August 16, 2010
Ben Sharp ('99) Follows Winding Career Path to Dream Job
Anderson grad uses MBA skills to launch Captûre Wines
Ben Sharp spends his days on the phone telling people about Sauvignon Blanc wine from Captûre Wines in Healdsburg, California. It's exceptional wine with a great story that begins even before Sharp earned his MBA at UCLA Anderson. It's a story of a young man with a degree in literature from Duke University who patiently navigated the financial world before seizing a rare opportunity to revitalize a 150-year-old vineyard and produce world class wines.
After graduating from Duke, Sharp put writing ambitions aside and landed a job in business development with Merrill Lynch. He found this to be a great environment for learning lessons that would serve him well down the line. "I really learned how business works," he said. "I learned finance, product development, sales and customer service."
After three-and-a-half years at Merrill Lynch, Sharp moved to Solomon Smith Barney where he spent two more years building his skills and resume. Then, Sharp felt the need to make a change in his career. He left the financial world, moved to Colorado and reflected on what he wanted to do for the next five years. He wrote and climbed mountains.
"I felt that I had become too focused on financial markets," he said. "I wanted to do something that better reflected my upbringing and interests." A strong sense of curiosity compelled him to see what other career options might be available. He considered getting an MBA and sent a round of applications to business schools. He pondered joining the Peace Corps. After six months and much consideration, Sharp enrolled at UCLA Anderson. He was particularly attracted by the entrepreneurial focus of the Price Center. "I was starting to realize that I wanted to have my own business," he said.
Sharp found two courses particularly compelling at UCLA Anderson. One was Marketing Management where he gained a broader perspective on what it means to create and nuture a successful product or brand. The other was Business Strategy where he learned to recognize opportunities for business creation and development. "Those two courses really gave me the foundation I needed to start a business," he said.
"Al Osborne was my field study advisor and I took Entrepreneurial Ventures with him," said Sharp. "He said, ‘Look, these are the pieces you need to start a business and this is how you put them together. You can project where that business is going and figure out what success will look like in three to five years.'"
Sharp also joined a program at Anderson that took him to visit CEOs every few weeks. "We learned about different businesses and saw how to put theory into practice. I learned that, regardless of the industry, the principles are the same. It's about chemistry on the management team. It's about clarity of vision. It's about creating a sound business plan. It's about understanding your market and your customers. The basics are the same no matter what you are doing. Those experiences were critical for me."
"Candidly," he continued, "the most important thing about Anderson for me was the relationships. The courses were wonderful but you're also building relationships that last a lifetime. I still get together regularly with a bunch of my classmates."
Coming out of Anderson, Sharp joined the Mitchell Madison Group (MMG), a global management consulting firm based in San Francisco. "It was like an extension of business school," said Sharp. "We worked in teams on fascinating projects with some of the best businesses in the world."
But MMG folded in 2001 - a casualty of the dotcom collapse. Like many of his classmates in that difficult year, Sharp was suddenly without a job.
"I went through my second self-evaluation period," he recalls. Looking for a new vision for his future, Sharp went through his Rolodex and began calling friends and acquaintances to find out what they were doing. One call was to a former ambassador to Spain who Sharp had met through his father. The conversation piqued Sharp's curiosity about Spain and prompted another hiatus for travel and reflection.
"I bought a one-way ticket to Madrid and rented a 600 square-foot flat with two other guys," he recalled. Sharp traveled around Spain and wrote about his experiences. "I really wanted to get to know Spain. And I found a writer's voice that I hadn't had in ten years."
Sharp's connection with the former ambassador led to a volunteer position with an organization called FRIDE, which is also known as the Club of Madrid. The organization is a collaboration among former heads of state to advance democracy among developing nations.
"It was a life changing experience," said Sharp. "I got to meet about 25 former heads of state. They were working to help nations write constitutions and create the infrastructure for democracy. Of course they use the U.S. Constitution as a blueprint. It was fascinating just being in the room and listening to these conversations."
As much as he enjoyed Spain, Sharp felt that his future remained in the Bay Area so he began looking for work there and planning his return. "I love the Bay Area," he said. "I love the sense of creativity and innovation both in Silicon Valley and north of the bridge. So I looked for a job in strategic marketing."
