Anthony Von Mandl: Dream achiever

Anthony von Mandl has helped put the Okanagan Valley on the world wine map while building an empire that generates $500 million in annual sales

Mark Anthony Group owner Anthony von Mandl is the most successful alcohol-sector entrepreneur in B.C.

Anthony von Mandl's path from virtually penniless to owner of a company that generates $500 million in annual sales comes thanks to a wizard's mastery of marketing and a boundless self-assurance.  

The Mark Anthony Group owner's rock-steady belief in himself has allowed him to take risks and achieve what he admits was an audacious dream: to build one of the world's 10 most recognized wineries in a region that almost nobody in the wine world had ever heard of.

It also made von Mandl “unrelentingly impatient with people not equal to his station in life or stature,” according to former business partner Nick Clark.

Back in 1981, when von Mandl was a 31-year-old known simply as Tony Mandl, he used money he had made as a wine rep and creator of a line of blended wines to buy the majority stake in his first winery. That risky investment, with partners Clark and David Simms, would evolve to be his flagship, Mission Hill Family Estate winery.

Simms left within the year but Clark stuck around until 1988, by which time he had watched a constantly revolving door of staff transform a venture near receivership into a profitable and successful enterprise.

Von Mandl's marketing savvy was near genius, said Clark and others who spoke with Business in Vancouver.

Clark calls von Mandl a “master” at spinning stories, creating brands and designing compelling products.

“My kids, who knew the difference between fact and story, affectionately labelled him as Tony Baloney,” Clark said.

Even the name Mark Anthony Group is an example of von Mandl's marketing touch – given that no one by that name ever worked in the business.

Von Mandl created the name because, he said, it has a “vaguely familiar” ring. Von Mandl has joked in speeches that the false name helped sales representatives know when someone was falsely trying to name-drop by saying that they “knew Mark.”

It also, he said, once got him an interview with a big customer who thought that the Latin singing sensation Marc Anthony was on the line.

Von Mandl took on substantial debt to buy Mission Hill, which was then known as Golden Valley winery. It had a dirt floor and few barrels. Interest rates were starting to soar so, von Mandl did whatever he could to make a buck. He turned to a sideline business that the winery had been in: making cider.

It was “awful” cider, von Mandl recounted in a speech to the Vancouver Board of Trade earlier this year, before explaining that he enlisted the help of “Swiss experts” to tweak the recipe, create a peach cider and generate huge sales.

Clark said the Swiss expert was actually winemaker Daniel Lagnaz, who was already in the Okanagan and just happened to be born in Switzerland.

Von Mandl put the fermented drink in brown stubby beer bottles and watched sales rise from 18,000 cases in the first year to several hundred thousand cases within a few years.

Not all was blue skies, however.

The new beer bottles he used were recycled into a float that was also used by the big breweries. He did not reuse the bottles and instead kept buying new ones. When breweries stopped using the bottles, the system collapsed.

The government required von Mandl and Clark to come up with several million dollars to buy back hundreds of thousands of the bottles. In a spark of inspiration, they created Clark's Great Canadian Beer, which was named after the brand's co-founder but with a design that paid tribute to explorers Lewis and Clark. They then got rid of the scratched bottles by selling them with the beer in a partnership with then-Alberta-based Safeway Export Corp., which wanted a Canadian beer to export to the U.S.

“The idea was to sell [the beer] at cost to recover the cost of the glass,” von Mandl said.

Another of von Mandl's ventures in the 1980s was to introduce Grupo Modelo's Corona-branded beer to Canadians. Sales surged for the unknown pale lager to “staggeringly high” volumes from a mere several hundred cases at Expo '86, according to von Mandl.

In 2007, the Mexican brewer pulled the rug out from under von Mandl by terminating his contract.

Frustrated, he decided to build his Turning Point Brewery on Annacis Island.

“It's an insane investment,” von Mandl said in a 2010 speech to the British Columbia Technology Industry Association. “We put $20 million into building a craft brewery that we could have done for $1 million.”

He fitted the brewery with new tanks, sophisticated beer-making technology and even an on-site wind turbine that towers 110 feet to power the “sustainable” venture.

The business has endured, and sales of the beer are going well, von Mandl said recently.

But the biggest win of his career, and one that helped finance his dream more than anything else, was Mike's Hard Lemonade.

He and staff created what von Mandl called the world's first spirit cooler in 1996, and sales soared across Canada. He then reformulated Mike's Hard Lemonade as a malt beverage for distribution in the U.S. three years later.

“Many people don't realize that Mike's, which has become an American beverage icon, was created here in Vancouver,” von Mandl said.

All the while, his focus remained on Mission Hill and its wines.

When von Mandl had what wine author John Schreiner calls an “expensive falling-out” with Lagnaz, von Mandl searched the globe for someone new. He recruited John Simes from New Zealand in 1992 and agreed to Simes' request to spend a considerable sum to buy 100 American oak barrels.

The investment paid off when Mission Hill won the Avery Trophy in 1994 for producing the best Chardonnay in the world at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London, England.

“That trophy caused a bit of a stir in Europe, although I don't think we were quite on the world wine map yet,” Schreiner said. “But being able to promote a wine as being the ‘world's best' did them a lot of good. It gave Anthony either the cash flow or the courage to buy vineyard land.”

Longtime B.C. winery owners, such as Time Estate Winery principal Harry McWatters and Quail's Gate Winery principal Tony Stewart, praise von Mandl's investments in the Okanagan, saying it helped put the region on the world map.

Indeed, Mission Hill is now a destination winery known for its iconic bell tower. Its restaurant has been ranked by Travel + Leisure magazine as being one of the top 5 winery restaurants in the world.

Von Mandl has at least a dozen other wine brands, and he shows no signs of stopping his empire's expansion.

He is building a high-end winery that will produce the Martin's Lane brand on land next to the CedarCreek Estate Winery site that he bought in January.

Mission Hill's Martin's Lane Pinot Noir last year won the nod as the world's best Pinot Noir in the “under £15” category at the Decanter World Wine Awards.

The goal is to have the winery ready to crush grapes this fall, von Mandl told BIV in April.

“We're tearing out totally good vineyards that nobody in their right mind would take out. We are taking them out and replanting because we know the perfect grape variety, the perfect clone, the perfect rootstock to plant there.”

He describes the project as “ambitious” and “mostly impossible.”

Von Mandl's track record leaves little room for question that the “impossible” will happen. One thing's beyond doubt, though: the unshakable confidence von Mandl has had in his own decision-making throughout his career is as alive as ever.