Michael Watrous, MBA ’10, partnered with Harlan Wines, a Richmond-based distributor whose products can be found at the likes of Café Caturra and Can Can Brasserie, for his MBA 590 Capstone project.

Michael, who currently works at Zimmer Distributor as a sales manager for the state of Virginia, was first introduced to Harlan Wines LLC through his immediate supervisor Alan Reed.  Alan has had a long-term personal relationship with Daniel Brantingham, who established Harlan Wines in February 2006.  Daniel’s son, Matthew Brantingham, currently serves as president of the importer and distributor.

The friendship between Michael and the Brantingham’s started long before the idea of a Capstone project with Harlan Wines.  “Before engaging in this project, I knew of Harlan Wines and what Matt was doing, and I did my best to help him,” Michael said.

Harlan Wines was initially formed by Daniel and Pascal Payraudeau, who owns Sodi Wine (based in Toulouse, France).  Daniel and Pascal’s vision was to run a family-owned business to import, distribute and wholesale French Wine, writes Michael in his Capstone paper.  Sodi Wine is the exclusive supplier for Harlan Wines.

Ultimately, it was Michael and Matthew’s shared passion for wine that connected the two and spurred the project, according to Michael.  “I have a personal interest and strong passion for wine.  I knew Harlan Wines was at a point in their evolution where they might benefit from a different perspective….It is much more fun to do a project on something you are passionate about,” Michael said.

Just as Matthew said, “the point of wine is pleasure.”

“We talked about it on a number of levels, and I approached them and I said, ‘I need to do this project, and it might be of interest and value to you.  We could accomplish our mutual goals,’” Michael recounted.  According to Michael, Matthew was originally looking to figure out how to develop, train and implement an effective sales force in Virginia. 

The project started with an emphasis on sales force growth but quickly shifted to developing and conceptualizing Harlan Wines’ import opportunities.   In June 2006, Harlan Wines was awarded a Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) import license and then a Virginia ABC wholesale license in April 2008.  The bigger bang for the buck was to focus on developing relationships with regional and national accounts and to import much larger volumes of wine, according to Michael. 

“To boil it down simply, it is not the right thing to focus on building a sales force if you only have [a] limited sales force,” said Michael.  Michael did recommend that Matthew promote an existing member on his sales force so that he could concentrate the bulk of his time and effort on building national relationships and accounts with large chains like Whole Foods, Costco and Fresh Market.  This was a suggestion that Matthew followed.

The Capstone project put Michael’s MBA coursework into perspective.  “I would say ultimately there’s so many different things that [Richmond MBA students] can do to positively affect businesses based on theory and concepts discussed in the classroom,” Michael explained.

The Robins School fosters positive relationships with the local community through development of its students. "One of the guiding principles of the Robins School is for students to become valuable resources and active participants in the community.  The Capstone project provides that opportunity," said Debbie Fisher, Assistant Director of the MBA Program.

“The Capstone project creates an opportunity to utilize the knowledge and skills learned throughout the program.  The benefit for us as students is not only the opportunity to practice and hone our skills, but also to showcase how a Richmond MBA can impact the local business community,” he said.

Direct application of concepts discussed in the classroom impacted Michael: “I can say that the biggest takeaway [from my Capstone project] was the notion that there isn’t much of a disconnect between business theory discussed in the classroom and their application in the business world,” he said.

Michael finds himself in a uniquely different position as a full-time sales manager and MBA student:  “The opportunity to talk about and learn about the issues discussed in the MBA program has made me more valuable to my company.  It’s great to be able to work full-time and almost immediately implement things you learn in the program," he said.

“I can take what I learn in the classroom one night and go apply it in the real world the next day,” Michael said.

As for Matthew’s experience and the impact Michael’s Capstone project had on Harlan Wines: “Michael’s hard-work paid off, it was definitely a worthwhile experience,” Matthew said.