The skills that future wine leaders need

Friday, 15. July 2016 - 11:30

Weincampus Neustadt

Dr Marc Dressler doesn’t look like an ex-banker. For a start, he’s not wearing a suit. He’s affable and open, and casually dressed, sipping a coffee in the pretty Baroque town of Neustadt-an-der-Weinstrasse. “I worked in Deutsche Bank, then at Dresdner Bank,” he says, when asked about his qualifications. He ticks off a list of accomplishments: an MBA from Vermont, a PhD in material organization theory, then a career in business consulting along the way. He’s taught in European business schools, and in the USA.

Eventually he got fed up with the long hours that corporate life involves. “I said, ‘this is not sustainable’,” says Dressler. And then, like so many before him, he decided that wine could be the right sector for him.

Except unlike other ex-bankers, Dressler didn’t open his own winery. Instead, he’s joined the faculty at Weincampus Neustadt and is about to start teaching their new MBA in Wine, Sustainability and Sales. He sees it as an opportunity to remedy a major problem – a too-heavy emphasis on the production side of the wine trade, and not enough on the business and financial side.

“In the wine industry, you have category management on one side and the entrepreneur on the other, and the entrepreneurs think they’re professional, but they’re not,” says Dressler. “Even the very successful entrepreneurs have reached a level where they need more professionalism, and they need an objective way.”

As an increasing number of players enter the market, and existing companies begin to consolidate, rivalry within the industry is increasing, while navigating the distribution bottleneck is becoming extremely challenging. “A lot of people are happy when they get a contract with Aldi – until they deliver and realise they haven’t made a profit,” says Dressler.

The idea for the MBA came about after Dressler attended a conference in the future of wine education, held in Sonoma in 2013, where it became clear that the wine trade is facing a skills gap in key areas, from strategy to finance to international negotiating. The response was to develop a syllabus that will combine wine and wine production subjects with classic business training.

“How do you manage operations? What does it mean to be ‘innovative’?” Dressler puts his coffee cup down. “Everybody says we have to be innovative, but I say: Is it going to be profitable?” Dressler thinks the future leaders of the wine trade need to understand finance and forecasting. “What happens if next year I have ten percent less volume than this year? You have to be capable of calculating out your ideas.”

When the idea of creating a wine-specific MBA was raised, Dressler wasn’t sure wine companies would be interested enough to send their staff along. So he went and canvassed a number of wineries, to get an idea of what the likely response would be. He laughs. “I expected them to say no!” he says. “But they said, ‘That would be a great idea and I would like my son or daughter to do that’.”

After three years of developing the course, the MBA is ready to launch on 1st September 2016. It will take four semesters to complete, with the course being offered in English, mostly via distance education. Students will come together in one two-week block each semester.

As well as Dr Dressler, instructors include Professor Dr Armand Gilinsky from Sonoma State University, Professor Hildegarde Heymann from University of California Davis and sommelier Markus del Monego MW, among others.

Weincampus Neustadt, situated near Neustadt-an-der-Weinstrasse in the Rheinland Pfalz, Germany, is a joint project of the universities of Ludwigshafen, Kaiserslautern, and Bingen, in conjunction with the state of the Rheinland Pfalz.

“I think the attraction will be partly the locations, like Kloster Eberbach,” says Dressler. “The locations are a mix of the traditional and trendy.”

The cost is €3,500.00 per semester, or €14,000.00 in total and the syllabus has a strong emphasis on economic, social and environmental sustainability, as well as international wine markets, consumer research and sensory training. And, of course, there will be finance and sales, a subject in which Dressler is extremely well versed.

As he finishes his presentation, he asks me for thoughts on my own professional development. When I tell him, his eyes widen. “You’re perfect for our course! You should enrol,” he says.

And I’m seriously tempted. Dressler may be an ex-banker, but he’s just demonstrated he's also a formidable salesman – and that’s a skill from which the wine business could certainly benefit.

Felicity Carter

Applications close on 31 July 2016. It is open to international students.