The Expat: Labid Al Ameri

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From: Kuwait-born Iraqi
Lives in: Tupungato, Mendoza
Age: 41
Profession: CEO and co-founder of Domaine Bousquet winery
Education: MBA, Boston University
Just read: Steve Jobs
Last film seen: March of the Penguins
Gadget: iPad

It’s not every day an investor takes an about-turn, career wise, to become a farmer, but then there can’t be that many Iraqi winemakers in the world, let alone in Argentina.

Yet Labid Al Ameri took that decision with his French wife Anne, who he met in Minnesota, to up sticks from Brussels and move to Tupungato in Mendoza in 2009; four years on they run Argentina’s 20th-largest winery.

Labid says: “The first time I visited Argentina was in December 2001, right before the crisis of De La Rúa and the devaluation. My wife and I were living in Boston as I was working as a sales trader taking care of international markets, while Anne is an economist. We came here to visit Jean, Anne’s father, who had moved to Argentina. He’d sold all of his wine assets in France and moved to Tupungato. And we really fell in love with the place — the mountains and the spirit of a new country. There are a lot of businesses setting up, and I really got a feeling of entrepreneurship here — everyone has the idea of ‘I want to do something.’ I liked that a lot.

“So we went back to Boston and carried on with our lives, but we always thought about Argentina. Then, in 2004, we visited again and after more talks with Jean, we were convinced we wanted to do something in Argentina. I left my job and my wife was moved to Brussels for work, and so we started our wine business from Europe. We built a winery that same year with Jean and started distribution, commencing with 10 containers the first year and 30 the following year, finally reaching 250,000 cases last year, which has made us number 20 in Argentina. It’s a family-owned winery, without any foreign investment, and it’s taken us just six years to reach those numbers.

“Then three years ago, Anne’s dad wanted to retire so we bought his shares, and now we own the company with my brother-in-law. By this point we had already moved to this little town for a really different life, combining an agricultural company with finance.”

Although Labid has moved around a lot — born in Kuwait, he moved to Spain aged 10, went to study in the US as a young man for his MBA, then spent time in Europe — this ability to adapt to different climates, cultures and attitudes has helped him in this latest venture. So although he and Anne were keen to make the move and have a complete lifestyle change in Argentina, they bided their time in order to set their business model.

Labid says: “It was the last year before coming here as I knew I needed to be in Brussels to create a good market but also create a good product but five years ago, when we moved, the biggest challenges was to maintain quality. That would have meant losing trust with our new clients. That was when we moved to Argentina.”

Although some winemakers prefer to live a more cultured lifestyle away from Mendoza, perhaps choosing to reside in Buenos Aires, that was never an option for Labid.

“A lot of people do that but I wanted to make sure I was there watching everything and correcting things. Otherwise the business wouldn’t have the best quality and best efficiency that it requires. We only have this business and we really want to teach quality and high standards, as we’ve started it from scratch.”

Of course, setting up shop in a new country has its high and lows, but Labid sees most things as a positive experience.

He says: “Argentina is a really challenging country, and it’s not about complaining but all the bad things we’ve gone through helps me to be a better businessman. There are a lot of challenges here but all the mistakes make it a better company, and me a better winemaker. The country, the industry, they challenge you all the time. You have to learn from the culture, understand the culture and not criticize the culture.

“Argentines are like little chameleons, they adapt to bad times and good times, and the history of this country is full of both things. So you really need to say how they adapt well and learn from it. When good times come, it’s just amazing. Of course there’s a lot of risk in this country, but there are also a lot rewards. If we wanted to set up a business like this in Europe, it would take a lot longer to be successful than in Argentina. It’s taken just seven years, in Argentina, for someone like me with zero background in winemaking and the wine industry, where most of my competitors have years of experience — but we’ve succeeded! And that could only happen in Argentina — it really is a land of opportunities.”

And given that the family had spent a long time preparing to live in Mendoza, when it came to the crunch, Labid says it was a no-brainer, for him.

“It was an easy decision to move for me — maybe it was hard for my wife as she was used to living in the US and in Europe, but we knew that if we wanted our own business, we would need to make some sacrifices. Of course it’s easier to live in Brussels than in a little town like Tupungato, but our energy comes from the fact that we are building our little baby, our company. And that makes me happy, to wake up every day and build my business. I enjoy it.”

In fact, those earlier experiences of living in Spain helped Labid a lot in terms of adapting to Mendoza. “Spanish culture is very similar to Argentina’s — it’s not the same but that helped me enormously to adjust. It wasn’t like someone coming from Sweden who has to learn the language and the culture. Learning the language doesn’t mean you understand the culture so even though I needed two or three years to adjust, it wasn’t as hard for me as for other foreigners.”

Talking about his daily schedule, Labid says his days are a lot longer here than in Europe. “I might start work at eight in the morning and finish and 10 at night. I don’t know why it’s like that but it is! In Europe you’d never go home at 10 at night — it would be weird! We live seven kilometres from the vineyard so it’s a five-minute drive away.

“What I love most about the wine-producing process is the grapes. I love them. My background has always been about cities, but now I live in the countryside and it’s fantastic. I love the vineyards, and I love to see the grapes being treated well. We practise organic agriculture so if we treat the land and the soil with respect, the land will give us its best fruit. And we see that everyday.

“I have to say, I never thought I’d end up working in this industry, living in this town! I always thought I’d be living in a fast-paced place, in a city. I’m a cultural person and like to talk to people. But with this job now, I still get to do that as I travel once a month to Asia, Europe or the US, and that’s very important.”

As for his spare time, Labid likes to hang out with friends, who are a veritable mixture of nationalities.
“I like to be outdoors and go for a run and do sport. I also like to be with friends and have them over at weekends, to talk. A lot of my friends are like me who have wineries, but they are both foreigners and locals. There are Brazilian, Italians, Spaniards, French, North Americans — and that’s really rich as everyone learns from everyone else. It’s like being at Harvard Business School in a class of 20 with 20 different nationalities, ensuring everyone has a different opinion. And that’s why Argentina and its wine business, in the past 15 years, became so successful in the world.”

And although his daughter was born in Brussels, he says she is the only native speaker in the family. “She doesn’t have an accent speaking Spanish, so she is the only local!” he jokes. “It’s like the United Nations in our family so we never agree on anything! In fact, we are all chameleons too — my daughter goes to France or Spain and she loves it there but she also loves Argentina. We have all adapted, and we recognize that trait so much that we named one of our wines Chameleon. Take the Malbec plant — it’s really a French grape that has adapted here, so it is another chameleon, like all of us.”

Buenos Aires Herald, November 9, 2013
Ph: Diego Kovacic

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