Staying in business for two centuries requires a certain something: great product offerings, keen instincts, tenacity, adaptability, and, often, moxie. Executives with those traits may come and go over the years, but the best leadership often has it all. And Acker—a 201-year-old company that has survived depressions, recessions, Prohibition, and pandemics—is currently under the direction of some of the most able managers in its history. This combination retail/auction business was on track to do $200 million in sales last year, building on growth that has only become stronger during Covid-19. The modest store opened by a Scottish immigrant near the teeming wharves of Lower Manhattan is now a global juggernaut, spanning four continents and set for even more expansion at home and abroad. Yet despite its mammoth size, Acker remains committed to the small-business touches of dedicated customer service and personal relationships that drive much of its success.
For most of its history, Acker was a retail-only business, offering fine foods, wines, and spirits to New York City’s elite. Founded by Matthew Hope in 1820, the store grew, changed hands, and became known as Acker, Merrall & Condit by 1868. Over the decades, new locations were added throughout Manhattan and beyond; by 1916, there were 41 outlets. But Prohibition and the Depression years struck a blow, and by 1934, Acker was down to a single store at 2377 Broadway in Manhattan. At this point, the business had shifted to become more of package store, with little opportunity to differentiate itself through premium offerings.
Nevertheless, the name retained its association with quality, and Acker enjoyed success following World War II, as owners Benjamin and Bessie Botwinick brought in William Kapon to run the business. Known as Bill, he built a loyal customer base that included the likes of baseball legend Babe Ruth, comedian Zero Mostel, and Fred Gwynne, star of “Car 54, Where Are You?” and “The Munsters.” After years of trying to buy out the Botwinicks, Bill succeeded in 1966, shortly before passing away.
Bill’s sons Ron and Michael had worked in the store, and it was Michael who eventually took over, with help from college roommate and right-hand man Steve Green. Michael showed initiative and energy, implementing services like free delivery, while Green worked connections in the entertainment industry to develop a special sales division servicing it. But it was a new focus on fine wines that fueled Acker’s rise in this era. As Americans began discovering fine wine in the 1960s and ’70s, Michael was quick to identify the importance of offering quality selections from Europe as well as California. The day after Time magazine published its story on the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976, Acker sold out of Chateau Montelena and Freemark Abbey, two of the white wines that had scored highly at that famed event. By 1977 the store had evolved into a fine wine mecca, aided by knowledgeable staff, an emphasis on cultivating clientele, and Michael’s frequent buying trips abroad to obtain product straight from the source.
“None of it would be possible without him,” says Michael’s son John, Acker’s current chairman. “He was the rock for 40 years and built the customer service ethos that we have. He really set the groundwork for the company to be a fine wine shop again.” Michael continued to burnish Acker’s wine offerings over the next decade and a half, offering futures and introducing the first Australian wines to the New York market. In 1987, the store moved to 160 West 72nd Street, where it remains today.
Firmly established as one of the leading wine stores in New York, Acker benefited from a state law passed in 1993 that opened up a couple of major opportunities. First, New York retailers were allowed to offer samples in-store, which enabled Acker to begin wine tastings and education. At the same time, the law made wine auctions through retailers a viable possibility. Michael tried out a couple of auctions but remained focused on retail. It was John, who joined the business fulltime in 1994, who would make auctions a priority—ultimately taking Acker to new heights.
Realizing that the business could retain more of the profits if it didn’t partner with an established auction house, John set forth to conduct auctions on his own, cleverly offering sellers a 0% commission to entice collectors to consign with Acker. He also began hosting pre-sale tastings, ticketed and limited to a select group of potential buyers—an innovation at the time. In 1998, John’s first year of hosting auctions, they grossed $4 million; the next year auction revenue was up to $9 million, roughly equal to that of the retail side, and Michael promoted his son to auction director.
