ASTANA – A young Kazakh-born entrepreneur is building a thriving wine exporting business in Spain and striving to make fine Spanish wine available for Kazakh customers.
Shukhrat Khakimov was only 21 and barely spoke any foreign language when he left Kazakhstan in 2009 to study winemaking in Angers (France). The Temirtau native borrowed 600,000 tenge (US$1,800) from parents and friends and took a student loan to pay his expenses and the tuition necessary to earn a master’s degree in the wine business. Throughout his university years, he waited tables, worked in supermarkets and took multiple freelance and clerical jobs to make the ends meet.
As part of the graduate programme, he lived in Spain (Valencia), Italy (Piacenza), Hungary and Switzerland. Khakimov met his future wife Gabriela in France and after graduation they moved to her hometown of Alicante (Spain).
Khakimov is now a co-founder and head of Winexfood (www.winexfood.com), a wine exporting company based in Spain. The self-made entrepreneur sat down with The Astana Times to share his story.
Tell us how you started Winexfood.
I co-founded the company in 2012 together with Spanish investors. The original idea was to export food and agricultural products from Spain, but now we mainly focus on exporting organic Spanish wine and spirits. Initially, the company acted as a trading agent between Spanish producers and Russia’s and Kazakhstan’s markets. Later, we changed our strategy and became a broker firm. Now, we have grown into an exporting firm that has its own trademarks.
There are 5,000 wine producers in Spain and so many more winemaking countries and a great number of distributors. Withstanding the competition and winning a contract with retailers and customers is not an easy task. It was hard at first. When people heard that we were agents, they weren’t impressed, mildly speaking, because the word “agent” had a bad connotation in the 1990’s. The agents were the connecters between buyers and sellers. What we do is different. In just about three years, we earned a good reputation in the industry, returned all the initial investments and became a profitable business.
What does the company do now?
We are a small firm and everyone here is multi-functional. We outsource all the non-core activities like legal, accounting and print services. Our aim is to have fewer assets and increase turnover. The turnover in 2016 totaled over 1.5 million bottles. Our philosophy is building a debt- and loan-free business. We have never taken any loans.
We are a Spanish company and we focus on developing Spanish products. We export naturally fermented wine, beer and distillate. Our commercial catalogue has more than 500 references.
We work with two types of producers. The first ones are small family-owned businesses. They make high-quality, excellent HoReCa (Hotel/Restaurant/ Café) wines. We do not interrupt their unique winemaking technologies that have been historically shaped and improved. We help them with branding and marketing.
The second type of producers is the wine factories that make wines for retail. We create new products to meet the specific needs of retailers, supermarkets, airlines, passenger train carriers and other clients. We first conduct market research; identify local taste preferences, like the preferred sweetness and mineral content in wines. The technologist identifies the right fermentation method. Since recently, we work with several universities in Madrid, Valencia and France to run the necessary laboratory tests. Our products are entirely organic and contain no additives. The team of winemakers ensures this by supervising the quality of grapes and other ingredients. Not only do we monitor the entire wine production, we also oversee the production of bottles and stickers.
What is the company’s mission?
The company’s mission is to make quality wine available to ordinary customers with the minimal profit margin for us. That is why we offer the best value for money and most competitive prices on the market.
I have a special relation with Kazakhstan. I am not interested in mass deliveries for retail there. I want to focus on strengthening and improving the catering businesses. Spain has a great choice of high quality wines. These are not as cheap as wines for retail. They are historically owned and made by families. I want to make these exquisite wines available and affordable for as many people as possible in Kazakhstan.
We also want to ensure these wines are not duplicated on the market. We don’t want to deliver the same types of wine to several restaurants in one city. Restaurants should be interested in having a unique signature wine, one that is not to be found on the wine carts in the nearby store or restaurant in next block. We want to build this type of awareness and mentality among Kazakh caterers.
What are your markets for export?
In addition to Kazakhstan and Russia, we export to Japan, China, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, France, Belgium, Germany, Romania and Ukraine. We haven’t yet opened the markets of Africa and the Americas, but that is to come. It’s an evolutionary process.
I never thought I would be where I am now. I never thought I would be a winemaker. But when the opportunity arrived, I took the chance and that was the most important decision I’ve made.