Ryan Quinn and Alastair Pope took over Wine Direct in 2005, united by a love of European wine. In a Bordeaux bistro on their first buying trip offshore, they hatched a plan to grow Wine Direct and be trusted suppliers of imported wine.
The company’s website takes up the story:
“It was our first ever buying trip to France and we were going to need a pretty good plan if we ever wanted to pay off the credit card bill. We may have been staying in the worst hotel in Bordeaux but that didn’t make it cheap, nor does La Tupina Bistro give away its legendary cote de boeuf (or multiple bottles of branaire ducru for that matter). But like all good plans, ours was simple. Take a good thing and make it better.”
We’re sitting at a rough wooden picnic table in the busy yard outside Wine Direct’s new warehouse and retail outlet in Station Rd — in a grittier, semi-industrial part of Auckland’s Mt Wellington. You can’t miss the warehouse with its huge red wall and Wine Direct in large letters.
Quinn and Pope’s story would inspire anyone tempted to go into business. They took a long-established wine importer run by three partners and turned it into a very successful wine importer and distributor.
They had little or no experience of running a business when they started out, but have survived and prospered partly due to their product knowledge and a tight partnership in which each complements the other. And, it has to be said, innate smarts in choosing wines which will appeal to Kiwi palates. As the website also says, the idea hasn’t changed from the 1980s when Wine Direct began.
Imported wine can seem complicated to Joe Public but doesn’t need to be. All you need is a trusted guide and Wine Direct aspires to be that. “All you need is a quality wine merchant and some good advice. We’d like to be the most accessible, relevant and interesting wine company in the country.”
Quinn studied Russian and linguistics at university but had always been interested in European wine. After leaving university three papers short of a degree, he headed to the northern hemisphere where he worked in various jobs in the wine trade. On returning to New Zealand, he was having trouble finding a job which would accommodate his passion for European wine.
“I said to my wife, ‘what I really need is for a job to appear at a place like, I dunno, Wine Direct’ and the next morning there was an ad in the paper for a do-everything dogsbody kind of sales and marketing guy. I applied and eventually got the job. So I became the fourth employee of the company. “I got to know the wine side, the stock side and the customers. I wouldn’t pretend for a moment that I was privy to accounts or any of the operational side of the business. I was quite notably green in that regard.” Pope had worked part time at Wine Direct while a student, then went offshore “to get a real job, although it didn’t seem so real at the time”.
He’d done everything from working for an economics consultancy to brand strategy.
“But I realised one day I would be found out because I just thought it was bullshit. The consulting thing is really interesting because you are so detached from the doing. You put a fair bit of effort into thinking and then it just goes into a machine and nothing ever really happens. I’d always been more interested in the doing.” Pope used to hang out at Wine Direct while consulting in Auckland and, when he and Quinn met and talked at a party, they discussed owning and running a company like Wine Direct. Then the opportunity came up. They pitched a deal to the founders; they would take over as joint general managers with an end goal of buying the company.
Quinn: “We made the phone call and said, ‘can we have a crack at running it?’ They called us in for meetings to size us up and we sort of sat there and bullshitted and then walked out shitting ourselves because neither of us had run a business although Alastair was self-employed.
“I have to say, the way the founders did this deal was incredibly honourable. It will be a lesson that I hold onto in business and would want to emulate one day. They listened, gave us a chance, and after a while when we started talking about a buyout, they helped us into the business.
“My wife and I sold everything, our house and an investment apartment we owned. We’d just had our first child and my wife was in a nesting phase ... to be honest, although it’s a huge decision, if you’re the kind of person who has ever thought in any depth about doing your own thing or making something bigger and better for yourself, when the option came along, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to recognise this was it. So it was actually quite a quick decision but still big and profound.”
Initially Pope didn’t sell his house to buy into the company. He borrowed money from his father-in-law, but ended up selling the house to pay the debt. When the pair bought the company, it wasn’t making enough to sustain two families, plus they had large debts to service. That gave the impetus to grow.
“We had this pressure to grow it or we were just treading water,” says Pope. “I remember we had a beer on a Saturday afternoon and Ryan came up with this profound quote. It was something like, ‘it’s pretty simple, we’ ve just got to sell more piss.’”
Easier said than done in a sector where there are no barriers to entry, narrow margins and hordes of would-be competitors who initially look at the business of selling wine through rose-tinted glasses.
But Quinn and Pope have come to love the business of doing business. Much of that, they say, is due to their partnership. Quinn is the big picture guy, Pope the operations guy — and they get on well.
“With us the partnership model was vital,” says Pope. “We didn’t really know each other and chances are we might not have been able to work together but luckily we work unbelievably well together.”
They relish the challenges of running a business. In a small company like Wine Direct, the two make decisions all day every day. There is no management structure to fall back on. “I suspect all the other small to medium privately owned businesses within five square kilometres of this barbecue table are the same,” says Pope. They enjoy making the thing work and figuring out how to grow. Pope says he didn’t realise just how creative it could be — now he gets up every morning and looks forward to work.
Quinn is intensely suspicious of the type of business gurus who sell a successful business and pass out little gems of wisdom, but he heard one that resonated.
“I hadn’t considered this because I’d only been an employee but if you are in business, then you are in business to grow, there can’t be another mode. So we had to come to work every morning to grow the business. It is the pivotal crucial aspect of business.”
Would they encourage others to follow their path? You bet. “I don’t claim to have been aware at the time,” says Quinn, “but looking back there is way more pressure when you have a mortgage and a kid. Without those things there is no excuse, people should take the plunge.”