California's New Generation: Agustin Huneeus Jr.

Carving his own niche
Aug 13, 2003

Agustin Huneeus Jr. seems powered by nervous energy. Sitting in his office at Franciscan Estates, his leg bounces to a perpetually feverish beat and his words and thoughts come out like finger snaps, quick and rhythmic. He leans in close as he speaks, with eye contact that's laser-guided.

OK, so he's intense. But consider where he sits and how he got there. As chief executive of Constellation Brands' fine-wine division, he is running one of the largest wine companies in the country, producing 2 million cases annually with brands like Simi, Ravenswood, Franciscan and Chile's Veramonte, which had combined gross revenues of $185 million last year. You also have to consider that "Jr." attached to his name. His father, Agustin Huneeus Sr., built Concha y Toro into Chile's largest winery, and in California created a small empire around Franciscan Winery.

When Agustin Sr. and partners sold the company to Constellation in 1999, Agustin Jr. stayed onboard and expanded his father's legacy, but he's savvy enough to know that people still whisper a certain word: nepotism. That's enough to keep an edge on any 36-year-old.

"I know, I'm way too young to be doing what I'm doing," Huneeus says with a laugh. "But corporate leaves me alone. Of course I wouldn't be as successful as I am with Franciscan without my dad to turn to. Is it a challenge to follow my father? Yeah, it's a challenge. My dad is a lot nicer than I am, but we were a good combination. Even my wife jokes that she hopes I become more like my dad."

The father-son working relationship is something that Huneeus has known all his life. His earliest memory is of following his father through a vineyard. When he was still a toddler, he accompanied him on business trips. Huneeus recalls: "I knew the distributors and the retailers and the other wineries at a very early age. I grew up with these people, and it has been so valuable."

He says there was never any pressure to follow his father into the business; it's what he chose to do. After graduating from UC, Berkeley, in 1989, he returned to his native Chile to be export director for former Franciscan brands Caliterra and Errazuriz. In the mid-1990s, he got his MBA and worked for a year with Hambrecht & Quist, a leading capital management firm.

"He's a very strong personality," says Bill Hambrecht, founder of Hambrecht & Quist, of Huneeus. "He's so bright and has a certain brashness about him, and yet he had a maturity about his investment decisions that was really beyond his years."

That blend of youthful energy and business acumen is what appealed to Richard Sands, CEO of Constellation Brands. "He has energy and passion, and he thinks outside the box," Sands says. "As far as nepotism, that has never been a concern of mine. My father put me in charge of this business when I was 32."

Huneeus commutes daily to Oakville from his home in San Francisco, where he lives with his wife, Macarena, and their three daughters, ages 5 months to 5 years. He maintains a harried pace, but the impressive achievements of the fine-wine division make it all worthwhile. Gross revenues for Franciscan Estates, through growth and acquisition, have more than doubled since 1999, the year before Huneeus became CEO. And while production has increased across the portfolio, quality remains especially high at Simi and Franciscan, although it's too soon to tell how volume brands such as Estancia and Ravenswood Vintners Blends will fare.

According to Sands, brand building has been the key to Huneeus' success; Sands calls him "visionary in his marketing."

Huneeus looks at it this way: "Who is going to be the next Kendall-Jackson, the next breakthrough brand? One thing that's obvious is that the world doesn't need another bottle of wine. So the question becomes, how do you create a product that means something, a brand that matters?"

If Huneeus can answer that question, Franciscan will thrive and he will follow his father's achievements with a success that's all his own.

United States California