Meet Susana Balbo
A conversation with Susana Balbo
Companies: Susana Balbo Wines (http://en.susanabalbowines.com.ar)
Role in the company: Founder
What did you do before deciding to become an entrepreneur? When and how did you know that you wanted to start your own company?
Before starting my company, I worked as a winemaker for 10 years in a wine cellar in Salta, Argentina. I realized that I wanted to be an entrepreneur when I saw how uncertain it can be to have a job in a company. Although the job had been stable for nine years, the company began having problems, and the first expendable variable was the employees. I spent a year without drawing a salary, when I had to support my family. It was at that moment that I decided to return to my city, Mendoza, where I knew more people and knew that I would have more possibilities. And it was there that my first company, Susana Balbo Wines, was born.
The main inspiration to become an entrepreneur was the feeling that I could do much more than just working for another company, since it depended entirely on what I was able to do and to create. Of course, being outside of my comfort zone meant having to work many hours, often sacrificing time with my family, but I really felt that I was in control of my own destiny, my life. I believe that there is no greater incentive than that feeling of freedom. It is very unlikely that things will go badly if you have the knowledge, the idea of what you want to do, and the conviction. The planets align when you work hard.
Describe the process of creating your companies.
In Mendoza we bought a very old wine cellar. We took out a bank loan with which we bought technology, rebuilt the wine cellar, and began to produce high-quality wine. But when we needed more capital to be able to develop the brand and the market, we didn’t get it, which was very difficult. To top that off, in the midst of that first undertaking, I was the victim of fraud. We had bought a surety insurance policy, which turned out to be fake. Luckily, we were able to recover 70 percent of the value of the policy, which enabled us to save costs. We decided to sell the wine cellar, and never again to start a business!
I continued working for other companies as a winemaker and consultant, but four years later, in 1999, I ended up with a new wine venture. With the experience of failure behind me, this time I chose very well the way to start a company: I aimed at the export market, which is much more reliable than the Argentine market, which is more susceptible to internal economic variations. I concentrated on a niche, high-end product, which was much easier for me to sell. I did not build a wine cellar; instead, I rented one. And I went to visit various markets around the world: I started in England, selling the first 1,500 cases. Today, 15 years later, we are exporting more than 222,000 cases to more than 30 countries.
What was the biggest “failure” that you had to confront as an entrepreneur, and what are the main lessons that the experience taught you?
I always say that failures are lessons and new points of departure. The experience that I lived was a new point of departure for me, since it taught me how I should do things. If you ask me what my main failure was, I would say that I did not have any failures, but rather a whole bunch of experiences that pointed me in the direction I should go in with greater assurance in the future. It strikes me that failure is a word that can make you feel you don’t do things well, that can disillusion you, make you feel incapable. On the contrary, when you live it as an experience, that positive energy, that desire to innovate and to do things, generates a greater incentive. Your imagination, your creativity, and your knowledge become a new platform and a new vision of what you want to do, and that is how options emerge.
You can change the sense, but never the direction, which must lead to a clear objective. On some days you may advance a bit, and on others you go backward a bit. But when you go backward, you replenish your army of talent and possibilities. It was in this way that at the end of four years of working as a consultant for other wine cellars, I once again decided to take a chance on something thinking of the future, which will live on after me and will affect future generations.
Where is your company today, and what are your plans for the next five years?
My company is located in Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza one of the best wine-producing regions of Argentina, and very good for the production of Cabernet Sauvignon. We have plans for significant growth in the future, even though in recent years we have been growing more slowly given the prevailing macroeconomic conditions in the country. In recent years, I have taken on the task of preserving the jobs of all of my employees, a very good team, because for me it is a huge responsibility and I consider them family.
When we began in 1999, we were only three people. Today I have 77 full-time employees in the wine cellar, logistics and wine production, and 24 in the hospitality division where we have two new, very successful restaurants. We went from having 300 visitors a year to having 16,000 per year. We are always looking for ways to guarantee our 101-person team the most stability possible, within what is possible in a context of high volatility.
We sell only 2 percent of our wine production in the domestic market. And even though we are in 32 markets around the world, 90 percent of our exports are concentrated in six markets: the United States, Brazil, Canada, England, Benelux, and Asia, mainly China and Hong Kong. The type of wine that we produce is high-end, aimed at restaurants, the hospitality business. Our positioning has been the formation of brand and defense of value added, with high-quality wines and very good performance in the international press.
What advice would you give to a woman who is thinking about starting her own company?
That she always believe in herself. That she be very clear about what she wants, because being focused is fundamental. And that any negative experience, rather than seeing it as a failure, is a new point of departure, a new lesson along the path. We should never forget that life is filled with new lessons: in personal relationships, in love, as well as in relationships with friends. So, why can’t we also have them in our entrepreneurial ventures? We should not think that work or entrepreneurship only brings good news; it can also bring bad news, but the bad news is not going to last forever. It means that there is something to learn, or that there was a limit to our desire, and we have to see how we are going to avoid these limits or dangers. But we should never stop trying, never. I believe that this is a sine qua non condition of women entrepreneurs. We must be optimistic, believe in ourselves, and work for what we believe in.