This is the story of two men, two friends who are thought to be wine connoisseurs, but aren’t. These two men started their company in a garage, exactly like Bill Gates started Microsoft. And they expanded, not throughout the world, but into all corners of Germany. And although they don’t work in information technology or with computers, their success story also changed an entire industry.
It is the story of Jacques Héon and Olaf Müller-Soppart, who started their own wine shop 40 years ago: Jacques’ Wein-Depot. In Germany, there are now more than 280 branches, and the chain generated more than €130 million in net sales in 2013. Both of the founders have since left the company, and it now belongs to the publicly listed Hawesko. During a visit to their first store in Düsseldorf, they reminisced about their beginnings.
“At that time, the wine bottles simply stood in cartons on palettes,” said Jacques Héon, the namesake of the chain, showing bottles on the shelves. In 1974, that was a revolution, because at that time in Germany only expensive fine wines or “very cheap sauces” were available, explained co-founder Mr. Müller-Soppart, 80.
In Germany there are now more than 280 branches, and the chain generated more than €130 million in net sales in 2013.
Their business plan was to sell an affordable everyday wine, the kind that the French drink daily with dinner. They wanted to offer these for sale through tastings and without taking the indirect route through retailers and larger stores.
And that worked. Mr. Héon, who after studying at the Grande Ecole in France and working in marketing in Paris, fell in love with a woman from Cologne and moved with her to Germany. He returned to his home country to find the wines and try them out. “One cannot buy wine without tasting it,” he said, stating his philosophy.
Neither of men, who still are tennis partners, wanted to be wine connoisseurs. “I had no idea about wine,” said Mr. Héon, speaking German with a slight French accent. “But we knew how to bring products to consumers,” said Mr. Müller-Soppart.
Both men emphasize that Jacques’ Wein-Depot was the marketing idea of two business graduates, not the life-long dream of a two wine fanatics.
“That was a completely new type of wine store,” said Pit Falkenstein.
Mr. Falkenstein, who writes about wine for Handelsblatt, knows the industry and the two founders of Jacques’ Wein-Depot.
“They influenced the drinking habits of Germans.” Mr. Falkenstein said that before Jacques’ time there were only “very sweet” wines in Germany. The Wein-Depots were the first to bring in dry French wine, which was also affordable. “At the beginning, the industry didn’t take them seriously,” said Mr. Falkenstein. “At some point they had to.”
“I had no idea about wine. But we knew how to bring products to consumers.”
After about six years, the founders sold their business. “The more Depots we had, the more we had to organize,” said Mr. Müller-Soppart. “We wanted to keep our freedom.” They stayed for two years on the advisory board.
After the sale the two went their separate professional ways, but both remained loyal to the industry. Mr. Héon, for instance became an adviser. The 77-year-old is currently working on the project “Vino zero,” namely a wine with the lowest possible alcohol content.
The question remains: How can one be so dependent on wine, without becoming dependent? The answer: Mr. Müller-Soppart does not drink alcohol anymore, because of his age. And on this visit Mr. Héon sipped a glass of juice instead. And what about all of those wine tastings? “I always spit the wine out,” he said indignantly. “Otherwise one would become an alcoholic.”
The author joined Handelsblatt as an editor in 2013 after studying economics and graduating from journalism school in Cologne. She works in Dusseldorf as a reporter. To contact her: email@example.com