Pausing in the wintry light, Andrea Pupek turns from the breathtaking view over the Italian valley she now calls home and heads into a cool cellar dug into the hillside which stores the liquid gold the land produces.
Filing a shot glass with olive oil and rolling it in her hands to warm it through, she takes a sip and inhales. “It’s bold, robust and balanced,” she says slowly. “You’ve got earthy notes, green tomatoes, a bit of apple and then, as it hits the back of the throat, it’s spicy and tart. If you want to cough,” she adds, “that means it’s good.”
Orvieto in central Italy is a long way from Suffolk University in Boston, where Pupek’s adventure as an olive oil producer started five years ago, but what is even more remarkable is how she got there. Asked by her professor to pick an overseas business and draw up a plan for expansion, Pupek chose Orvieto olives, saw potential for growth, flew to Italy to find out, fell in love with and married the man in charge, Fabio Cimicchi, and is now carrying out her business plan at his side.
Today, Pupek, 31, is a familiar face in the narrow streets of Orvieto, where she practices her newly learned Italian on the frequent occasions she is stopped on corners by new friends. But she means business, and is pushing hard to build exports of olive oil into the American market after rebranding the firm, while pursuing sidelines in everything from balsamic vinegar to soft Italian leather bags.
Underplaying her journey, Pupek observes, “I’ve never met anyone else who has written an MBA paper, then carried it out in practice.”
Famous Last Words
Pupek, who grew up in West Springfield, Massachusetts, first visited Orvieto, a medieval hill town, on holiday with a friend in 2007, where she was introduced to Cimicchi. “It was ‘ciao, ciao’ at the end of the trip,” she recalls.
Back in the US, Pupek was working as an executive marketing assistant to the head of the Boston Design Center, putting to good use the marketing skills she acquired studying for a BS in Business Administration at Bryant University in Rhode Island. But the urge to travel was strong. “I wanted to get back to school and looked for a program that was 100 percent globally focused,” said Pupek.
The following year she applied to the Global MBA program at Suffolk University that required an intense, two-week residency abroad. “Suffolk seemed a good fit because the classes weren’t huge and I wouldn’t be a number,” Pupek explains.
“Most students on this course have seven to 10 years of significant work experience so she was young,” recalls Lillian Hallberg, who retired as Assistant Dean of Graduate Programs and director of MBA programs in 2012. “But I saw an amazing voice and energy in her application, so I called her in for an interview.” For her part, Pupek saw Hallberg as supportive and understanding of her work schedule.
Pupek, who planned to attend part-time, was admitted in 2008. Her advisor was Giana Eckhardt, who heard that Cimicchi’s family also owned olive groves. “I don’t often supervise internships unless the student is really strong, but Andrea had a marketing mind combined with an entrepreneurial spirit,” she said. “A lot of MBA students can be analytical, but her creativity set her apart.”
As Pupek started discussing her foreign study trip with her advisor, she nevertheless had the idea of drawing up a business plan for the café Cimicchi was running in Orvieto. “I suggested Andrea look at the family’s olive oil business rather than the café because there was more scope for export,” Eckhardt recalls.
When Pupek made a return trip to Orvieto on holiday in 2009, she again met Cimicchi.
“There was chemistry and a spark between us, but the rational side in me said ‘This will never work’,” she said. “I knew I was interested but I wouldn’t allow it.”
“The attraction had been unspoken and I thought it was innocent,” Pupek adds. “Famous last words with an Italian.”
Between a Stone and a Hammer
Although the Cimicchis trace their roots in the area back centuries to when their French ancestors settled in the area, Fabio, 35, is the fourth generation of his family to farm olives at their 200-acre estate a few minutes drive from Orvieto. Today, the family is well known locally, after Fabio’s father, Stefano, 59, served as mayor of Orvieto for 13 years.
Since the estate is 60 percent vineyards, which produce grapes for the local cooperative of wine makers, and the family also raise pigeons, doves, chickens, goats and sheep, olives were never the family’s primary concern. But that still leaves room for 3,000 olive trees, although the oil they produce was either sold locally or used at home.
When Pupek contacted the Cimicchis in 2010, Fabio and his family agreed to hear what the American had to say. “I read every book, every article, every online blog I could get my hands on that had anything to do with growing olives, the different varieties of olives, olive oil production in the world - as well as in Italy,” said Pupek. “I am sure I asked Fabio and his family at least a million questions.”
After Skyping constantly with Fabio, Pupek arrived in Orvieto in 2010 for her two-week visit.
“I was the American who comes in saying ‘I need this yesterday’,” is how she recalls it. Within days, they were falling in love.
“It was like lightning after a long friendship,” said Fabio. “It happens.”
Pupek was more expansive. “He had me laughing from day one, and that was important because my family has always made me laugh,” she said.
When she returned to the States, Pupek and Cimicchi continued to make business plans, and oddly, it was the long distance relationship that drew them even closer.
“It worked to our benefit because all we had was communication. If something on Skype or email wasn't understood, which is easy, we had no choice to say ‘What do you mean?.’ We are both big on respect and trying to understand each other,” she said.
“Now, some days are really hard, but he understands it and doesn't take it personally. It’s not always like a fairytale.”
As they swapped ideas across the Atlantic, Fabio was getting more interested in Pupek’s ideas. “We were selling our oil to friends, it was effectively ‘Fabio’s oil’, and it seemed we had too much for a family but too little for a business,” he said. “It wasn’t simple having someone like Andrea show up with new ideas, but the ideas were right.”
