This banker retired at the age of 38 to run a winery with his family

Many entrepreneurs will tell you that what they are doing now is not what they initially set out to do. Making major career changes, even mid-career or late-career, can often lead to more satisfying and successful outcomes. That’s what our series The Pivot is all about. Every month, we talk to founders, business leaders, and entrepreneurs about how and why they changed course and found success in an entirely different industry. Here we talk to Karl Coutinho, one of the Nova Scotia-based owners of the winery. Avondale Sky Winery.

my dad emigrated from Uganda to Canada as a refugee when he was 19 years old. He always tells the same story: he arrived in Montreal with his mother and his brothers, and they were all lining up at the stalls from different provinces, but there was no one in line for the Atlantic. provinces. So my dad, as the older brother there, made the decision: “Hey, let’s stand in that row.” And that’s how they ended up in Nova Scotia.

I was born and raised in Halifax. I went to the Sobey School of Business at St. Mary’s University. I started working at TD part-time in 2001 while pursuing my Bachelor of Commerce. I always thought it would be a good idea to understand commerce and finance. After graduating in 2004, I started working full time at the bank as a personal loan specialist.

Eventually, I became a small business and commercial lender. That job opened my eyes to the possibilities of entrepreneurship. I met business owners in many different industries, and they were passionate about what they did. It really stimulated something in me. I thought, “Man, at some point I would love to start my own business.” I wanted to do something different, I just didn’t know what or when that opportunity would come.

A photo of Karl Coutinho with a barrel of wine

A friend of mine is a broker who sells businesses and I was on his email list. One day, I received an email about a warehouse for sale. Avondale Sky Winery, in the Annapolis Valley, occupies 110 acres of land and has nine acres of vineyards. He grows a dozen different varietals, including the unique Amber Drops and several grapes that make up Tidal Bay, the province’s first appellation wine. Nova Scotia is an emerging wine region; the industry brings in $218 million to the province each year, and there’s plenty of tourism to fuel it.

I have always loved wine, but my true passion was doing something with my family. So I pitched the idea to my brother, Sean, my recently retired parents, Louis and Avila, and of course my wife, Jaime. We bought the business for a few million dollars in November 2019. It was worth it.

First, we looked at the assets that we were acquiring. The people were there, including our winemaker, Ben Swetnam, and the vineyard manager, Peter Smits. Then there was the real estate, which consisted of three structures, including the barn on the acreage. Finally, we had inventory, both in tanks and already bottled, that we could still sell in a worst case scenario. When the pandemic hit, we had to shut down production, but we were able to get that stock of wine to market by starting a free delivery service. That immediate turnaround during lockdown gave us some exposure. Once people were allowed to visit us, we had new guests come to see us. We also have a nationwide membership for people who would like to have their wine shipped to them. We’re in a cold climate here, so we really excel at white and sparkling wines.

For the first year and a half, I worked both at the warehouse and at the bank. In June 2021, I celebrated 20 years with TD. It felt like a good reference point, a point where I could look back and say, “I did that.” So I took early retirement from TD at the age of 38. But I definitely haven’t stopped working.

The winery has brought us closer as a family. Visitors always have a point of contact with one of us. If you’re calling for private events, you’re going to talk to me. If you’re checking social media, you’re going to find Jaime. If you’re in the warehouse, you could look for my mom or my brother. And then if you’re in the vineyard, you could see my dad and he’ll give you a tour. We are all hands on deck.

We still have a lot to learn, and we still have a lot of room to grow. But I’m proud that we’re doing it, and that we’re doing it together.

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