CHAPTER #1 - « Where it all started”
Written on 15 December 2017 by Thomas Hébrard
« When I set up the U’Wine Strategic Committee in 2014, I told them « Your primary role is to tell me when to stop. » I had put so much energy into this company that I needed some support to steer it. I’ve experienced obstacles, disappointing meetings, disillusionment, huge periods of stress and doubt. I will experience them again, no doubt, but they are much less painful today. This shows that I am learning from this experience and that U’Wine is strong and resilient. From my early experience as an entrepreneur, I learned that I had to follow my instincts and stay true to my values. Surrounding myself with great people, be they family, friends, employees, shareholders and Customers is the key to my success. Antoine, our CFO, is my rock at U’Wine; Florence, my wife, represents my life balance. Our ambition transcends borders and the anglicised U’Wine name is testimony to this. Our story has only just begun…
20 July 1984
I was born in Arcachon on 20 July 1984. I spent my entire childhood amid the vineyards. Water and wine are the two elements that have influenced my life.
My love for water led me to follow in my father’s footsteps, i.e. to spend my weekends and holidays sailing and taking part in regattas. Competition is about surpassing yourself, it’s about team spirit. I love it.
Crafting wine is my father’s occupation, it was my grandfather’s before him, and all the generations before since 1832. As a child, I used to go to my grandparents’ for lunch on Wednesdays. It turned out that their home was Château Cheval Blanc. For me, it was simply a lovely house where we picked and scoffed pine nuts. It was not until later in life that I realised this Château’s great importance. My Wednesdays and weekends in September were spent picking grapes at Château de Francs or Cheval Blanc, accompanying my father on the tractor and then cutting the bunches of grapes.
My experience of drinking fine wines dates back to well before my legal drinking age. As a baby, I used to dip my little finger into the guests’ glasses of champagne, and then later, as a young boy, when our father would say during a meal « Thomas, Alexis, come and taste this wine. This is a unique opportunity that you will remember for the rest of your lives ». We tried the wine, we didn’t necessarily appreciate it at that age but we tasted it and we remembered having done so. For us these moments of discovery were no big deal, they were never forced upon us, it was just a way of learning that good wine is best enjoyed with a bit of age on it and allows you to share special moments with your loved ones.
My dream is to be an aeronautical engineer. At 18 years old I start my higher education at a major engineering school, the ESTACA, and throw myself into a rich student life in which the extra-curricular activities are as important as the classes. I meet Florence at the Paris Boat Show in December 2002.
What a happy coincidence! Five memorable years as a student, nights when I often didn’t even go to bed, preparing for my exams, enjoying my youth and making friends for life. I am very involved in several associations at the school, including the Sports Office, of which I was president. All this make me realise that I was more interested in management than technology. I therefore decide to pursue my education with an MBA in management at SUPAERO and HEC. I like to understand how a company works and its organisational challenges. I make it the subject of my thesis. A lot of theory that I then will have to put into practice!
I start working for Algoé, a management consultancy firm with offices in Lyon and Paris. I decide to stay in Paris with Florence, who had already been working as a nurse for over 4 years. I enjoy my work yet start forming the initial idea of what would end up being U’Wine.
I receive my first salary. I realise at that moment that if I want to create a wine cellar, I would need to start saving immediately. I know that the cheapest way of acquiring fine Bordeaux wines is to buy them « en Primeur » (as Futures); I therefore wait until April and ask my father to share with me the 2008 prices, what a surprise to discover that those Grands Crus wines that I had been lucky enough to try as a child are so expensive. My taste being already drawn to the big names, I found myself in a quandary, because until you buy your first bottle, you are not aware of their worth.
I analyse the En-Primeurs prices, compare them to the price of the wines available for delivery and noted that certain wines were already very expensive even when offered « en Primeur » but that they sell for even more 5 to 10 years later. This observation gave me an idea: « Why not buy more than I need to drink, sell some of it after 5 to 8 years, and then finance my own consumption with my profits ». I talk about this idea with my family and friends, and five of us buy the 2008 vintage for the first time under my name, Thomas Hébrard. I keep on monitoring the performance, and they are above my own expectations.
In 2010, not 5 but 15 of us are interested in buying the 2009 vintage; perhaps it is time to take this idea further? Algoé gave me their blessing to create a wine business « as long as I continue to do my job at Algoé with the same level of commitment and high standards. » I will be grateful to them for the rest of my life. Without this opportunity to pursue the U’Wine project in parallel with my work as a consultant, I would never have been able to keep my head above water financially until the proper launch of U’Wine, 5 years later.
