Robb Denomme attributes the global success of his niche, custom-built wine cellar business to old-school social media.
“Word of mouth really helped us go global,” explains the CEO of Winnipeg’s Genuwine Cellars. “Our clients are extremely wealthy, have friends all over the world and travel in the same circles. We get calls from people who have seen our work and ask if we can do that for them. That’s how it started.”
Genuwine got its start in 1995 on a whim when Denomme’s partner Lance Kingma had an off-the-cuff conversation with a journalist who reviewed wines.
“He joked that he was receiving so many bottles of wine that he would need a home wine cellar,” Denomme says. “Lance told him, ‘no problem, we can do that.’”
He was just 17 at the time, with no experience in either construction or business. However, he had a vision of what the business could be – the best in the world. Twenty-one years and hundreds of Genuwine cellars on five continents later, that vision has materialized.
While it enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the market in its early years, today Genuwine Cellars deals with many competitors aiming to tap into the lucrative business.
“There are competitors that build wine cellars, but we can handle projects others will walk away from –and we take them with a big smile on our face,” says Denomme. “We are at a different level. No matter how difficult, if you can dream it, we will build it. Anything is possible.”
That includes a current two-year project for an international client that Denomme says will top seven figures. When complete, the custom job will be one of the world’s most expensive residential wine cellars. Overall, he estimates the entire home construction cost will reach $1 million.
“We are lucky to have that type of market,” he concedes.
Genuwine Cellars’ journey to securing global projects in the million-dollar range began by perfecting its craft on domestic soil. The company focused on doing projects across Canada – namely Toronto – before looking beyond the 49th parallel.
“The idea that we can do this anywhere really started the growth of our business,” Denomme says. “I decided to see where we could take it. We broke into the U.S. market and it very quickly became our largest market, easily outperforming what we were doing in Canada. Then I thought, how far can we push this – let’s go beyond North America.”
Last year, the U.S. accounted for 40 per cent of total sales with 30 per cent generated in Canada. The remaining 30 per cent were from other markets.
Denomme sums up his global success in a simple sentence: “We went to the U.S. intentionally; the rest of the world has come to us unintentionally.”
Another reason Genuwine is a global leader in its industry is due to the fact that it thinks and executes differently. Creativity and innovation, such as its decision to move away from wood in favour of glass and metal construction, are integral parts of its culture and reflect a constant drive for continuous improvement.
Denomme takes pride in the fact that it is a one-stop shop – from Winnipeg to the rest of the world. Beginning with design and engineering, following through to manufacturing, and concluding with installation, all steps in the construction process are handled by company employees out of its Winnipeg facility.
“That sets us apart. People hire us because we do everything,” Denomme says. “No matter where you are in the world, you work directly with one of our lead designers, and engineers. As well, our specialized craftsmen who build your wine cellar on the factory floor actually install the project in your home.”
But creating works of art for the globe’s affluent from the city of Winnipeg does have its challenges, even if the company does get paid 100 per cent up front – a business practice since it opened its doors. Denomme however, seems to have a way with turning challenges into opportunities.
“Project management when you’re onsite can be really difficult. Project management from Winnipeg to the rest of the world is ten times more difficult,” he says. “We’ve had to become experts in doing it remotely; dealing with virtual reality tours and relying on technology to let you see what’s happening when you’re not there. I’ve literally used my iPhone to troubleshoot.”
Troubleshooting took on a whole different meaning for Genuwine in 2008 during the recession, when the company’s biggest market evaporated in six months.
“The U.S. just stopped,” says Denomme. “That was a huge learning curve for me because until that point, I was never forced to worry about money or deal with banks.”
He put his entire operations under the microscope, “just to stay alive.”
For the first time, Denomme was forced to look at efficiencies, downsizing, introducing new product lines and most importantly, worrying about profit margins. From a market perspective, the downturn was a bit of déjà vu.
“We had to look at the Canadian market all over again,” he says. “I decided to focus solely on Canada and perfect the intricacies of our craft.”
As the global economy slowly overcame the lingering effects of the recession, Genuwine Cellars created and perfected five new product lines of wine cellar accessories and diversified its material base to include metal and glass – initiatives that enhanced the company’s future global appeal.
“That was the best move I ever made,” Denomme adds. “When the U.S. market took off again, so did we. The U.S. market is our largest market, all over again.”
Reflecting on the past two decades, he admits that Genuwine Cellars isn’t working in a typical export market. As a result, the company hasn’t faced the same trials and tribulations other SMEs face when going global. However, Denomme wishes he had adopted the business mantra ‘anything is possible’ sooner.
“I didn’t think that in the first five years of business and it hurt us,” he says. “It hindered our work in the beginning. When I started living by that, and our employees started believing it, it really changed our business for the better.”
That business mantra will be crucial as Genuwine Cellars strives to further define the industry in the future.
“We want to stay at the top the world’s best in custom wine cellars. We want to be what the Bugatti is to the car industry,” says Denomme. “I want the world to want our signature on their wine cellar – when people see it they know it’s a Genuwine Cellar that has both Canadian quality and craftsmanship.”
In his own words, anything is possible.