This past week, my wife, Jill, and I took a vacation with our longtime friends Lisa and Byron Haselden. We travel every year together, and this time we had the honor of staying at Blackberry Farm, located about thirty miles south of Knoxville, Tennessee. Situated on more than four thousand acres, Blackberry Farm is nestled in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains and offers some of the most beautiful views on the planet.
The farm was purchased by Sandy Beall III, founder of the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain, and his wife, Kreis, in 1976. Their son, Sam, studied to become a chef and worked at the world-famous French Laundry in Yountville, California. When his parents retired, Sam took over management of Blackberry Farm. Over the next decade, he transformed it into a leading destination for farm-to-table cooking. It became famous for its heirloom vegetables, charcuterie, cheeses, and unparallel hospitality. Blackberry Farm has been ranked the best resort in the U.S. and Canada by publications like Travel and Leisure and Bon Appétit. One of Sam’s proudest achievements was building a cavernous wine cellar complete with 160,000 bottles—the second largest wine collection in the country. Tragically, Sam died in 2016 after a freak accident while skiing in Beaver Creek, Colorado. He was just thirty-nine years old and left behind five children. His widow, Mary Celeste Beall, now runs the resort, where it has continued to thrive.
The beautiful part is, even though Sam died six years ago, everyone at Blackberry Farm talks about him like he’s still there. His legacy is that strong. From a business standpoint, his fingerprints are everywhere. When he died, Sam had just begun implementing a ten-year strategic plan to expand the farm. He added two restaurants: the Barn, a fine-dining establishment located in a two-hundred-year-old building, and a more casual spot called the Dogwood. Sam essentially invented what is known as “foothills cuisine,” featuring staples like green tomato pie, fried chicken sandwiches, and brook trout with grits. He created a spa, health center, and hiking trails that helped turn Blackberry Farm into the luxury resort it is today. Except, these fingerprints are only a small part of his legacy.
Most important, Sam’s heartprints are everywhere. Many of Blackberry Farm’s employees have worked there for dozens of years. Jill and I never have experienced this level of hospitality and guest service anywhere. We fell in love with two of their servers, Cole Chapman and Savannah Cribbs. Cole and Savannah not only shared their culinary talents with us but, more importantly, shared their genuine hearts. We literally all cried together when we left Blackberry Farm. When was the last time you cried saying goodbye to your server?
When Sam died, the staff rallied around Mary and helped her implement his vision. During his funeral, every member of the staff lined up and waved white napkins as two horses pulled Sam’s coffin along a gravel path to his final resting place near a tiny chapel on the edge of the property. Ask any of them why the farm is so dedicated to customer service and hospitality, and they’ll say, simply and automatically: “Sam Beall.”
One morning, as I was hiking with Jill, Byron, and Lisa, we met a lovely woman named Suzanne Turchetti and her husband, Jason. Suzanne works in the home healthcare industry, and she was staying at Blackberry Farms to celebrate her boss, Louise Woerner’s, thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. I got talking to Suzanne, and she explained that she started working for Louise more than two decades ago. She started as an executive assistant and slowly began climbing the ranks of the company. Louise poured into her, teaching Suzanne all aspects of the business as it expanded into one of the largest home healthcare companies in New York State.
A few months ago, Louise decided it was time to retire. There was only one person whom she trusted to take over the reins of the company: Suzanne. Her former assistant had proven her loyalty over the years. No one knew the ins and outs of the business better than her. In a time when employee turnover is near an all-time high, when it seems folks join organizations just to secure a title bump or a salary increase and barely hang around long enough before they jump to another opportunity, it’s heartwarming to hear about success stories like this. Louise left a heartprint on her company and turned it into a place where an executive assistant could rise to the very top through hard work. And now, Suzanne is leaving her own heartprint by mentoring a new generation of leaders to bring their organization into the future.
It was only fitting that I would meet these two leaders at Blackberry Farm—a place that experienced terrible tragedy only a few short years ago but managed to thrive thanks to its unshakeable culture. Heart-led leaders like Sam Beall, Louise Woerner, and Suzanne Turchetti understand the power of influence. They understand that good leaders leave their fingerprints on an organization, but great leaders leave behind their heartprints, too. Heartprints are what turned a sleepy farm into a world-class resort. They’re what turn executive assistants into presidents. Because when you invest in your people with love and respect, they will pay the favor back a hundred times over through unwavering loyalty and hard work.
I may have gained five pounds last week after indulging in four-course gourmet meals at Blackberry Farms, but I left Knoxville, Tennessee, wanting to be more like Sam Beall. Each morning at the farm, I visited and said a prayer at Sam’s gravesite near that little chapel to thank him for teaching me such a valuable life lesson. I don’t just want to leave my fingerprint on my family, my organization, and my community… I want to leave my heartprint. There is a difference. A big difference.