Napoleon Bonaparte and his armies always marched with one decadent and fizzy lucky charm: champagne.
He would collect the wine from the Moët estate, famously declaring: “Champagne! In victory one deserves it, in defeat one needs it!” Unfortunately for him, the one battle where he didn’t have his favourite sparkling on hand was his most famous and final defeat: the Battle of Waterloo.
But Bonaparte’s relationship with champagne continued even beyond that brutal defeat. Imprisoned for life in 1815, Bonaparte was allegedly rationed just one bottle of champagne a day.
More than one hundred years later, Australian banking and finance worker Kyla Kirkpatrick picked up an article on Bonaparte, war, theology and wine.
When she put it down, she too decided to embark on a quest for world domination.
Meet the Champagne Dame
After reading that first article, Kirkpatrick read everything she could on champagne, entranced by the stories of the region.
Eventually, she ran out of books, but her voracious appetite for knowledge wasn’t sated. She found the address of the man who wrote her favourite book and in 2005 wrote him a letter.
“He wrote back and said, ‘Listen, you sound passionate - I’m passionate. If you come to France, I’ll teach you everything I know,’” Kirkpatrick told Yahoo Finance.
“It was one of those incredible sliding doors moments where I thought, ‘Bugger it. I’m not going for a week, or a month. I’m going forever.’”
She ended her life as she knew it and bought a one-way ticket to Paris.
“I’ve never looked back.”
Today, Kirkpatrick’s business Emperor Champagne is considered the leading champagne e-commerce retailer in Australia. And her events and presenting business The Champagne Dame has seen her travel the world and present at major events.
But Kirkpatrick’s goal is bigger than Australia. With sales up 235 per cent year on year during the Covid-19 period, Kirkpatrick is currently in the middle of a $1.5 million capital raise to grow internationally.
“It’s really ambitious. I want a global business and my true mission is that you say ‘Emperor’ anywhere in the world and someone thinks ‘champagne’,” she said.
How did she do it?
After spending time in France learning about champagne and then working with Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, Kirkpatrick’s itchy feet led her to launch The Champagne Dame - her champagne education and presenting business. It’s seen her host events at the Melbourne Cup and the Caulfield Cup, along with her own international tours.
But not too long after launching this business, Kirkpatrick was receiving daily calls from people who had attended her events and educational seminars who wanted to purchase those boutique wines.
“I thought, ‘Hang on a minute - there’s a need here. There’s a gap in the market for sourcing rare, beautiful, boutique champagne houses.’”
At the time, Dan Murphy’s was mainly stocking the major champagne brands. Kirkpatrick hatched the idea for Emperor Champagne five years ago and launched it in 2017. Within two month of launching, she saw $200,000 in sales, with Kirkpatrick finalling a successful $1 million seed funding raise.
Before the global pandemic, Kirkpatrick was regularly pulling 80 hour weeks as she ran her businesses during the day and then carried out champagne presentations up to six nights a week.
So when Covid-19 struck, her international tours and events were cancelled, leaving Kirkpatrick with significantly more time on her hands.
She decided to put everything into Emperor Champagne and its delivery offering.
Currently, it has the fastest delivery time in Australia with the products arriving within 24 hours. Just over half of the sales are to first-time customers, with many also first-time online shoppers thirsting for their favourite champagne.
“I had a huge ‘Aha’ moment in the depths of Covid where we were doing really well and some of our champagne partners who really rely on restaurants were in a lot of trouble, and they were saying, ‘This is genius - you should be selling the licence to your business in other countries.’”
Kirkpatrick had always thought she would roll it out herself personally, but has now taken the time to develop a program allowing people to purchase the licence to the business.
Keys to success
Kirkpatrick says there are two main elements to her success. The first is good, old fashioned customer care. She works in her Victorian fulfilment centre packing boxes, hand-writing notes and taking calls.
She describes Emperor Champagne’s delivery proposition as a “double delight”. First, the recipient will have the delight of receiving the champagne, beautifully packaged with a note. Then, they enjoy the delight of drinking it.
“We luxury wrap every bottle - it’s a perfect gift,” she said.
“We’re not just talking to the champagne market [anymore] - we’re talking to the greater gifting market. People are still celebrating birthdays, births and major events and we were very quick to pivot to that.”
She said they regularly get calls from people celebrating major milestones in isolation who are choosing to add champagne to their celebration. And Kirkpatrick will do what she can to make the champagne even more meaningful, for instance throwing in a pair of champagne flutes for a woman marking her 40th by herself.
The other critical element is multi-channel revenue streams.
Prior to Covid-19, European summer would see Kirkpatrick flitting around the Champagne region on her Insider’s Champagne Tour. And outside of that, her events business also kept her busy.
But as the pandemic nullified those revenue streams, her online champagne sales boomed.
“There were no tastings, there was no wholesale part of our business. It was very much left to our online business,” Kirkpatrick said.
She’s reticent to use the word “luck” when describing her business’ survival, instead describing herself as fortunate to have had the foresight to build a multi-channel revenue stream.
“I always say this to other entrepreneurs, where possible, have diversification within your business so that if something goes down, something changes or the market goes down, you have something else to fall back on,” she said.
“We’ve been doing Christmas volumes every month, now.”
Global domination aside, Australians could soon be seeing Kirkpatrick on their screens as she has been cast in The Real Housewives of Melbourne.
But with filming on hold, Kirkpatrick’s thoughts remain wholly focused on champagne - her eye firmly on the prize.
“Eventually, I want a huge exit [from the champagne retail industry] that will say, ‘Job well done Kyla’,” she said.
“I don’t often pull zoom… I just take it day by day. Being successful is all about tenacity and being consistent. You’ve got to get out every day and you’ve got to push and you’ve got to focus.”