry design were scrapped; the new glass-encased version embraces Napa Valley views.

But it’s not the look of the wineries that matters; it’s the taste of the wines. And there, the Halls had almost overnight success. Their Kathryn Hall 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon was ranked No. 2 in the world by Wine Spectator, and the new WALT brand, says Wine Enthusiast, “immediately enters the California pantheon of excellent Pinot Noirs.”

Wine, says Hall, matters. “A couple of hundred years from now, will Hall Office Park be there? Maybe. I don’t know. But Thomas Jefferson used to drink Lafite Rothschild, and I’ve gone over to the estate in France where they still make that wine. The idea that you can build a business that will endure over time and make a difference to people and their experiences—that’s what it’s all about.”

• • •

After resolving the bankruptcy in 1992, Hall moved quickly to rebuild his real estate company, selling off multifamily properties and reinvesting in other assets. Among them: St. Paul Place and Harwood Center, two office buildings Hall acquired in 1994. It was the first time in more than a decade that downtown Dallas office propeties had changed hands. Within just a few years, Hall improved them, filled them with tenants, and sold them for a $50 million cash profit. He also bought the Arts District land and began readying plans for the land he had acquired during the late 1980s in Frisco.

Along with adding lakes, fountains, and walking trails, he differentiated Hall Office Park from competitors by installing about $15 million in art, including a sculpture garden. (Inspired by his art-teacher mother, Hall had been collecting since he was a teenager.) At a 1997 event to celebrate the groundbreaking of the first speculative building in Frisco, though, only three or four brokers showed up. No one could understand why Hall was developing on farmland so far to the north. But his instincts about the path of growth were dead on and, today, construction is under way on the park’s 16th building and designs are being drawn up for the 17th.

His other interests include Hall Structured Finance, which places about $100 million a year in bridge and construction loans, and Hall Phoenix Energy, an oil-and-gas concern he took over after a business deal went bad. After being in the software business for a number of years, he sold his last concern, iWave, to EMC last December. Prior to that, he sold a piece of his longtime venture Skywire to a company called Kubra in Canada, and the rest to Oracle. Combined, the three sales added up to about $300 million.

Hall continues to be a very active angel investor. “When I have money, I will throw it at ideas that help improve efficiency, that help improve the world,” he says. Among them: Theranos, a blood lab business in the Silicon Valley (“that’s about to go real big,” Hall says); a venture with Craig Venter, who discovered the human genome; a company that’s looking to turn algae into fuel; and London-based Bones, which is trying to cure osteoporosis. He’s also invested in a company called UPay, which allows people to bank using their cell phones, and in another venture that stores energy during off-peak times to use when demand increases.

=r5=Even though he’s in the oil and gas business, Hall drives two electric cars—a Fisker in Dallas and a Tesla in California. And for someone who’s heavily invested in leading-edge technologies, Hall is not very tech-forward himself. He still has an AOL email address. He never checks it. The same for voicemail. Callers think it’s a joke when they dial his cell number and hear Kathryn’s recorded voice telling them to not bother leaving a message. Hall has assistants who attend to his voicemail and email at work. “On weekends,” he says, “I generally don’t know what’s going on.”

He and Kathryn just got back from a trip to their home in Paris. While in France, they took a bicycle trip through the Loire Valley. They were joined by some of their political friends, including Linda and Tom Daschle (he’s a former U.S. Senate majority leader) and Kim and Byron Dorgan (he’s a former U.S. Senator from North Dakota). Last year, the Halls went on a trip to Antarctica with a group of friends from Dallas. The adventure was put together by Lucy Billingsley through National Geographic. Next year, the group plans to head toward the North Pole and explore the Arctic.

Hall says his extensive travel experiences have greatly enriched his life. But he’s happiest when he’s working. “I don’t separate the enjoyment I get from work or doing other things,” he says. “The word ‘work’ has become sort of a pejorative, which I don’t agree with. I think what you do for a career ought to be something you enjoy. I’m lucky because I get to spend most of my time doing things I really love.”

Hall has been a vegan for a couple of years, a decision he made due to cardiac concerns. He has had two heart attacks—one in 2004 and one in 2008. Overall, though, he’s in excellent health.

And he has changed his opinion about business. “Early on I realized it was fun and creative and not boring,” Hall says. “But I still had the lingering feeling for a long time that business wasn’t the most important thing you can do in the world to make a difference in people’s lives. It’s much more important in my view today. It is a positive thing to help create jobs and to help turn ideas into services or products that make a difference.”

Governments and big corporations have their roles, but it’s entrepreneurs, Hall believes, who can move economies forward. Toward that end, Hall founded the Dallas regional office of the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship. He and Kathryn also funded a Fulbright chair to teach entrepreneurship in Eastern Europe. As if all that weren’t enough, he’s in the midst of writing his sixth book. This one is kind of a “lessons learned” tale that he hopes will encourage others and help them avoid some of his mistakes.

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Hall has many regrets, he says, but part of being an entrepreneur is failing, and anyone who says they have no regrets hasn’t lived a very active life.
The various businesses in Hall’s $1 billion-plus enterprise are flourishing. The new winery in Napa is coming along nicely, Hall Office Park is pretty much on cruise control, and the Arts District project is finally under way. It all leaves Hall feeling a little antsy.

“The worst time for me is when things are so good, I get really bored,” he says. “Because then I do all kinds of stupid things. I’m borderline there these days. It’s not necessarily a great attribute—if you want to go further, you should stay in a straight line. But I really enjoy zig-zagging.”