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Striking all the right business chords

Once a touring musician, Conrad Hunter has made the smooth transition into wine expert

Summary

From a touring musician to a connoisseur of wine, Conrad Hunter ventured into wine selling and later opened an award-winning cocktail lounge. With the right business card in his wallet, here’s how Hunter has been striking all the right business chords.

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Conrad Hunter

Conrad Hunter

Before entering the rarefied world of retail wine sales with Foxcroft Wine Co., Conrad Hunter had spent the first half of his life immersed in something totally different: music. In the 1980s and 90s, he was a professional touring musician and even opened his own recording studio.

“Having a wife and two kids changed that!” says Hunter. “The lifestyle forced me to seek a more profitable direction, but the only other thing I was passionate about was wine. So, I went to work for a distributor to learn the ropes. After six years in wholesale, I decided to try my hand as a retailer. By nature, I like being my own boss, so in 2004, I opened my first shop.”

That first Foxcroft Wine Co. was so successful that Hunter branched out into multiple locations in North and South Carolina. He then took the enterprise a step further and launched a sister business – the award-winning Dot Dot Dot, Charlotte’s classic cocktail lounge.

Here’s how Hunter has been striking all the right business chords, and the way he’s been integrating a Business credit card into his arrangements.

See related: A hobby turned home-run business venture

Let’s go way back to the start of Foxcroft – was it easy or tough to open its doors?

In the beginning, I did everything – and I mean everything – for Foxcroft. I’m sure this is the story for most small business owners because that’s what it takes to make your business successful. Later, it’s learning how to let go of a lot of things and knowing when to delegate.

That doesn’t mean I was prepared for everything, though. I was caught off guard by the cash flow aspect of running this type of business. There is a tremendous amount of hidden costs involved that most consumers have no idea about.

So you used credit cards? Please tell me about that.

When I first started Foxcroft, credit cards were part of the equation and they helped me manage the cash flow dilemma. I put a lot of expenses on them, though I also used leasing companies for big-ticket items.

Now, with multiple locations, we keep a debit card for each store as well as a companywide credit card. I use the Visa Business Credit Card from Pinnacle Bank. I like to keep a fairly large amount of cash in each business, so if I need a particular piece of equipment (or more recently, a bathroom remodel), I charge it and then pay it off over a few months.

I also get points by using this card. They’re an added value, and I usually take them in the form of cash back that I apply against the balance.

What types of expenses do you typically charge?

All kinds of things. We use the card to buy accessories, kitchen equipment replacements, furniture and fixtures. I also use it when I’m on a business or buying trip.

How have you been handling the financial aspects of your operation?

I was overextended in the early life of the business. Of course, each time I’ve opened a new location, the cost of that can be anywhere from $800,000 to $1.3 million – but that’s a different kind of debt. You have to be able to compartmentalize that or you’d never sleep at night.

My background as a musician has taught me to stay out of debt when possible. I’m frugal by nature, so I always strive to keep the credit card debt down.

What’s in store for your brand?

Foxcroft is both steady and expanding. My plan is to open five more locations over the next five years. But I’m also working on an exit strategy with my financial advisor.

I plan on working with my key employees so they can take over the helm in another six years. I realized that if I want to grow and later sell my business, it can’t be all about me or depend on me as a figurehead for the business to be successful. When I retire, I plan on getting back to the other thing I love, which is music. But this time, not make a living at it.

See related: Startup vs. small business: what’s the difference, why it matters

Looking back over the past 16 years, is there anything youd like to do over?

I wish I had trusted in my own abilities as a business owner earlier in life. In most instances, our own fears and doubts are what hold us back from success. I’m sorry, did that sound like a motivational talking point?

What have you learned about borrowing money along the way? 

Don’t drink your own Kool-Aid. Always think things through and be realistic if you can afford it. Do things because they make sense for your business, not just because you want something.

Try to pay off balances as quickly as possible. Long-term debt, like opening a new location, requires more patience. You can keep a line of credit open for unforeseen circumstances.

Always make sure to never exceed your cash flow. But if you do carry debt, have a timeline for how and when you want to pay it off.

Any final words of advice to entrepreneurs who are just starting out?

Surround yourself with good people. Find an advisor you can trust to keep your feet on the ground. Don’t be afraid to walk away from something that is not a good deal.

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