As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Umberto Luchini.
Umberto Luchini is the founder and proprietor of Wolf Spirit Distillery, a company which develops and owns spirit brands — such as Blood x Sweat x Teams Vodka (Eugene, OR), Puncher’s Chance™ Bourbon (KY), and Bosscal Mezcal (Durango, MX) — as well as imports and markets others, for example, Tom of Finland Organic Vodka from Finland.
Umberto was born in Milan, Italy into a small, tightly-knit family. He attended school in London, worked in France, became jobless after 9/11, and took a low-paying job with a great brand: Campari (Monaco). Umberto rose through the marketing ranks, ultimately moving to San Francisco in 2004, where he resides today as an American citizen.
During Umberto’s 17 years with Campari he formed an award-winning team of 30 marketers, as well as almost single-handedly took on an unknown Tequila which he named, packaged, priced, and positioned: today, Espolòn is “the Tito’s of Tequila,” selling nearly 400K 9L cases each year. In 2017, Umberto left Campari with multiple business models and dreams of becoming an entrepreneur; that same year Wolf Spirits was founded.
Umberto is happier than ever and working harder than ever to grow his own brand, as he did for so many others. In his spare time, he enjoys ultra-endurance sports and — usually! — traveling.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I was born and raised in Italy, then went to college in the UK, in London. In 2002, I joined Campari, a multi-national Italian liquor company, to educate Americans on the beauty of the world famous Italian bitter. After 15 years at Campari, for which I had by that time become CMO, I decided to play my chance and take the entrepreneurial route. With a friend, we set up our own independent business: Wolf Spirit. Together with our team, our purpose is to create and market lifestyle brands that are unique in the US marketplace; we are intent on challenging the status quo.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
It started with a big passion for brands. I’m fascinated by how a brand can transform perception into reality and how people attach themselves to brands, products, and logos. You can create desire for a product in people who never thought they had it in the first place. It’s art, it’s creativity, and it’s magic.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
It’s hard to make funny mistakes when the business is yours, the money comes from your savings, and your reputation is at stake. With that said, the fact that I, a marketer, was able to sell the “incredible” amount of 100 cases of Blood x Sweat x Tears Vodka in my first year, is definitely a fun story amongst the seasoned sales managers I brought in later.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Yes; my business partner and friend, Brian Kirschenmann. He comes from a multi generation family of farmers in Bakersfield, CA and was able to transform his own farm business into one of the top producers of potatoes in the US, and certainly the most innovative one. He believed in me, even after only 100 cases sold. And here we are today, enjoying this magical journey with Wolf Spirit; 3 unique and cult brands, and more fun projects to come.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Setting up a distilling operation is no small challenge. A regulated product like alcohol requires so many steps, controls, safeguards, approvals, that you really need strong determination, patience, and motivation to make it happen, plus the confidence to move forward without having sold a bottle. Then you get into producing the first batches of vodka, and you realize that what is considered a flavorless and colorless product is everything but that. You can get it wrong, it can taste bad, very bad, and you don’t really know why. There is a lot of product that gets thrown away, and it’s a constant try/fail, try/fail, until at some point you see a light at the end of the tunnel. During all this time, money is going out, and there is no money coming in; you are staring bankruptcy in the eyes.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Our success is made possible by our resilient team of crazy yet professional misfits who genuinely believe that we are creating something special, and that the harder you work, the luckier you get.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
We are still in a pandemic, so it’s difficult to be too bullish about the present and future. That being said, amidst the challenging economic climate, we have ended 2020 very close to budget numbers. As for 2021, we are looking at a strong start that, fingers crossed, could take us to another level, more than doubling the business. In the meantime, we were able to keep our employees, without furloughs or layoffs, which basically means that we are managing to keep families out of the economic hardship that millions of households, unfortunately, are going through. Something to be proud of. Fingers crossed, of course.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes us stand out at Wolf Spirit is that we are experienced professionals who are getting our hands dirty developing and launching lifestyle brands that are available at a national level at an affordable price. Puncher’s Chance™ Kentucky Straight Bourbon for example, sold out after only 6 months.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
The usual advice that is given to most entrepreneurs remains very valid:
- If you fail, fail fast.
- Don’t spend too much time on strategy, focus on execution
- Control your cash
- Listen to consumers — up to a point
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Maybe the world is a bit too ambitious, but we are trying to do our part. How:
- BST has partnered with Best Friends Animal Society, a non-profit that has been running the nation’s largest no-kill sanctuary for companion animals
- Our Wolf Spirit Distillery produced and donated hand sanitizer for the entire summer of 2020, at the first peak of the pandemic
- Tom of Finland Organic Vodka is closely tied to the Tom of Finland Foundation (LA-based), a non-profit organization dedicated to promote and preserve Tom’s art, whose work influenced lifestyles, political tolerance, design, fashion and art all over the world. Five-percent of all our sales, go to support The Tom of Finland Foundation.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- It’s more what you don’t know than what you know — I’m no salesman….
- What you know is less than what you think you know — there is a lot that goes into creating lifestyle brands, that shouldn’t be taken for granted. This means that a shelf talker is as important as your website or advertising campaign.
- You can do a lot more work if you know how to say “no.” Limit meetings, limit phone calls, don’t cc people unless you really think they need to see the emails, and ask the same from them.
- Learn how to prioritize everything in your life. The personal space needs to be respected, maintained, it’s what allows you to be at your best at work. Like in sport, the recovery is as important as the training.
- Take 1 through 4 and repeat…..
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
Immensely. I’m more present, I’m more focused, more alert. I feel a lot of pressure, but very little stress. Which translates into a healthier lifestyle overall, and ironically, more balance and optimism. And I’m saying this in the middle of a global pandemic….
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
It’s all about experience. Yes, mistakes certainly help, but they can be costly as well. So, listen, listen, and listen. And then observe, pay attention, be always alert and humble. You have less to lose by doing all that, than by making mistakes.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
1 hour of physical activity a day, 365 days a year. And only Italian food as diet….
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Wolf Spirit Distillery website: https://www.wolfspiritdistillery.com/