This Banker Retired at 38 to Run a Winery With His Family

Karl Coutinho's nine-to-five as a commercial and small business lender gave him a taste of entrepreneurship
Karl Coutinho (photography: Carolina Andrade)

Many entrepreneurs will tell you that what they’re doing now is not what they initially set out to do. Making major professional changes—even mid- to late-career—can often lead to more fulfilling and successful outcomes. That’s what our series The Pivot is all about. Each month, we speak to founders, business leaders and entrepreneurs about how—and why—they changed course and found success in an entirely different industry. Here, we speak to Karl Coutinho, one of the owners of Nova Scotia-based winery Avondale Sky Winery.

My dad emigrated from Uganda to Canada as a refugee when he was 19. He always tells the same story: He arrived in Montreal with his mom and brothers, and everyone was lined up at booths for different provinces, but there was nobody in the line for the Atlantic provinces. So my dad, as the oldest brother there, made the decision: “Hey, let’s go stand in that line.” And that’s how they ended up in Nova Scotia.

I was born and raised in Halifax. I went to the Sobey School of Business at St. Mary’s University. I began working at TD part-time in 2001 while I pursued my bachelor’s of commerce. I always thought it would be a smart idea to understand commerce and finance. After I graduated in 2004, I started working full-time at the bank as a personal lending specialist.

Eventually, I became a commercial and small business lender. That job opened my eyes to the possibilities of entrepreneurship. I was meeting business owners in many different industries, and they were so passionate about what they did. It really spurred something in me. I thought, “Man, at some point I’d love to start my own business.” I wanted to do something different—I just didn’t know what or when that opportunity would come.

A photo of Karl Coutinho with a barrel of wine

A friend of mine is a broker who sells businesses, and I was on his email list. One day, I got an email about a winery for sale. Avondale Sky Winery, in the Annapolis Valley, is on 44 hectares of land and has nine hectares of vines. It grows a dozen different varietals, including the unique Drops of Amber and several grapes that make up Tidal Bay, the province’s first appellation wine. Nova Scotia is an emerging wine region; the industry brings in $218 million to the province each year, and there’s plenty of tourism to bolster it.

I’ve always enjoyed wine, but my real passion was doing something with my family. So I brought the idea to my brother, Sean, my recently retired parents, Louis and Avila, and, of course, my wife, Jaime. We bought the business for a few million dollars in November of 2019. It was worth it.

First off, we looked at the assets we were acquiring. There were the people, including our winemaker, Ben Swetnam, and vineyard manager, Peter Smits. Then there was the real estate, which was comprised of three structures, including the barn on the acreage. Finally, we had inventory, both in tanks and already bottled, that we could still sell in a worst-case scenario. When the pandemic hit, we had to shut down production but were able to get that reserve of wine to the market by starting a complimentary delivery service. That immediate pivot during lockdown gave us some exposure. Once people were allowed to visit, we got new guests coming in to see us. We also have a cross-country membership for people who want their wine shipped to them. We’re in a cold climate here, so we really excel at white and sparkling wines.

For the first year and a half, I worked both the winery and my bank job. In June of 2021, I hit my 20-year anniversary with TD. It felt like a good benchmark, a point when I could look back and say, “I did that.” So I took an early retirement from TD at the age of 38. But I definitely haven’t stopped working.

The winery has brought us closer as a family. Visitors always have a touchpoint with one of us. If you’re reaching out for private events, you’re going to talk to me. If you’re going through social media, you’re going to get Jaime. If you’re at the winery, you might get my mom or my brother. And then if you’re in the vineyard, you might see my dad and he’ll give you a tour. We’re all hands on deck.

We still have a lot to learn, and we still have a lot of room to grow. But I’m proud that we’re doing it—and that we’re doing it together.

As told to Adrienne Matei
As told to Adrienne Matei
Adrienne Matei is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver, Canada. She writes about culture, technology, lifestyle, the environment, and more.