The two parts of the business would never again even remotely be equal in sales. By 2005 the Acker auctions side was raking in nearly $25 million, dwarfing the retail segment. John, hands-on from the beginning, usually wielded the gavel as crowds of bidders ate gourmet food and sipped wine—John often joining them—in boisterous scenes that shocked the staid world of traditional auctions. “Wine is a very personal thing,” John says, explaining that his passion drives his energy and work ethic. “That passion comes from interacting with people and being able to sit down at the dinner table with somebody and enjoy a bottle of wine with them.”
John’s instincts for what would be the next big thing kept Acker at the forefront of major trends, like online auctions, which launched in 2001, and an expansion to Hong Kong in 2008; auctions there grossed $14 million in their first year, compared to the U.S. side’s $39 million. As it grew, the auction business brought the retail side along with it, which tripled its revenue in the first decade of the millennium.
All that growth was not without its challenges, however. John was friends with Rudy Kurniawan during his rise to prominence, and landed a big consignment from him that sold across two auctions in 2006, grossing over $35 million and making headlines. But Acker had to pull 97 bottles of Domaine Ponsot, consigned by Kurniawan and suspected to be fraudulent, from a 2008 auction, and the company was caught up in legal action related to the notorious counterfeiter for several years until he was sentenced to prison in 2013.
“When you’re a victim of fraud, it hurts,” John says. “It’s something that takes a long time to recover from when it’s serious. We learned that the hard way.” Following the Kurniawan scandal, Acker began hiring independent authenticators for its auctions, and the company has developed a robust authentication process that takes into account provenance, reference images, and even microscopic imaging. It’s on the verge of rolling out a new technology to add further security to bottles.
In 2011, Michael retired and John took the helm of the entire business, continuing to burnish Acker’s reputation as the leading fine wine auction house. But it was getting harder to manage it all on his own. Seeing the need for more infrastructure and IT investment, John brought in finance veteran Irvin Goldman as CEO in 2017. Under Goldman’s leadership, Acker has metamorphosed, transforming its already strong offerings with an enhanced digital presence, new collector-oriented services, and additional staff who bring impressive backgrounds in the wine and spirits retail and auction worlds.
“I came up with a strategic plan to grow the company and take what was a family business and turn it into a small to medium-sized company,” Goldman says, noting that when he joined, Acker had 60 employees and did around $70 million in revenue. Four years later, it has 140 employees and revenues close to $200 million in 2021. Among Goldman’s first moves was launching a new website with better e-commerce and developing a proprietary auction system and app, replacing a third-party service Acker had been using. He also built up a corporate division serving hundreds of clients, including the likes of Morgan Stanley, that he says has “helped enhance our retail business.”
Goldman has overseen a dramatic expansion of Acker outposts around the world, most of them satellite offices that offer specialized client services for auctions and sales. The list currently includes Taiwan, Macau, Vietnam, Japan, and South America, as well as headquarters in Hong Kong, London, and New York, and a Newark, Delaware site that opened in 2020. To support the growing empire, Goldman made several key hires in late 2020, poaching from other leading auction houses. Jamie Pollack, formerly global managing director of auctions at Zachys, joined Acker as global managing direct of business development and sales. Alicia Martell also left Zachys, where she was formerly director of auction operations, to take on the role of global head of authentication and quality control. And Stacey Chervin Sigda joined Acker as general counsel after working for over 20 years at Sotheby’s.
Perhaps Goldman’s most impressive accomplishment to date is Acker Markets, a set of free tools for wine collectors and investors that uses Acker’s decades of auction data to provide insights into trends and performance—both at a broad level and down to region, producer, vintage, even a specific bottle. “Before I was introduced to this business, I never even knew wine was an asset class,” Goldman says, explaining that he was surprised to find little in the way of sophisticated information or insights for potential investors. “I thought it was very important for the market to have a level of transparency and an in-depth way of looking at wine prices. Having clean data to do analysis is critical, and the only way to ensure you have the best and cleanest data is to do it yourself. Acker had the benefit of 20 years’ worth of history.”
