Drinking for success
Here is an intriguing formula for being a successful small businessman. Drink a lot in college.
Ben Christiansen is David to retail Goliaths, and with no advertising and only 660 square feet of storefront space, his Waterford Wine Company on Brady Street has survived the bad economic times just fine. Waterford somehow stocks 900 wines and another 200 spirits in its compact shop, successfully competing with Pick 'n Save, Whole Foods, Sendik's and much larger liquor stores.
To what does he attribute this? "Drinking got me here," he says with a smile. "I partied hard in college, although I drank more beer and hard alcohol back then."
We don't want to leave the wrong impression. The Iowa native is not a bumbling booze hound, and knowing him today, it is difficult to picture Christiansen as a bleary-eyed underclassman. He has a master's degree in educational administration from UW-Madison, and his approach to selling alcohol is engagingly informational.
That is a large part of Waterford Wine's success. Christiansen explains wines with a deep base of knowledge and a flair for weaving history and geography into his narratives. He does this with frequent email blasts, in-store tastings and advice to customers.
The owner writes in a literate and entertaining style, and his smart presentations at tastings are infectiously passionate.
Christiansen employs a sales staff of six part timers and one full time associate, and he conducts regular private tastings to keep the group up to speed on the store's stock. "We pride ourselves on service. My employes are excited to be here," he says.
"I want a customer to be able to come in here and say, 'I will be frying my first green tomatoes of the season in a little bit of olive oil, and I am topping them with burrata cheese. What's my wine?'"
Christiansen modeled Waterford Wine on a similar shop in his hometown of Des Moines. "I love what the owner did there, talking about wine, getting to know his customers and helping them pick what they drink.
"When you went there, you learned about the countries and the people who made the wine, and you got your buzz on at the same time. I was inspired that someone has sold wine in this way."
Christiansen was a stay-at-home dad at the time his idea for Waterford Wine began percolating. He bought two books on how to write a business plan, obtained a bank loan and several partners, and opened the store in 2005.
The shop's name reflects the fact that all of the partners lived in the Waterford condos on the East Side. Christiansen is now the sole owner of the business.
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Congrats Ben!!! I look forward to your success!
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