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Schram Enterprises: Distilling growth for a trio of brands

Aaron and Ashley Schram began their entrepreneurial journey in 2008 when they bought a farm in Waconia, Minnesota, and planted their first crop of grapes for a winery. In 2013 they unveiled Schram Vineyards followed by Schram Haus in 2019, a German-inspired brewery located 10 miles away. Their third brand launched in 2021: AxeBridge Wine Co., an urban winery located in the  North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis.

A few months before opening Axebridge, Aaron Schram entered the CEO Next Business Institute, a regional partnership led by Hennepin County. The program targets second-stage business owners (those beyond the startup phase who are looking to scale their companies) and involves three components: networking forums, CEO roundtables and custom research.

The research part of the program was what initially attracted Schram. “In fact, I wish I could have gone through the program a couple of years earlier,” he says.

The research is delivered through the Edward Lowe Foundation’s System for Integrated Growth (SIG), a team of subject-matter experts who assist business owners on a wide variety of issues. To help with Axebridge’s marketing efforts, a SIG expert in geographic information systems developed a demographic profile of Schram’s current customers and evaluated the local market around Axebridge. Then he created an interactive map to show concentrations of prospective customers with desirable demographic and psychographic characteristics.

“The marketing research hit home by validating that my business model was solid,” says Schram, noting the data will become even more valuable as he expands his marketing team.

Another SIG specialist helped Schram with digital marketing strategies to reach out to prospective customers and employees. “That was big,” says Schram. “He really opened my eyes on how to use the full toolbox of Indeed. Since then, I’ve been able to find some really good people by actively approaching them rather than putting out a job post and hoping to get a lot of resumes.” Schram also found information about onboarding and orientation of new employees to be enlightening, and as a result, he changed some of his company’s practices.

Before starting his own business, Schram had worked for some large corporations including Target and Accenture. “These were very structured companies, and when I opened my own business, I realized I had to build many of those systems from scratch,” he says. “Some aren’t so hard, but others are. And it’s not just about building the systems but making them sustainable that can cause you to stumble.”

As for the peer-learning portion of the CEO Next program, Schram was surprised how much value he got. Roundtable members come from different industries, but share the same, or similar enough, issues so that discussions bring up a variety of solutions, Schram says. “Better solutions than you could think about on your own.”

Schram’s takeaways from the roundtable included:

  • Greater operational efficiencies and how to take advantage of his company’s smaller scale.
  • Being able to vent frustrations to someone rather than a business partner or spouse.
  • Interpersonal insights.

“During the roundtables, you’re asked how you’re doing personally as well as professionally,” Schram explains. “I wasn’t exposed to this in the corporate world, and it’s something I’ve started to bring into my leadership team. It’s critical to understand what’s going on with your staff in their personal lives — issues that could consume some of their energy — so you know when to, or not to, put pressure on them.”

“I think I underestimated the power of the roundtable environment,” he adds. “Some entrepreneurs have an advisory board, but most don’t, and we tend to operate in a vacuum. Yet a roundtable can expose you to unbiased, smart people, who can throw out some solutions to your issues — and you get to pick and choose where you want to go deeper. They care about your business but don’t have a vested interest or any angle because they’re not trying to sell you something.”

In fact, when the CEO Next program ended, Schram joined another roundtable so he could continue to benefit from peer learning. By early 2023 the award-winning Schram Enterprises was generating more than $3.6 million in annual revenue with more than 80 full- and part-time employees and continues to grow.