How this wine consultant launched her dream business

Jeannine McCallum’s wine sales distribution company The Invisible Agency faced major disruptions over the past couple of years. Now it’s growing steadily and she’s co-founded a new business, Cognoscente Wine Workshop with winemaker Ant Mackenzie.

At a glance

A small business loan from Prospa helped Jeannine to:

  • Hire a small team to help the business grow
  • Buy a new vehicle for the business
  • Co-found a new wine products company with a business partner

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

This comment was one of many that Jeannine McCallum heard from marketers 12 years ago when she announced the name of her wine sales distribution company, The Invisible Agency.

But she stood her ground as the name reflects the kind of concierge service she offers, particularly to restaurants and bars.

“There was this attitude back then of wine makers being rock stars and big booze companies were flashy and intense,” she says. “I wanted to be an invisible link between wonderful products and outlets like gorgeous restaurants and bars.”

Yet while she may not consider herself one, Jeannine is in fact a rock star of the New Zealand wine scene.

She’s worked in the industry in various capacities for around 35 years and built up an extensive network of contacts before launching The Invisible Agency.

The business works with wine importers and local breweries to resell wine to other retailers, wineries and restaurants across New Zealand.

Finding her niche as a wine ‘concierge’

Jeannine found her niche during the Global Financial Crisis when smaller wineries and breweries hired her to help them get to market without having to employ full-time sales representatives.

“The Invisible Agency is a low-risk opportunity,” says Jeannine. “The winery earns from what I sell and there’s no massive capital outlay for them. So we can communicate closely together, work out what’s fitting and they get a great consultant working on their behalf.”

With her focus on hospitality, the pandemic hit Jeannine’s business hard. “Grocery became king more so than ever before as traditional liquor in restaurants and bars was shut down,” she says. “And there I was with 95% of my income coming from the hospitality sector. I tried to get better at selling to the retail sector but quickly realised I needed to hire a sales agent.”

The Invisible Agency 2

Opportunity knocks (and Prospa answers)

In late 2020, an opportunity came Jeannine’s way when winemaker Ant Mackenzie approached her with a proposal to start Cognoscente Wine Workshop, a new venture to create their own wine business and sell directly to local wineries and distributors.

But how could she get the funds to hire a sales agent for The Invisible Agency whilst investing in Cognoscente Wine Workshop?

Jeannine was adamant about not going to a bank for a business loan. “The idea almost made me feel nauseous,” she says. “Not long prior I’d asked my bank for a simple eight-week overdraft and it felt like I was being put through the wringer.”

During a Google search, she found Prospa but admits when she picked up the phone she was expecting to be told ‘no’.

“When I finally called and was greeted so warmly, it felt strangely nice,” she laughs. “Then when I was told they could probably help me and how simple it was to upload my bank statements in real time, I was slightly dumbfounded. I had the funds in less than four hours.”

Just as both businesses were starting to get back on track, more lockdowns hit New Zealand last year, impacting the hospitality industry once again. By this time, Jeannine had hired two more staff members for The Invisible Agency.

“My crew were already proving themselves and there was no way I was going to let them go,” she says.

Meanwhile, new opportunities were coming to Cognoscente Wine Workshop which required Jeannine to invest more money to take advantage of them. “We sold a couple of our wines through an entire vintage faster than we thought,” she explains. “Once you’ve got momentum you can’t let it pass, so I called my Prospa crew to try and keep things rolling.”

Jeannine was able to refinance her loan to pay wages and suppliers for the Invisible Agency and buy a new business vehicle. This gave her the freedom to invest more of her own capital into Cognoscente Wine Workshop.

The Invisible Agency 3

A new way of distributing wine in New Zealand

Cognoscente Wine Workshop has grown, contributing to the overall growth of the wider wine industry as the venture has brought a new way of distributing wine to the market.

“I describe it as from vine to end customer, or from the grape to the glass,” says Jeannine. “We get to do it all with no middle people and no need to buy vines, because we know so many people that make delicious wine. Keeping it in house means bringing amazing-quality product to the customer at a very good price.”

“There wouldn’t be a Cognoscente workshop with me involved if it wasn’t for Prospa.”

At the moment The Invisible Agency is about to enter another huge growth and expansion phase by adding a multi-brand brewery arm.

At some point, Jeannine envisages merging Invisible and Cognoscente together and growing the company into a global brand before handing the baton to younger member of the team in a few years’ time. “Ant and I have the goods, the product and the knowledge together to do big, wonderful things,” she says.

Need flexible access to funds that could help your business grow? Speak with one of our small business lending specialists.

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