The Entrepreneurial Spirit
For Perfect Vodka chief Dennis Cunningham, it’s all about finding the possibilities
Dennis Cunningham’s story begins with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the iconic founders of Apple. But it’s not the story you probably think.
He sold them stereo equipment.
A 19-year-old college dropout in the mid-1980s, Cunningham worked in a Silicon Valley stereo store, where Jobs and Wozniak were his customers and “just normal people.” Since then, it’s been anything but a storybook journey for Cunningham, 52, who’s now chairman and CEO of Palm Beach Gardens-based Perfect Brands, owner of ultra-premium Perfect Vodka.
If the label sounds familiar, that’s not surprising. Cunningham, of Jupiter, acquired the French vodka brand in late 2013. Two years later, he signed a six-year sponsorship deal for the 20,000-seat amphitheater at the South Florida Fairgrounds, west of West Palm Beach.
“Dropping out of college at a young age got me a lot less opportunity, so I had to create opportunity,” says Cunningham, who spent all of six weeks attending California State University in Hayward before getting bored. With two highly educated brothers and a father with two master’s degrees, “I was the rebel who broke the mold, so I always had to prove I could go beyond that without a degree,” he says. “It was kind of a ‘Let me prove you wrong’ type of thing.”
He caught the technology bug from Wozniak, Jobs and others, and began blooming as an entrepreneur when he met inventor John Pori—Cunningham describes him as “a genius”—and formed his first company, Advanced Medical Technologies, to market his products.
The company fizzled after some small successes, but Cunningham was hooked on businesses and on making his own opportunities.
“The sales part took a lot of personality,” he says, “and as I got older, I realized people my age and even older, men especially, got into their routine and didn’t want to get out of their comfort zone a lot. I tend to enjoy the opportunity that’s a little uncomfortable and like what the unknown brings me, because it’s a challenge.”
After a brief stint as a self-taught concert promoter, he made a name for himself in California in the early 1990s by hawking mortgages on the radio. He brought his Equity Funding Mortgage business model to Florida when he moved to Jupiter several years later.
Even though there already were about 41,000 mortgage brokers in Florida when he got his license here in 1995, “it blew up here,” Cunningham remembers. He was making up to $70,000 a week in originations, and was advertising heavily on local radio stations.
Still, “money never really was the focus,” he says. “Money tends to follow you if you do well at something. That was always the basis for my success. I never really thought about the money.”
Always looking to stand out in the crowd, Cunningham parlayed his mortgage company into a real estate company, title company and insurance company to capture more of his clients’ business. In 2008, he drew on his technology background to launch BidABuilder.com, which matches homeowners looking for contactors and contractors looking for work.
The idea was to create a one-stop shop for consumers in the real estate, title, mortgage and home improvement fields. Cunningham’s companies had faced headwinds after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but the housing collapse in the Great Recession was even worse.
BidABuilder is the only one of the companies surviving today and he’s negotiating its sale to a public company.
It wasn’t until 2013 that a friend of a friend asked for Cunningham’s help marketing an ultra-premium brand of vodka he’d created. It was called Perfect 1864 Vodka.
Distilled in the Vosges Mountains in the Brie-Champagne region of France—and using Vosges water, one of the world’s purest—“it was like drinking air,” Cunningham said of his first taste. “They made this vodka so smooth, I thought he was joking with me. I made him open another bottle.”
Call it love at first sip. But how, Cunningham wondered, would he get people even to taste it?
The answer, or at least a big part of it, came about a month after acquiring the brand. Waking up in the middle of the night, he scribbled down the concept for AirTab, an app that now allows you to send a drink or a dinner from your smartphone and have the recipient redeem it on his or her phone. Vodka drinks, of course, are made only with Perfect Vodka.
And just as with Cunningham’s mortgage business, AirTab seems to offer natural opportunities for vertical integration.
“Nothing like this existed,” he says with excitement about the potential of his newest venture. “We have more verticals about to launch. A restaurant owner can send out dinner specials. Charities or political parties can bring us customers, buy drinks through AirTab, and get 50 percent of the profits. With volume, I can make deals with distributors to carry my vodka in places that don’t already have it.”
And the amphitheater sponsorship? Cunningham won’t reveal the cost, but it’s close to “priceless.” It’s all about the hashtag—#PerfectVodka—that’s part of so many social media posts coming out of every concert. Last year, it meant more than 50 million social media impressions, and that shows up on the bottom line, Cunningham says.
“Sales have been going up, our distributor is ordering more, and we had to order more product from France,” he says. “I made 1 million extra liters ahead of time just in case there’s a drought or something else weird.”
The amphitheater naming rights—believed to be the only deal in the country involving spirits—has proven so successful, Cunningham says, that he is talking with LiveNation, which operates the venue here, to expand the model to other locations. He attends most of the concerts at Perfect Vodka.
“It’s really fulfilling to look around at a 20,000-seat amphitheater and your name’s there,” he says. “And if people are holding a clear cup that’s not beer, it’s most likely your vodka.”
In the end, Cunningham’s goal is to build up the Perfect Vodka brand and sell it within three years, eyeing even a small slice of the $16 billion Japanese distiller Suntory paid for Beam in 2014.
Even if he pulls that off, Cunningham probably won’t be on a track toward retirement. Chances are, he’ll be off to his next venture.
“I enjoy the mental stimulation,” he says. “I get mentally bored really quickly. I don’t watch a lot of TV. I don’t sit around a lot.
“Whenever I see something not being done as best as it can be, I wonder, ‘What would I do? How would I do that?’ ” ↵