The new leadership to the fore – Cassie du Plessis

The more things change, the more they stay the same … This is probably how many a wine industry participant has felt in recent years about the leadership and structures. The same people, the same talk. Yes more achievements and maybe maintained momentum, but mounting problems on all fronts.

However, we’ve, in recent months, seen a wave of change in the leadership ranks, just about affecting each and every aspect of the country’s wine business. This means that the industry will enter the new year and its manifold threats and challenges with a new, obviously younger,management corps and probably new thinking and mind-sets–hopefully the right thing at the right time to forge the industry forward in a forever changing and competitive wine world.

And it is in the world arena – the world of exports and diverse taste and price preferences which are inexorably linked to political and ethical issues – that we’ll be seeing a new face behind South African wine. This is in the form of Siobhan Thompson, the new driving force for Brand SA as CEO of Wines of South Africa (Wosa).

Ms Thompson is an international marketing specialist from the country’s liquor giant Distell, and takes over from Su Birch, who has been in this hot-seat for the past 13 years and retires in November.The new and probably just as fiery redhead appears to be cut-out for the job, having been, among others, Distell’s global head of marketing for the phenomenally successful Amarula and the company’s other liqueur brands since 2010.

Following her appointment, Thomson immediately made interesting – actually daring – noises with regard to her view on the domestic market. She said in an interview with WineLand magazine that although generic wine promotion on the domestic front was not part of Wosa’s mandate, she believed promoting wines in the domestic market was essential for the health of the industry, “for building South Africa as an exciting wine tourism destination and for creating ambassadors for the country’s wines”.

The subject of generic marketing in the quite stagnant domestic market has, of course, been highly debated over decades, with her former mother company not exactly enthusiastic because of the apparent threat to its own hugely successful local wine brands. This while Wosa chairperson Johann Krige – who plans to retire from this position in February – believes domestic generic promotion could “enlarge the cake for all”.

Meanwhile, Distell, the largest player in SA wine, has a new group managing director replacing Jan Scannell who retires after 34 years’ service, having led the company from strength to strength since its inception in 2000. His successor, Richard Rushton, has experience of the commodity trade, branding, as well as developing markets worked in in Africa, Asia and Latin America – the latter where he resided until now.
Distell has over the decades closely collaborated with Salba (SA Liquor Brand owners Association) which is a key role player in the industry, Interestingly, Salba’s responsibilities also cover RTD’s (ready-to-drinks), brandy, and other spirit products.

It so happens that the CEO of Salba, Riaan Kruger – known for his understated but smart maneuvering in liquor politics and legislative issues – has retired after 34 years and has been succeeded by his sidekick Kurt Moore.

With regard to responsible alcohol enjoyment and promotion as well as liquor legislation – where a ban on advertising is looming – Salba has been working closely with ARA (Industry Association for Responsible Alcohol Use). This organisation’s director and co-founder, Adrian Botha, retired at the end of August after 24 years. His successor is Johannesburg-based medical practitioner and corporate affairs executive in the pharmaceutical industry, Dr Osborn Mahanjana. Perhaps the right person at the right time to lobby our difficult Minister of Health who is also from medical background, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi.

Talking about responsible wine enjoyment, a significant role is played in this regard by the mammoth educational drive of the Cape Wine Academy (CWA), where we are also seeing a change in the driver’s seat. Kristina Beutler CWM, among others the Northern Cape manager of the Institute of Cape Masters, International Wine and Spirit Competition judge and CWA lecturer, has been appointed as its principal as of January. She succeeds Marilyn Cooper, who is retiring after 15 years of service to the CWA, six of which as CEO.

Closer to home, the new generation of industry leadership also includes Winetech (Wine Industry Network for Expertise and Technololgy), where assistant Gerard Martin has taken over from Jan Booysen as executive manager, while Jan acts as technical advisor.

Last but by no means least, one of the most significant structural changes in the wine industry has been the merger of Wine Cellars South Africa (WCSA) and VinPro in July – with a relative new ‘broom’, Rico Basson as VinPro CEO since beginning of 2012, leading this breakthrough.

This saw Wine Cellars South Africa chairperson for nine years, Henk Bruwer, retiring and Christo Conradie, an agricultural economist from the banking sector, in effect replacing him,as manager of VinPro‘s new Cellars Division. This means that Rico and his new generation management team now looks after the interests of 3600 wine grape producer members and 54 producer cellars which push out 75% of the country’s wine.

While on the subject of VinPro, the author of this article has just retired as VinPro’s Communications manager, including the managing editorships of WineLand magazine and the SA Wine Industry Directory.

My successor is previous assistant-editor Edo Heyns, who wrote in his first editorial of November 2013: “Times are undoubtedly tough in the wine industry. Yet, there are those who thrive in this uncertain economic climate, while some giants of the earlier status quo battle to adapt to the new realities.”

Yes, while respecting the achievements and contributions of the ‘old wood’, we’ll all probably find that a change is as good as a holiday … Providing that the new generation are real leaders and not just managers.