Less than a month after returning to San Francisco, Sharp found an opportunity at Charles Schwab. During that time, he met Tara, his future wife.
With extensive background in the wine industry, Tara introduced Sharp to industry leaders including Jess Jackson, founder of the well-known Kendall-Jackson Winery. "Jess offered me a job," recalled Sharp. "He called me the day after Thanksgiving and it was one of the most memorable conversations in my life. He said, ‘Ben I'd like to offer you a job. I'd like you to work for me.' I said, ‘Great, what am I going to do?' And he, ‘Well I'm not sure but we'll figure it out.' And I said, ‘How much am I going to get paid?' He said, ‘I don't know that either.' And I said, ‘I accept.'"
Thus began Sharp's apprenticeship under an icon in the wine business. He attended meetings with Jackson, traveled with him and looked at all the business deals that came across his desk. With the title managing director of Kendall-Jackson, Sharp learned the wine business.
After a year and a half, Jackson asked Sharp to find himself a job in the organization. Rather than finding one, he created one by developing a wine country experience called Fifth Leaf. It was like a backstage pass to wine country. Guests were invited to tour the vineyards and meet the winemakers.
But, after a year or so, Jackson told Sharp that the project was not big enough. "Jess likes to build $100 million businesses and this looked to be a $10 million business,'" said Sharp. Asked to find another role for himself at Kendall-Jackson, Sharp decided it was time to leave. Now married, Ben and Tara Sharp started a consulting firm. They soon found clients in and out of the wine business.
Toward the end of 2007, the Sharps were introduced to Mike Foster who was considering buying the historic Tin Cross Vineyards in Sonoma County and wondered whether it had commercial potential. It took Ben and Tara less than two months to develop a compelling business plan for restoring the vineyards and making ultra premium wines. Foster acquired Tin Cross Vineyards and the Sharps joined him in creating Captûre Wines.
One of the first steps was to find the winemaker. "We did a lot of research to find someone who could make the kinds of wines that suited our vineyard," he recalled. They made a list of three or four names and Tara Sharp reached out to the first choice, Denis Malbec, a well-known vintner from Bordeaux. She left a voicemail message that was unanswered for a week. Then, they received a call from Denis' wife May-Britt. It turned out they would love to come and learn about the new winery.
A shared vision quickly developed when the Malbecs toured the vineyards and listened to the Sharps describe the Captûre brand. "We just hit it off," said Ben. Denis and May-Britt both joined the young venture to oversee winemaking.
Denis brought traditional Bordeaux winemaking practices. "There's a certain way of making wine in Bordeaux," Sharp explained. "It's how you irrigate. How you prune. How you sort your fruit. What yeast you use. What kind of barrels you use. We think that Bordeaux winemaking traditions work best with our site and with the kind of wines we're trying to make."
The Sharps then invited grape grower Glenn Alexander to visit the vineyard. "When he met Denis Malbec," recalled Sharp, "they each pulled out their clippers and talked about how to shape a vine. Within a half hour, we were done. The team was set."
The existing grapes on the estate yielded 500 cases of Sauvignon Blanc in the spring of 2009. The wine was custom crushed under Malbec's supervision at a nearby winery and was well-received by customers and critics. Captûre is already in almost half the Michelin star-rated restaurants in the Bay Area. Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux wines will be released in the spring of 2011.
Malbec says there are dozens of inflection points in the winemaking process where quality can be gained or lost. "We have agreed to choose quality whenever possible," said Sharp, who believes that the relatively high-altitude of the vineyard and the diversity of soils on the property will also contribute to exceptional wines. "We discovered 17 different soil types on the property," said Sharp. "That is tremendous diversity. It's like having a wonderful broad palette from which to pick colors."
Sharp says that the wine business combines the mix of creative and business challenges that appealed to him as he pondered career options over the years. "This is truly what I have always wanted to do," he said. While serving as CEO of Captûre Wines, he is also raising a seven month-old daughter and competing in triathlons. But should he ever desire new challenges, Sharp says he is prepared to take a bit more time out from his career to travel, write and reflect. "I really hope to do that again someday," he said.Contact Information
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