By Tina Irgang
As you drive down to the bottom of the hill on which Big Cork Vineyards’ tasting facility sits and get ready to pull back onto the highway, you are greeted by a sign that reads, “Now entering the real world.”
Sure enough, the vineyard, set among the rolling hills of Maryland’s Washington County — about 60 miles from both Baltimore and Washington, DC — feels like an escape. Taking in the fresh air and quiet atmosphere on a crisp winter day, you can see why somewhere between 17,500 and 20,000 local, national and international visitors were drawn to the place last year. You can also see why Randy Thompson chose this site for his passion project — a high-class wine-making operation and tourism destination that now stretches over 35 acres of cultivated land and is still set to grow. (Altogether, Big Cork owns 100 acres.)
Thompson has been president and CEO at energy provider ThompsonGas since 1996. The business was started by Thompson’s grandfather as a single hardware store selling propane in rural Boonsboro, MD, but has grown under Randy Thompson’s leadership into a national powerhouse.
But in 2011, Thompson decided to add something else to his life — something that gave him an opportunity to indulge his social streak. “I love to be around people, especially when they’re having a good time,” he says.
In their free time, Thompson and his wife Jennifer liked to visit the many vineyards of nearby Loudoun County in Virginia. They loved the experience, and Thompson thought the farm they were living on at the time — with its gently undulating landscape that can put you in mind of California’s wine-growing meccas — had the potential to make a great vineyard as well.
It was just a matter of finding the right people to make it happen. “I was able to talk to and bring on board a really, really good winemaker from western Loudoun County,” says Thompson. That winemaker, David Collins, “did some soil testing, and basically came back and said, ‘This is really going to be a rock star venture.’”
And so it has proved. Big Cork’s wines have been winning awards not just in Maryland, but in some of the country’s most prestigious wine competitions. The winery’s 2015 Voignier, for example, won a gold medal in the San Francisco Chronicle’s 2017 contest. In 2015, Big Cork’s 2013 Petit Verdot received the Maryland Governor’s Cup Best in Show.
Financially, too, the vineyard’s future looks bright. The winery’s tasting facility officially opened in January of 2015, and 2017 is when Thompson expects to be making a profit for the first time. “Three years in — I’m pretty happy with that,” he says.
Balancing two businesses
So how does Thompson keep the winery running smoothly, in addition to his existing time commitments at ThompsonGas? “I’ve got people who know a lot more about [wine] than I do,” he says. “The winemaker and his assistant blend the wines, and make sure they’re the best we can possibly produce. I’m very fortunate at how talented both of those individuals are.”
Thompson still considers ThompsonGas his “day job,” and on a day-to-day basis, Big Cork is run by general manager Jed Gray. But every Tuesday, Thompson comes to the winery for about two hours to go over business performance, and anything the team might need from him.
“Of course, there’s always emails going back and forth, but it’s not a huge time commitment because of how well the staff is running the business for us,” Thompson says.
That’s why, for any other CEOs hoping to pursue a passion project, Thompson has this piece of advice: “Make sure you have the right people and are putting them in the right places.”
The other important ingredient, of course, is capital. “Make sure you have the sufficient capital to carry it through the early years,” says Thompson. “This project cost a lot more than even the projections indicated.” Altogether, he estimates, construction, roadwork and landscaping added up to between $5 million and $6 million.
A family business in the making?
Given that ThompsonGas has been handed down over several generations, you can’t help but wonder if Thompson has a similar goal in mind for Big Cork.
“I hope so,” he says. “My wife and I have a 10-year-old son, so he’s not interested in the wine business, although he does like to come out here and dress up in uniform. He learned very quickly that if you serve customers well, they’ll give you a tip — so he likes to come out here and make sure people’s water is topped off.”
So what, exactly, is Thompson’s vision for the future of Big Cork? “The best thing that could happen for Big Cork would be for eight or 10 other vineyards to open up so that this valley becomes a real wine destination,” he says. “This is some of the best wine-growing soil in the state of Maryland, and my vision in doing this project would be fulfilled if I saw this become like a Napa Valley of the East Coast.”
Tina Irgang is the managing editor of SmartCEO. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.