How does one rescue 300 stranded workers from North Sea oil platforms in a snowstorm? William Amelio, chief executive officer of Canada-based CHC Helicopter knows -- and earlier this year he used the answer to talk about leadership in front of 30 members of a new club, the International Business and Wine Society.
At the industrial-chic Bouley Test Kitchen loft in downtown New York, the diners plied Amelio with questions, then succumbed to a serious tasting of Chateau Palmer's silky-textured red Bordeaux with winemaker Thomas Duroux.
In the background, Michelin-starred chefs David Bouley and Anita Lo whipped up the evening's six-course menu.
The Society hosts monthly dinners where club members talk about business, get an exclusive themed wine tutorial, and chow down on imaginative cuisine. Founder Omar Khan, senior partner of global consulting firm Sensei International, is betting this unique mix is what today's high-powered networkers want. His goal is to launch 15 to 20 for-profit Business & Wine Society clubs, with 100 to 200 members each, in the world’s key cities.
Launched last September in New York, the Society opened in Hong Kong in February and expects to expand into London by the end of the year.
Challenging Conventional Wisdom
Is it worth the $5,000 membership fee? Before attending the dinner, I was dubious, my low expectations fueled by too many boring wine club events where pontificating snobs name-drop what's stashed in their cellars.
Khan, a dedicated wine and food gourmand who looks the part, likes to challenge conventional wisdom.
"It's true that hobbyist wine societies frown on discussing business, so dinner talk is fake and full of inanity," he says. "And thought-provoking business talks usually take place in solemn surroundings with bad food.’"
He's convinced combining the cerebral and the hedonistic at the Society's dinners facilitates wider-ranging, more "holistic" conversations as well as that big business essential: networking.
In Hong Kong, the June dinner at the Mandarin Oriental featured Bordeaux first growth Chateau Margaux. Michel Dallemagne, Global Vice President of Unilever Hair Category, discussed his company's turnaround strategies.
Serial entrepreneur David Rose advised on angel investing at the summer New York event at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and in September, the New York group will gather at new restaurant The Gander where opinionated John Gilman, publisher of collector newsletter "View from the Cellar" will explore the theme of "iconic" vs. "trophy" wines.
Khan modeled his Society on Le Wine and Business Club, a militantly French members-only networking group started in Paris in 1991 by entrepreneur Alain Marty. It too blends business talks, wine tastings, and gastronomy at monthly get-togethers, and now boasts 20 chapters in French-speaking Europe. Khan describes its membership as "high-testosterone."
Khan says his Business and Wine Society has a different tone than the French club. "We're after more diversity and intimacy," he says. "We want members who are at different stages of their careers."
One of my dinner seatmates, Peter Kenny, is one of the youngest, a 32-year-old vice president in asset management at a New York investment bank, who considers the fee an investment in his own future.
"Knowledge of wine is part of the DNA of the business community," he said. "This is a way for me to learn and get comfortable diving into wine conversations in a business context -- it’s another arrow in my quiver."
Clearly he'd already mastered the basics -- he sniffed and swirled expertly and knew wine lingo. The serious collectors in the group seemed almost avuncular, eager to pass on their knowledge in a low-key way, so no one seemed out of his or her depth.
Mercifully, this is not a one-upsmanship crowd.
A Bonding Experience
In between tales of his risky investment in a French truffle farm and truffle dog, Christophe Thomas, a portfolio manager at Birch Grove Capital in New York, reminded me how important enjoying a great dinner together is to business people in France. Thomas, of course, is French.
I'm with him. Dinner as bonding experience is far more civilized, in my view, than hanging from a rope in some terrifying team-building mountain-climbing endeavor.
The power of networking attracted David Wolf, a former senior executive of The Walking Company who now runs a family office.
"When you meet people around a table, relationships are quite different from day one," he explained. "If you've shared an incredible experience like this dinner, I've found people will take your call, even if you're reaching out to them for the first time."
The protein-rich Bouley menu was delicious overkill: sea urchin, langoustines topped with truffle shavings, sautéed sweetbreads, rack of lamb, venison glazed with cocoa and a cheese from Sonoma, all washed down with stellar vintages of Palmer. The best? Long, deep, luscious 1990 ($360, retail).
Considering that the six-course tasting menu at Bouley restaurant is $175 and the evening's 10 wines, direct from the chateau, would cost $200 a bottle and up, the $495 dinner price did not seem out of line.
At the end of the evening, the Society's networking possibilities showed up big-time at my table.
One of my tablemates, John Heilshorn, a partner in investor relations firm LHA, slid his card to the night's speaker, Bill Amelio. "When you decide to bring your business into the U.S.," he says, "Let me know. I have access to 50 helicopters in New Jersey."