Interviews

From telecoms marketing to wine producer: How one SME owner made his dreams come true

7 min read

05 November 2015

It’s the fantasy of hundreds of thousands of Britons – to leave these cold and rainy climes and the drudgery of the corporate world to live good life in the south of France.

Stephen Cronk is living this dream – and he’s established a successful small business into the bargain – called Mirabeau. Having been offered an opportunity of promotion in his role in sales for a big telecoms company, which would have meant more money but also more stress and longer hours, Cronk decided that it was time to change his life.

“My heart was elsewhere and I knew deep inside that I had to follow my passion, which was wine,” he said. “Love what you do, do what you love kind of stuff – and the ambition to create something of exceptional quality.”

He had previously worked for a wine shipping company. He’d also done his wine exams and this provided a good grounding for his new business, as well as a providing him with excellent contacts that he still uses.

The family settled in the commune of Cotignac following advice from an acquaintance who was already very successful in the Provence wine scene. “He told us to go for the whole experience – French school and country life instead of copping out in a city with an expat deal and international schools,” said Cronk. “He suggested Cotignac as a cool village – he lived there temporarily having been evicted rather quickly from his chateau by Brad and Angelina and he had a place where we could probably cope with the transition.”

Rather than buying a vineyard, Cronk started to work with a group of high-end growers to make a unique blend with a group of oenologists. He adopted a strategy of investing in the winemaking business rather than getting too absorbed in the agricultural element immediately. The initial investment of between £1m and £2m came from the sale of the family home in south west London, along with some other possessions.

“We used the power of social media and PR to give ourselves as much publicity on a budget as we could and we’ve used the kind hearts of people we knew in the wine industry to help us along the way,” said Cronk. He sees Mirabeau as not just a wine but also as a lifestyle brand and the marketing messages have focused on that.

“So we won’t just talk about wine, but also how to enjoy life the southern French way,” explained Cronk. “For example, we regularly publish news items that give you great food ideas, tell you about places to visit, profile other producers we love and generally let you catch many glimpses of life in Provence via various media platforms. Our audience and customers are also an essential part of our journey and people really do enjoy that.”

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Mirabeau’s big break came with the signing of a contract with Waitrose. This Cronk achieved, he believes, by not only offering a consistently high quality product, but by using his marketing skills. He also promised them that the label would provide the most innovative and communicative wine brand they have in the category.

“Since we really enjoy communicating with a large audience and have the tools to do it we were able to keep this promise and make sure that demand for Mirabeau has been growing really healthily every year,” said Cronk. “Creating a dedicated following for your product is the basic recipe for a happy buyer and to get re-listed.”

At a time when searches for video online are rising fast, a YouTube clip has also given Mirabeau a major boost. Cronk’s film about how to open a bottle of wine using a shoe went viral with ten million hits. “I had a mate suggest it to me as he’s seen another one that took a long time and wasn’t easily viewable,” said Cronk. “I just wanted to do it for fun and I was totally surprised by its mad success. But it’s helped enormously when it comes to meeting people who have almost inevitably seen it.”

Needless to say, starting a wine label from scratch and moving his family lock stock and barrel to another country hasn’t been without its challenges. The company was sued by Gallo wines over a trademark issue in the US. Cronk also discovered that some of his output had been tampered with and therefore had to be thrown out.  On top of that, he sacked one particular producer only to discover that his car had “died” on the producer’s property. He had to ask the man he’d just severed relations with to kindly tow it away for him by tractor.

That said, the company turned over €1.1m this year and expects to do over €2m in 2016 – and his wine has won several awards, including the Gold and Silver Medal at the Rosé Masters 2014 and this year’s Gold Medal at the prestigious Grand Concours d’Agricole in Paris.

Cronk wants to develop Mirabeau’s markets in the UK, the US and key Asian markets. “We’ll carry on working at being one of the top producers from Provence and we’re hoping to branch out into related products that aren’t well marketed yet like delicious Sparkling Rosé to take the fight to Prosecco,” he said.

Demand for rosé is increasing according to Cronk – and not just for summer. Rosé will be big this Christmas, he predicted. “In the South of France we never stop drinking Rosé, it’s an all year round drink and it is more popular than white wine. It’s also a great partner for turkey!”