Acker Markets includes the Market Monitor, which tracks top wines through over 200 indices; Wine Analytics, which traces the performance of specific wines for as far back as they have appeared in Acker auctions; Wine Indices, which show trends over time; a static Fine & Rare Index covering 100 or so of the top wines in the world; and the Wine & Index Comparison tool. Wine prices and trends can be compared to common indices like the Dow Jones, S&P 500, gold, and others, and the interfaces have a familiar, easy-to-use feel, just like those found on finance websites and apps. “We made it look like a Bloomberg monitor,” Goldman says. Every part of service is free to use—no need to be an Acker client. “We wanted to provide people that are interested in investing in wine and looking at prices with full information, and we’ve done that,” he adds.
Return To Roots
Although wine firmly remains Acker’s focus, the company has embraced spirits collecting and auctions as well, especially as whiskies have nabbed eye-popping prices in recent years. Acker held its first spirits-only auction in Hong Kong in 2019 and launched monthly online spirits auctions this past July. Authentication of spirits is as important to the company as that of wine, especially after a journalist from “Inside Edition” purchased a bottle of Col. E.H. Taylor, Jr. Bourbon from Acker that turned out to be counterfeit, and turned the experience into a segment. John says that Scotch, Japanese, and Bourbon whiskies are the hottest spirits right now, with one clear leader. “Macallan is the 800-pound gorilla, and then there’s everybody else trying to get a piece of the banana,” he says.
In wine, it’s all about Burgundy. “Burgundy has taken charge of the fine and rare wine market and has surged to somewhere between 40% and 50% of overall market share and dollars,” John says, noting that it has essentially flipped position with Bordeaux, which takes around 25%, and is followed by the Rhône and Champagne. “France is basically 80% of the entire market, and then California is maybe 10%, Italy is 5%, and the rest of the world is around 5%,” he adds. But, John notes, the future of fine wine collecting will be broader and more diverse. “We’re going to see demand continue to fan out as more and more people put pressure on certain wines, regions, and brands, and prices continue to escalate,” he says.
That escalation kicked into high gear in 2020 as people, stuck in lockdown, started spending more on wine—both to collect and to drink. “People just wanted to drink better,” John says, explaining that an explosion in demand sent prices soaring. Acker’s online business, like that of many retailers, reaped the benefits of shutdowns, and Goldman says that many new customers have since become loyal clients. The pandemic effect has remained, with business through the third quarter of 2021 up 40% over 2020. “It’s a culmination of all the investment over the years coming through at the same time as the tailwind of the increase in wine demand from Covid-19,” Goldman says. “All the initiatives we were working on—everything just came together.”
The cherry on top was Acker’s 200th anniversary in 2020, which provided a timely opportunity to rebrand as simply “Acker,” keeping a through line to the business’s long-term legacy while encapsulating its modern offerings. The store even quietly partnered with Calvisius Caviar in a nod to its roots as a high-end grocer. “Food and wine go together and there’s definitely the thought in our mind about returning to our food roots eventually,” John says. “Caviar was one step in that direction.”
A more significant throwback: multiple locations. Although Acker has several international outposts, the New York City store is its sole retail hub. But there are plans to expand domestically, starting in 2022, with California, Florida, and Texas as the first destinations, areas where existing Acker clients already live. “Our customer base is shifting where they’re living, and we want to be able to provide them the same experiences where they’re moving to,” Goldman says.
For John, steering Acker into the future means writing a new chapter in the history of his family and beyond. “Acker has a very rich history that’s intertwined with the history of America,” he says. “Very few companies have been around for 200 years. We’d like to bring that rich history, that commitment to quality and service, to more people across the country.” And not only that. “It’s becoming a global business as well,” John adds. “So it’s translating that to the rest of the world. We feel we have an incredible platform to get more people aware of and participating in the world that we love and enjoy so much.”