While many wineries view their temporary tasting-room staff as a means to an end over the busy tourist season, nurturing students can generate a flow of talent for the future. We chat to four Waterford Estate employees who started their careers as students at the Stellenbosch winery.
It’s often said that a company is only as good as its people and that no company, big or small, can win over the long run without motivated employees. This is a philosophy that Waterford Estate has embraced since it was established in 1998, and one that is most apparent in the way the students who help out on the estate are treated.
From the beginning, the Waterford Estate brand was built around people, with managing partner Kevin Arnold taking great care to employ the right people and to hold on to those who are passionate about the brand and a good fit for the team.
Nurturing the students who come to work at Waterford Estate, and helping them to grow into exciting new roles, has become a hallmark of how the Stellenbosch winery operates. As much as this has benefited the estate, it has also opened up a world of opportunities for the students who were lucky enough to find permanent employment.
Four of the estate’s current staff members first joined the Waterford family as students. Jeremy van Heerden, Nick Battle and Brooke Warren all started off as temporary staff in the tasting room when they were still studying at Stellenbosch University. All three of them are now permanently employed as brand managers.
Isabelle Bezuidenhout, the estate’s Marketing Coordinator, took on her current role a few months after getting to know the brand as part of the tasting-room team. At the time, Isabelle had just completed studying at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in San Francisco, CA.
When asked why she decided to stay at Waterford Estate when she originally planned to move back to San Francisco, Isabelle notes that the brand culture and the opportunity to grow the estate’s online presence through social media and a new website made it a natural choice. A close relationship with Kevin and winemaker Mark le Roux, and their constant guidance to ensure that all digital content stayed 100% on brand, helped her to grow into the role. “Being able to work with such an iconic brand is something most people only dream of after graduating,” she says.
The brand managers, in turn, were all trained and mentored in the tasting room, which allowed them to grow personally and professionally with the brand. After spending three years or more in the tasting room as senior students and/or managers, Nick, Jeremy and Brooke moved into their current roles. “Having your brand represented by people who are driven by passion, and who know everything about the brand right down to the finest details, is incredibly unique,” Isabelle notes.
Nick, whose journey with Waterford Estate started as a job shadow in Grade 10, was attracted by the young, high-end brand. By the time he completed his BCom degree and was offered a job just over a year ago, the brand already had a significant international footprint. Plus, he already knew the brand incredibly well. “I enjoyed the fact that we were and are doing so many exciting things with wine. We are pioneers in many ways.”
The brand culture was always the drawing card for Jeremy. “It seemed like quite a family-orientated brand and the people here made me feel very welcome. From the start, it was also quite an easy place to learn. I never felt stupid to ask questions.”
Being able to spend time with Kevin on his first day on the job, talking and learning about wine, took Jeremy by surprise – and became part of what made him stay.
For Brooke, Waterford Estate has always felt like a safe space. After being a tasting-room floor manager for two years, Brooke recently moved into the position of brand manager in Johannesburg – one of Waterford Estate’s biggest markets. “I learnt so much since I started working here in 2015 and never felt that there was a ceiling to my growth,” she says. “Every time I was at the point of taking the next step, an opportunity arose for me here.”
These former students agree that Kevin and the rest of the management team always seem to follow a very people-centred approach in employing and growing staff, preferring to walk a path with people who are already connected to the Waterford brand in some or other way. “I started off with one guy and asked him to bring his friends, and so the team grew organically,” Kevin says.
Apart from promoting from within whenever possible, Kevin adds that he also selects team members based on whether they enjoy working with people.
Anyone who has ever had the privilege to walk up the steps towards the Waterford Estate tasting room can testify just how this approach has borne fruit. Every visitor is made to feel exceptionally welcome by the staff – all of whom are proud brand ambassadors for one of South Africa’s best-loved wine brands.