“We were thinking about what to do with our olives, so we were ready and she came at the perfect time. We have done a lot of what she suggested, giving the oil a label, a target and marketing.”
Hallberg said the character Pupek showed in her interview at Suffolk shone through in Italy. “When someone travels on an internship it is a huge leap and you need the personality to adjust and to make people believe in you. The family believed in her because she lights up the room and can connect. She didn’t just look at the product.”
After the family signed off on her business plan, Pupek got to work and last year the Cimicchis sold over 500 liters of their extra virgin olive oil in the US at $40 for three quarters of a liter, leading with their signature Olio delle Caselle. With output at up to 5,000 liters in a good year, there is plenty of room for growth.
As work proceeded, Pupek made the move permanent by crossing the Atlantic with her cat Charlie. She and Fabio were married in June 2013, taking a house on the estate down the lane from the main house where his parents live.
For Fabio’s parents, her move was a surprise. They had already sent Fabio on work placements in the US, and might have expected him to move to the States. “Umbria is a land from where people emigrate,” said Fabio’s father Stefano. “I asked Fabio, ‘Are you sure she wants to come here?’ It was a courageous move.”
Fabio’s parents did, however, understand the idea of a husband-and-wife business team. Since Stefano’s retirement from politics, he and Fabio’s mother had teamed to invest in renewable energy businesses from Turkey to North Africa.
It was not all clear sailing on the estate. Pupek quickly realized that Fabio’s family name, Cimicchi, pronounced Chimicki, did not roll off the tongue as a great brand name and proposed the name Caselle for marketing the oil.
“It was my first head-to-head with Fabio’s dad,” she recalls. Stefano eventually agreed, but not without a fight. “Unluckily I was in the middle,” said Fabio. “It was like being between a stone and a hammer. I agreed with Andrea but could not go against my father.”
If anyone understood Pupek would not back down, it was Fabio’s mother, Stefania. “She is a very strong woman and understands me,” said Pupek. “We have a very good relationship.”
The affection her new in-laws bestowed on her made a huge difference. “I missed my family, and had Fabio’s family not been so loving and caring it would have been a lot more challenging,” she said.
If family legends can be relied on, Pupek is just the latest strong woman in the area. Madonna Antonia, a fabled matriarch from a local family reportedly outlived four husbands in the 1300s and now has one of the olive oils produced on the estate named after her. “It’s strong and peppery,” said Pupek.
Pupek laughs as she reveals she is not the first member of her family to marry into an Italian family. Although her father’s family came from Poland, her maternal grandmother grew up in Belgium. At the end of the Second World War, she met Pupek’s maternal grandfather, an Italian-American soldier who whisked her back to married life in an apartment with his parents and three siblings in New York.
“I am repeating history here, and my mother said if my grandmother was still around she would get a real kick out of this,” said Pupek.
Back in the US, Pupek’s friends were less than convinced by her decision to go into business with her husband. “Fabio and I are both driven,” she said, “and when I am discussing business I say to him, ‘I am not speaking as your wife, but as your business partner’.”
Andrea and her Leather Company friends in Orvieto
The Most Important Things
The olive oil campaign has now expanded to include a second American, Wayne Kerber, an entrepreneur from Binghamton, New York, who happened to be staying in Orvieto with his wife when he heard about Pupek’s plans for a US export campaign.
“Andrea said ‘I want to sell the oil’, and I said ‘let’s sell the oil’,” recalls Kerber, a fast talking, natural salesman who has been marketing oil in the US for the firm, known as Caselle Italian Imports. Now, the business is expanding to olive oil cosmetics and soap, as well as to other Italian products. On a trip back to Orvieto recently, he and Pupek visited a local artisan who makes handmade leather bags, and they hatched plans to export them to the US.
Stopping on an Orvieto street corner, Pupek and Kerber discussed the merits of the olive oil they are now competing with in America. “Fabio believes some of the oil sold in the US is fit only to be used in his car,” said Pupek. The pair debated the merits of flavored olive oils, increasingly popular in the US, rarely used in Italy.
Kerber was tempted by the concept, but Pupek had her doubts. “Why flavor it when it has a flavor?” she argued. “We want to teach the market that good olive oil is like wine – each one tastes different and they should be appreciated for that.”
In 2013, Pupek’s advisor from Suffolk, Giana Eckhardt, moved to teach in London. She headed out to Orvieto last year to visit Fabio and Andrea and advise them on their business plans.
“Usually MBA students turn in their paper, get a grade and move on, but Andrea has had a wonderful opportunity to implement her project,” said Eckhardt.
For Pupek, bringing her MBA to life as Cimicchi’s partner meant doing the one thing she thought she would never do – mix business with her personal life. “I never wanted to let emotions get in the way of business, but I couldn’t fight it,” she said. “There were only so many excuses I could find. In the end I had a chance at happiness and I embraced it.” Pupek and Cimicchi welcomed Evelyn Pupek Cimicchi in March.
The way she describes it, the olive oil they are now marketing that tastes of the earth, fruit and spices, is also part of that happiness. “This oil is the product of generations of Fabio’s family, it’s a big deal to the family and it’s a big ingredient of life here,” she said. “The most important things,” she added, “can be the most simple.”