Dr Andrea D'Ercole, 32, has an impressive career history in blue-chip companies that spans from finance to pharmaceuticals. But he decided to opt out of big business and take on a new challenge - as a "merchant". The traditional merchant model mixes know-how, travel and trade and D'Ercole's business, Italyabroad.com, offers the finest regional foods and wines from small producers in his native Italy. "We supply the real Italian products," he says, "not those simply labelled as Italian and, quite often, unrecognisable to Italians."
What started as a part-time idea in 2003 grew so quickly that D'Ercole took the plunge full-time in early 2005. "The amount of e-mails I got asking questions about Italy was amazing," he says. "I realised that there was a huge demand for what I could offer." And what he can offer stems from a lifetime's passion for food, cooking and wine. In fact, D'Ercole knows exactly when that passion started. "I was two-years-old," he says."My grandfather introduced me to wine as I sat on his knee and I can remember the moment like yesterday." D'Ercole's grandfather knew what he was talking about - he owned a small vineyard himself. And it is access to the quality of products from small producers like his grandfather that D'Ercole now makes available to his customers.
Around 70 per cent of Italyabroad.com's customers are in the restaurant or delicatessen retail sectors. But that's changing steadily as sales from his website show strong growth; in fact, turnover doubled in the last year alone. And demand for his knowledge about Italy continues unabated, which explains why sections of his website offer information about travel and property in Italy - even how to get married there. A very popular section includes reviews of Italian restaurants, by Italians.
D'Ercole's big challenge now is to build on the success of his business in the North-east and to roll that out across the UK. London is firmly in his sights and he's recently engaged a marketing team to build his brand and help develop his business. With supermarket chains coming under ever-increasing criticism, perhaps the day of the true merchant is once more upon us.