“Ever since I was a kid, I either wanted to be a professional basketball player or own my own business,” Bill Linville, Co-Owner of Aspirations Winery, said with a laugh.
Linville was never paid to make baskets for a living, but after serving in the United States Navy, he found his way into banking and ultimately into small business ownership. Linville shared the story behind his journey and how he and his wife, Robin, revitalized an existing winery and put their own spin on it.
“We’re both originally from Ohio,” Linville said. “Ever since I did boot camp in Orlando and had a chance to explore both coasts, I knew I wanted to end up near Clearwater. There’s just something about the white sand beaches and warm Gulf water. Anyway, after the Navy, my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, and I, took a vacation to St. Pete. We both agreed that once my kids were grown that we’d move down.”
Linville continued, “In 2007, that dream became a reality when I transferred to Florida with Fifth Third Bank. For the next few years, I continued in banking and Robin continued working as Graphics Designer. I also kept my side job working as a ‘beer guy’ at professional and college sporting events. The money I earned was set aside to eventually buy a business. By 2009, we were finally in a position to take a risk.”
Working as a banker, Linville assisted a lot of small business owners. He was privy to financial information and research that impacted his decisions around owning a business. Linville also knew that starting a business from scratch was not the only way to accomplish his objectives.
“We started looking for a distressed company to buy,” Linville said. “First of all, it would be cheaper and second of all, if we could make the business work coming out of the recession, we’d be in good shape once the economy recovered. We weren’t looking for any particular business, just one that fit certain criteria we established. When the winery popped up, Robin and I talked about what we could change and what we could do to make it better.”
Linville continued, “We were also in search of a niche product. Most wine is not really a niche product, but this wine, because of how it’s made and the lack of preservatives, is pretty unique. After meeting with the previous owner, trying the wine and not getting a headache, something that normally happens to me, and learning about the Winery’s European style of wine making, we were sold and ready to take the leap of faith.”
With a life savings worth of capital, Aspirations Winery changed ownership as of October 2010. The name was retained, along with the head wine maker, but the entire business model was restructured.
“Originally, it was more of a place to go and buy DIY wine making equipment,” Linville said. “We immediately saw the potential of producing more wine and opening up the space for the public to come in and enjoy the wines. In the beginning, we thought things would take off and we’d be retired in 15 years. Then reality set it. Between learning how to make wine and truly understanding the business we just bought, it was a real challenge. We also had to learn how to sell the wine to different stores, how to create and market the labels, how to identify wines to make, how to find suppliers and vendors. Everything was harder and more expensive than we thought it would be. Going into it, we were simply under-capitalized.”
Linville continued, “After a couple years, things still weren’t going as well as we had hoped. At that point, we came to the conclusion that one of us would have to go back to the corporate world. There just wasn’t enough revenue coming in to support both of us. Robin went back to work which was the key to leveling things out and getting us going in a different direction.”
This is also around the time when Linville relocated the business from Temple Terrace to a more ideal location in Clearwater. Through perseverance, identifying different opportunities for revenue, getting out in the community and by implementing a grass roots level public awareness campaign, Aspirations Winery began to turn the corner.
“We added tastings and tours and got certified to distribute our own wines,” Linville said. “These two things had a tremendous impact on our business. We started pulling vacationers from Clearwater Beach and the whole thing began to snowball. We continued the diversification of our business by offering private and custom labeling. Some retail stores were hesitant to work with us because they never heard of us. With Robin being a Graphics Designer, we were able to design private labels for them. We continued to push our signature wine called Swamp Juice, which is a blend of Cabernet and Merlot, and also acquired a food permit, which allowed us to serve charcuteries. For the past three years, the business has been doing well.”
As you might expect, Linville is an owner who truly enjoys what he does. Between making great wines, creating wonderful experiences for customers, satisfying a lifelong dream and giving back to the community, the business has allowed Linville to experience the true joys of owning a business.
“What I value in life is experiences I get to have with people,” Linville said. “The money and flexibility that come with having your own successful business are great, but it’s the relationships you have with other people that bring meaning and value to your life. When people are having a great time and laughing and telling me about different things going on in their lives, it’s special. Also, working hard on something and watching it succeed gives you so much pride and confidence. If you reach that point, you’re able to share those feelings with others and potentially encourage them to follow their dreams. At times, it’s been a struggle. Most people would have given up. Fortunately, I had mentors, I read motivational books, I had the right mindset going into it and, most importantly, a loving and supportive wife.”
Linville shared that he’s also thrilled the business is able to give back to various charities. They donate products and gift certificates for tours and tastings. They also do things to help veterans and local animal shelters. “To know we contribute to something so important makes you feel great,” Linville said.
Looking ahead, Linville is focused on bringing Robin back on full-time. They’re also focused on growing throughout the Tampa Bay area and getting into as many retail stores as possible. A more long-term goal is to open a satellite location somewhere in the Dunedin, Safety Harbor or St. Pete area.
What advice does Linville have for aspiring entrepreneurs? “Being afraid is part of it,” he said. “You can’t let that stop you. Go into it with the right mindset and set proper expectations. Do as much research and talk to as many people as you can. Also, make sure that what you’re doing is truly something you’ll be so passionate about that you’ll be willing to overcome obstacles that are part of the deal. People don’t join the Navy Seals thinking they’re going to sit behind a desk. Do everything you can, believe in yourself and be willing to do the work. Don’t start a business thinking you’ll now work nine to five, have six week vacations and make a ton of money. Do your homework, have the right expectations and make sure your decision is one you’ll fight to the end to make happen. That’s how you find out if you’re truly passionate about it or not. It can’t feel like work all the time. Here, it feels like work at times, but at the end of the day, I can put in ten hours and it doesn’t feel like it.”