International Operator: Gina Puente finds Entrepreneurial Success at Non-Traditional Location

Gina Puente learned about hard work, tenacity, and the power of cash at the feet of her father, "working" in his office equipment business from the age of eight... when she wasn't busy with commercials and pageants.

Over the years, Puente has maintained the core values she learned from her father, and put her own, less-than-traditional spin on entrepreneurship. Today, she operates 19 units and 11 brands, including her original concept, La Bodega Winery. The winery, with two locations at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, was the world's first winery located in an airport, according to its energetic owner.

She attributes much of her success to the home and opportunities her parents provided for her. "I had a great childhood. We were a middle-income, Mexican-American family, and my Mom and Dad created a great foundation with great opportunities for my two brothers and me," says Puente, whose impressive list of awards includes titles such as Enterprising Woman of the Year, Latina Entrepreneur of the Year, and Fort Worth and Texas Hispanic Business Woman of the Year.

Puente jokes that it was no accident that she wound up as a child with her own agent for TV commercials, musicals, and stage shows. "My past was laid out for me by my Mom. She named me Virginia Ivy Puente, because she wanted my initials to be VIP. Mom wanted me to push the envelope as far as I could achieve, and she taught me with love and care," she says.

When the young talent wasn't being shuttled to auditions and dance classes, she worked with her father at Southwest Office Solutions. "When I was eight, I'd clean his desk, and by the time I was in junior high, I was working, filing things in the department during the summer. Then I graduated to receptionist, working the phones and going on an occasional sales call," she says, describing herself as a "closet geek," who begged for months for her own set of Encyclopedia Britannica.

After high school, Puente wanted to be the "next Barbara Walters," so she majored in broadcasting at Texas Christian University. Upon graduation, she was offered a weekend anchor position in a small Texas market. "But after all those years of watching Dad grow an awesome business, I decided to step out in that direction, too," she says. "After all, I'd grown up in entrepreneurial boot camp."

Puente has no regrets about the great she's earned and the skills she's learned. "Everything basically boils down to communication. If you can't RSVP or work with staff to get your points across or negotiate with vendors and banks, you're going to have issues in the business world."

She also has no illusions about what it means to start your own company. "I was raised with a strong work ethic. That's why I grin when people say they want to start their own company, because they 'don't want to work hard for The Man.' If it is your start-up, you're wearing all the hats, and it's hard. You have to learn to delegate when it's your money and/or concept, and that can be hard to do," she says.

In 1989, when Puente was a senior at TCU, her father, at the age of 63, threw his hat in on a bid for three newsstand/gift shops at DFW. She watched in awe as he won the bid and began working in the unusual venue. After graduation, she took a job with Gap Kid/Baby Gap, but by 1991, she was ready to work with her father and learn the business from the ground up.

In 1994, her father asked her to look for a different concept to replace a newsstand that wasn't making money. She met a man who was trying to do an IPO for a winery in the area under a new Texas law that gave specific breaks for the creation of wineries in the small town of Grapevine. "I realized that the 320 square feet of newsstand and 120 square feet of an American Airlines utility closet that was available nearby was actually in Grapevine," Puente says. "So I got investors to put in 45 percent, while I kept 55 percent, and La Bodega was born."

The savvy Puente didn't take the drastic step of opening a winery in the airport without first doing her homework. "It was all about location, location, location. I'd done extensive research to compare demographics, and I found wine drinkers were higher educated with higher salaries and disposable income. Here they were, coming right out of the gate to us," she says. "And the new laws meant we could sell wine by the glass, the taste, and the bottle to go. People who wanted to take something home from Texas would get pure Texas agriculture, which is a bottle of wine." One of her most popular offerings is a fortified wine named Aero Port.

The bonded, federally and state licensed winery opened in 1995, but because of a pilots' strike and issues surrounding Terminal A, things got off to a slow start. "It wasn't an instant success. That happens sometimes when you're on the cutting or bleeding edge," she says. She continued to tweak the concept, and in 1997 bought out her investors and became sole owner.

Part of that tweaking had to do with the family's franchise newsstand, which shared a wall with La Bodega. Based on projections of how many people were coming into the newsstand, Puente cut an archway between them for customers to pass back and forth.

Also early on, she reached out to the Texas wine industry, which had 27 wineries at the time, to ask them to sell their specialties in La Bodega along with those she produced. There are more than 200 wineries in Texas today, and owners clamor for space in one of the two Puente airport located in different terminals at DFW. Puente also has a small outside winery, La Buena Vida Vineyards, where she produces wines to be sold at the airport.

In addition to being a franchisee for Wall Street News and Main Street News, Puente has airport locations for Blimpies, Cereality, and NRgize Lifestyle Cafe (smoothies). In seeking other good concept fits for an airport setting, she also added five Travelex currency services units in the international terminal and a small charter yacht unit, LBW Charters.

During her ongoing quest for new and high-quality concepts for the airport and other nontraditional settings, Puente came upon UFood Grill, a Boston-based concept, and saw its potential. "It's where 'nutritious meets delicious' and I thought it would be perfect in a hospital setting," she says. "So I put out a bid at the large Parkland Hospital in Dallas," she says. Puente won the bid and also brought in Urban Taco, another franchise focused on healthy offerings, to the hospital and the airport.

A self-described "educational junkie," Puente participated in a three-year master's program at MIT, where she first met UFood Grill CEO George Nadaff. "He was a keynote speaker and he blew us all away," she recalls. She describes him and his team as the kind of franchisors who are supportive, open to suggestions, and willing to work on the challenges she faces.

Puente also loves to travel and considers looking at new concepts and high-level seminars recreational. She is opening up Travelex units at Houston International Airport this fall and continues to look at innovation and change. She doesn't know exactly what new and exciting ventures she'll tackle next, and that's the way she likes it. "I never say never," she says.

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