A trio of graduate students in VCU’s School of Business is helping a Greek vintner uncork the U.S. market.
Kristina Friar, Matt Guise and Jonathan Stoffer, three students in the school’s executive MBA program, spent the past year developing a go-to-market strategy for Chimera sparkling wine, marketed by Athens-based Oinovation.
Nikos Kavounis, founder of Oinovation – its name a combination of “innovation” and “oinos,” the Greek word for wine – met the students last year at a business incubator when they visited Greece through the school’s “Global Challenges” program. The trips expose students to facets of international business and tasked them with helping entrepreneurs and startups with various challenges.
The challenge for Kavounis was how to market Chimera, a sparkling wine infused with organic saffron, to U.S. importers and distributors. Through the strategy the students developed, Kavounis was connected with three importer-distributors, including Richmond-based Athinian Imports Inc.
Kavounis arrived in the country last month to meet with Athinian CEO Spiros Flemotomos, who arranged tastings with buyers for eight Kroger grocery stores in the Virginia Beach area, five of which expressed interest in carrying Chimera. Kavounis also met with a Washington, D.C.-based importer before leaving this week to meet with a company in California.
When he heads back to Europe in March, Kavounis will leave with commitments from multiple grocery stores and restaurants, including some in the Richmond market. He said Chimera’s distinctive painted-glass bottles could start appearing on local shelves in May.
Kavounis said Friar, Guise and Stoffer saved him unknowable amounts of money, time and effort helping with paperwork and developing the strategy based on their respective backgrounds in marketing, finance and operations.
“They did a magnificent feasibility study giving fantastic insights,” said Kavounis, whose has previously done marketing for Jagermeister in Europe.
“They also communicated (with) and made meetings in person with the distributors, and they passed the contacts. And from my side, step by step, I started to interact with those guys and made the bureaucratic papers to enter the U.S. market.”
Guise, who is in his day job a global payments manager with Capital One, said he and his classmates pulled from their respective professional and social networks to find the right contacts for Kavounis to meet. Through their research and cold-calling, they identified more than 40 prospective distributors throughout the country.
One priority was raising consumer awareness of Greek wine varieties, which Stoffer, a hospital manager at VCA Inc., said are not well known – or well stocked – in the U.S.
“Just walking into Total Wine, you see all the other countries and all the other wines, and the Greek section is a tiny little section. There’s not much variety,” Stoffer said.
As they developed their study and marketing strategy, the students stayed in touch with Kavounis over email initially, then through weekly Skype sessions at 5 in the morning – the only time they could meet, Friar said, while juggling school, work and family across two continents.
“We really are quite busy, but this was a big priority project for us,” said Friar, a marketing and PR specialist with the Richmond Retirement System.
Friar said they connected with Kavounis thanks to faculty advisor Greg Waller, an associate professor with the School of Business who arranged for the students’ trip to the business incubator in Greece.
Jayaraman Vijayakumar, associate dean of graduate programs for the School of Business, called the collaboration a success story for the “Global Challenges” program.
“Besides providing students with a valuable learning experience, projects such as these really show the human and real face of business,” he said.
And while they were not paid for their work, the students did walk away with an A on the project – as well as a healthy supply of sparkling wine.
Recalling their trip back from Greece, Stoffer said, laughing: “I know my suitcase weighed about 100 pounds.”