‘I purchased a vineyard and it brought on a US-French row’

Michael Baum with a barrel of grapesImage copyright Famille Carabello-Baum
Image caption Michael Baum with a barrel of grapes

The BBC’s weekly The Boss sequence profiles completely different enterprise leaders from around the globe. This week we converse to Michael Baum, US software program multimillionaire and winery proprietor.

When American tech entrepreneur Michael Baum purchased a prestigious vineyard in France’s Burgundy area it brought on a trans-Atlantic spat.

“[French newspaper] Le Figaro covered the announcement on its website, and there were about 2,500 comments on the article,” says Michael, 57.

“You could split the comments right down the middle. Half of them were ‘damn foreigners stealing our heritage’. the other half were ‘if it wasn’t for Americans you’d all be eating sauerkraut right now’.

“So you may say it was fairly divisive.”

This was back in 2014, when Michael purchased Chateau de Pommard and its 25 hectares (62 acres) of vines for an undisclosed sum in the many millions.

Image copyright Chateau de Pommard
Image caption Chateau de Pommard, one of Burgundy’s most prestigious vineyards

He could afford the price because he had made a fortune in Silicon Valley, most notably as the founder and former chief executive of a software company hardly any of us have heard of – Splunk.

It is complicated stuff, but in simple terms, its software allows firms to monitor their data and security systems. With annual revenues of $1.8bn (£1.6bn), Splunk’s customers are many of the world’s largest companies. They include 92 of the Fortune 100 list of the biggest 100 businesses in the US by annual turnover.

Michael and his two co-founders launched Splunk back in 2003, and today it is a listed company with a market capitalisation (the combined value of all its shares) of more than than $16bn. While Michael retired from day-to-day involvement in the business in 2009, he says that he remains the largest individual shareholder.

Today, in addition to running his French winery, or domaine, he sits on the board of eight other companies in the US and Europe, and he has a multitude of additional business investments. He is also the founder of a mentoring and funding scheme for young entrepreneurs called Founder.org.

“I wish to maintain busy,” he says. “Certain folks, name them entrepreneurial or artistic sorts, are simply wired that approach. For me work is about creativity, it’s about constructing issues. That is what’s thrilling to me.”

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Michael says he had little interest in computers until his second year at the city’s Drexel University in the early 1980s. Then, following a visit to the college by the late Steve Jobs, everyone purchased an Apple computer.

Image copyright Michael Baum
Image caption Before entering the wine business, Michael Baum was the founder and CEO of data firm Splunk

“All of a sudden my mind went ‘how do these work?’,” says Michael. “So I went headlong into software program.”

Switching his main university course from electrical engineering to computer science, it set him on an entrepreneurial career path in tech sector.

After graduating, Michael’s first business venture was a software system for investors that studied past stock market conditions to try to predict future performance. Called Reality Online, it was ultimately purchased by the Reuters business information company.

Then armed with a master of business qualification from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, he moved to Silicon Valley.

Other businesses he successfully grew and sold included a software system for early handheld computer devices, called Pensoft, and online money exchange firm Dotbank.

Image copyright Chateau de Pommard
Image caption Michael says when he tried French wine for the first time ‘it was a huge revelation’

However, living in California, America’s main wine growing state, he didn’t like American wine.

“I did not assume I preferred wine after I was a youthful man, as a result of I did not just like the American stuff,” he says. “It is extra usually too heavy, too candy, too alcoholic.

“Then I went to Europe for the first time when I was 28, and tried French wine for the first time. And it was a huge revelation.

“French wine is way extra elegant, way more mineral, way more historically made. It is night time and day.

“Then in 2012 we [my wife and I] moved to Paris for a year, just to take a hiatus, and I started looking more intensely at doing something in wine in France. We went to Burgundy, and I was like ‘this is it, this is ground zero, this is the benchmark’. I fell hard for Burgundy wines.”

Home to a few of the costliest, and highly-prized wines on the planet, Burgundy predominately produces white wines produced from chardonnay grapes, and reds produced from pinot noir. The wineries and vineyards are sometimes very small, with some producers proudly owning only a few rows or plots of vines right here and there.

Image copyright Mike Linmcoln
Image caption A bottle of Chateau de Pommard Simone

Located some 300km (180 miles) south east of Paris, the area was till current years informally closed off to overseas funding as a result of the present French house owners get first refusal on any neighbouring wineries, vineyards and plots that come up on the market. And they’re principally snapped up.

For this purpose, abroad funding in French wine has traditionally been centered on the far bigger Bordeaux space, close to the Atlantic coast within the south west of the nation.

Michael was capable of purchase Chateau de Pommard, and grow to be the primary American to purchase a vineyard in Burgundy, because of a little bit of luck – the earlier proprietor had primarily based the agency that managed it in Luxembourg reasonably than France.

He now divides his time between Burgundy and Silicon Valley. “It is fun to go back and forth, and experience two dramatically different worlds,” he says.

Since Michael invested in Burgundy, one other American has adopted suite – sports activities billionaire Stan Kroenke, the proprietor of the LA Rams American soccer staff, and England’s Arsenal FC.

Tom Ashworth, chief govt of UK wine retailers Yapp Brothers, says there may be rising worldwide curiosity in shopping for high Burgundy wineries, as a result of the wines they produce have surged in world reputation lately.

“It’s not too surprising that as wine investors have turned their attention from buying bottles of Bordeaux to bottles of Burgundy over the past decade, so billionaires are pocketing the domaines themselves,” says Mr Ashworth.

He provides that it additionally helps that probably the most prestigious sub area of Burgundy – the Cote d’Or – is way extra picturesque than the principle winery space of Bordeaux.

But if Michael needed to decide only one area – Silicon Valley or Burgundy – which would it not be?

“They are like chocolate and peanut butter, I like them both together,” he says.

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