Creation of U’WINE SAS
First discussions with the French Financial Market Authority (AMF). My motivation is to register my investment mandate model in order to offer customers a strong legal protective framework, and be able to work with reputable wealth managers, 1st capital injection (€124 K) to cover the legal costs. From 2011 to 2014: the French Financial Market Authority (AMF) required the company to cease its activities. Fortunately, I had kept my job as a consultant.
I turn 30, the most difficult year of my life. In May 2013, we welcome our first boy Augustin, and go through difficult times as he is suffering from health issues. At the same time I am anxiously awaiting for the approval of the French Financial Market Authority (AMF), a project that has so far costed me all my personal savings. I juggle between two full-time jobs and a family and work six days out of seven; it is about time to make the leap forward, reducing my working hours at Algoé to devote more time to the project and start laying the foundation of U’Wine with Quentin, my childhood friend.
The U’WINE MANDATE offer is registered by the French Financial Market Authority (AMF) as an « Intermediary in Diverse Goods ». This is the first time alternative investments are regulated in France.
Creation of the Strategic Committee.
Integration of the management team and members of the Strategic Committee into the capital (+€104 K).
3rd « Love Money » capital increase (+€465 K from our family, friends and Customers).
We move to Bordeaux, and launch our first En-Primeurs campaign as a négociant. It is the start of a new life and the beginning of U’Wine as a three-man operation (Quentin, Antoine and myself).
Quentin became the first U’WINE employee after 2 years of hard work and dedication without a salary.
Antoine is now on our payroll, following his resignation from an executive role in a large corporation. I feel fortunate and grateful to work alongside such an experienced CFO. Jean-Marc joins us to handle sales development, Constance joins us for her internship. For the first time, our team is taking shape.
Creation of U’WINE GRANDS CRUS SA. An encouraging start and above all a very high-quality network of wealth management partners interested in our products.
U’WINE SAS’s 4th increase in capital (+€250 K), U’WINE GRANDS CRUS’s 1st increase in capital of €1.05 M. Dorothée joins the company as marketing manager.
Everything is going really well, we exceed our business plan for the first time. Our products are now listed by a private bank. We start thinking about the « High Added Value Grands Crus » distribution model; one that enables to buy wine en Primeur and store them (Mandate offer) until they reach maturity and are ready to be sold to consumers for their enjoyment.
5th U’WINE SAS capital increase (+€1.1 M). We secure direct allocation with 75% of our selected Grands Crus, as the Châteaux increasingly understand the value of our business model and decide to support us. Our Team has grown to 7 U’Wine makers.
We are ready to push further…
We have one job available and two highly talented candidates (Céline and Anne-Sophie), so we hire them both as we knew that they would both quickly contribute to our continuous expansion.
We are touring Burgundy as we intend to add this amazing wine region to our portfolio! The Wine Estates welcome us with open arms. These « climats », as they are called in Burgundy are real treasures. Quentin and I come back from our trip with allocations for the 2016 vintage and stars in our eyes.
6 November 2017
Hong Kong, our first stop during our explaratory Asian tour that help us seize the amazing Asian market potential.
We are now adding the Rhône Valley to our portfolio: Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Yesterday and the day before yesterday we were with Quentin and Jean-Marc in Côte-Rôtie. We secure new allocations from wonderful Wine Estates, that will soon be part of our customers’ wine portfolio.
We exceed our business plan objectives: Invoicing are up +230%; six banks and institutional prospects show interest in our offers.
In a few days, we will celebrate Christmas and the new year. The French President Emmanuel Macron pledges to support investment in French SMEs, yet his Finance Law still casts some uncertainties in regards to our ability to raise capital for our U’WINE GRANDS CRUS subsidiary. It does not prevent us from moving ahead, as we carry on with our plan and continue to invest in our offers and our people to grow. Beginning of January, we have 12 « U’Wine-Makers » on board and a solid plan to communicate globally! We are in discussion with one of the world’s leading airlines to market one of our products. We are going to consolidate our achievements, greatly expand our distribution channels and continue to innovate to provide our Customers with more services as we developp new ideas and bring them to the market. We know that U’Wine’s mission is to be the « wine cellar manager for private individuals around the world », allowing them to own some of « the 1% of the finest wines from the greatest terroirs on the planet ».
CHAPTER #2 – ”Hyper-growth”