Q&A: Raise a glass to a career change

This week we chat to Kyla Kirkpatrick, the CEO and founder of Emperor Champagne and The Champagne Dame. A former banker, Kyla’s fascination with champagne led her to give up her successful career and buy a one-way ticket to France to learn all she could about the world of champagne. The Champagne Dame offers masterclasses and curated trips to the Champagne region of France, and Emperor Champagne is an online store selling a huge range of champagnes and glassware with which to enjoy them.

ISB: What was the inspiration behind you giving up a successful career in banking to go into the champagne business?

KK: I first became passionate about champagne in 2005 when I came across an article on Napoleon Bonaparte and his friendship with a young Jean Remy Moët. The complex story and rich history behind champagne captured my imagination, but there was a book in particular which I was really drawn to. The Art and Business of Champagne by Dan Ginsburg combined two of my big interests – business and champagne.

ISB: And please tell us how you made the initial transition and learnt about your new trade.

KK: I decided to handwrite a letter to the author of the aformentioned book, asking him a list of questions. And, and in an unexpected twist, I received a letter back from him inviting me to go to France and study with him. I left my career and bought a one-way ticket to France.

Eight months later I was approached by one of the largest champagne houses in the world and was invited to become a brand ambassador for Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy’s champagne brands. In 2008 I decided it was time to start my own business and that is when my first business, The Champagne Dame, was born.

ISB: What was the biggest challenge you faced in getting the enterprise off the ground?

KK: I think the most challenging aspect of a major career change for most people is pulling out the safety net and letting go of the security of what you know and trading that for the great unknown. An Aussie girl positioning herself as a global leader in this field has certainly been no mean feat but I knew from the beginning that If I wanted to be taken seriously I had to immerse myself in the region, in the culture and in the business of champagne assessing where I could fit and how I could add value.

ISB: What impact did COVID-19 initially have on the business, and how have you pivoted to keep it going?

KK: I have two companies. The Champagne Dame is a presenting and education business built around events, masterclasses and taking private tours to France each year. COVID-19 put a big pause on all of that.

As soon as the crisis started I pulled my team in for a strategy session and we looked at what revenue channels would close and what we could ramp up.

My second business Emperor Champagne has exploded. We are the largest stockist of champagne in the Southern Hemisphere and during COVID our online sales are up 235 per cent on this time last year.

ISB: How do you see the business developing in the next couple of years?

KK: Who would have thought that a pandemic would be the right time to raise capital? When lockdown started, my team and I were simply focused on being able to keep the business going so that we would see a future. But we haven’t just survived, we have thrived under these conditions.

A major French champagne house has been watching our success, in a market where most international industries selling wine and food have come to a standstill, are very keen to help us launch the brand globally. Watch this space.

ISB: And, finally, what is the number one lesson you’ve learnt on your journey you’d share with others looking to give up an established career and start their own business?

KK: If you‘re going to start a business then you need to remember that it is a minimum of three years of hard slog before you should even expect to make money. You need to be prepared to work long hours and not just on weekdays.

I think the best piece of advice that I have taken is actually from Sir Winston Churchill. A man with a love of champagne almost as passionate as mine. He says, “Success is never final. Failure is not fatal. It is having the courage to continue that counts.”

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