Getting South Africa’s finest wines on the road | Fin24

Getting South Africa’s finest wines on the road

Sep 06 2017 10:38
Jana Marais
Debi van Flymen is the founder of DvF Wine Distrib

Debi van Flymen is the founder of DvF Wine Distributors. (Picture: Supplied)

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As a trained chef and owner of a successful catering company, Debi van Flymen knew she wanted to leave this line of work to pursue wine full-time.

She spotted a gap in the market to build a unique wine distribution business. Leveraging her network of contacts in the industry, she launched DvF Wine Distributors, which currently represents 13 wine farms in the Gauteng market; and GrapeSlave, a wine events company.

What did you do prior to starting your wine businesses?

I moved back to South Africa 14 years ago, and started a catering company called Culinary Productions. But I’d always been fascinated by wine. I started doing courses through the Cape Wine Academy.

From the moment I did the introductory course, I knew I wanted to be a Cape Wine Master.

One of the things that attracts me most to the world of wine, is that wine is living, breathing, evolving and you can know a lot, but you can never know everything. 

How did you get into the wine business?

Before I even qualified as a Cape Wine Master, I was given the opportunity to join Wine Cellar, which was looking to expand into Joburg from Cape Town. 

In fact, Wine Cellar was a client at my former Culinary Productions venue, which became a home for many winemakers because it wasn’t tied to any specific allegiance.

It didn’t have a wine list; it was a place where people could feel completely independent.

So a lot of the winemakers from the Cape with whom I became friendly used to come and do their events at our venue. It was great to build relationships in the industry.

You founded DvF Wine Distributors about 18 months ago. How did this come about?

I really enjoyed working with Wine Cellar, learning from and tasting regularly with their managing director Roland Peens. Wine Cellar later decided to follow a different strategy than the one I personally wanted to follow. 

I crunched some numbers and started drawing up a business plan, fleshing out what I thought the industry could look like. I developed a series of financial models, and began thinking about the way I wanted to develop the wine industry in Gauteng and beyond.

I knew that in order to make it work, I had to have buy-in from people who had top-quality wines and the same philosophical approach.

I didn’t want to have a portfolio where wines competed for shelf space. As I started to have conversations with people, and started to realise that this could actually happen, I resigned and was able to procure the first four wineries to distribute. 

What makes DvF Wine Distributors different from competitors?

Most wine distribution companies do not own the stock; they have stock on consignment.

The billing is generally done by the farms, and the farms hold the book collecting debts. I decided to build a robust distribution business, buying the stock from the farms and thus holding the book directly and allowing the farms to focus on wine.

I realised that with these kinds of terms, I had the potential to manage and grow the relationships better. My backside is on the line every single day. 

How did you fund your business?

Lots of industry colleagues said to me there’s no way I can build a new distribution business without having millions of rands to buy stock.

I believed I could leverage the relationships I had with the wineries, show them that I understood the cycle well enough, and that I had enough measures in place to collect and control the credit that we’re issuing to the trade [liquor stores, hotels, restaurants, etc.].

It didn’t take a fraction of the capital that most people thought it would. I started simply with my savings and a small loan.

It’s been tough, and at times we’ve had very challenging cash flow concerns, but the business has been sustainable and is growing beyond expectations.

What are the biggest difficulties you’ve had to overcome?

Women are not dominant in this industry; I face the challenge of this being a patriarchal industry. I am privileged to have some incredible mentors like Michael Fridjhon, Jeremy Sampson and Carrie Adams.

One ongoing challenge is that we haven’t as an industry learnt to pull together.

If you look at Brand Australia, for example – the winemakers speak with one voice about proudly being from Australia and making Australian wines.

There is this cohesiveness within the industry which we lack in SA and could benefit from tremendously. 

What has been your biggest mistake?

To run out into the business at full tilt “Sell, sell, sell, sell!”, and then four months in, I realised I had been doing a great job selling, but people had not been paying their bills timeously. I hadn’t paid as much attention to the collecting as I should have.

I didn’t anticipate that I would grow this business as quickly as I have. Growing without putting some of those processes in place has at times been extremely painful. Now we have a dedicated staff member handling this – much better than I ever did.

How do you grow sales?

If you ask the biggest distributors in the business how they grow sales, I bet they’ll say “put more reps on the road”. But I believe it’s relational.

I believe it’s in knowing the wines and knowing the customers and listening to the customers, and I do think it’s something we do exceptionally well. 

How do you keep up to date with what’s new?

This is one of the most challenging parts of my life. I read constantly; I have to build time into my schedule.

I do a fair amount of travelling and I taste whenever the opportunity arises, and I taste things far afield of my own portfolio.

If you don’t do that, then you don’t know what’s happening around you or in the industry and you start to lose perspective. 

What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?

I can remember saying to my dad in the past, even before this business – “Dad, I’ve sold X amount!” My dad never cared about how much I sold; he made me realise it’s about the profit.

We’ve seen a lot of businesses that don’t understand within their own business the difference between a margin and a mark-up. Life is about playing the margin.

What are your non-work habits that help you with your work/life balance?

I love the bush – it’s the one place in the world where I feel my batteries get recharged. I try to make time for my family, and I like to walk. I like exploring; I like history; I love art and art galleries. I look at wine in terms of not just the science of it, but the art of it.

I love reading. I just finished Gary Vaynerchuk’s new book (#AskGaryVee: One Entrepreneur’s Take on Leadership, Social Media, and Self-Awareness). It should be required reading for every business school student in SA and every board member for every company in every sphere.

I also recently finished Tim Ferriss’s new book (Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines and Habits of Billionaires, Icons and World-Class Performers).

And I just read the book Natural Wine: An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Wines Made Naturally by Isabella Legeron. 

What is your five-year goal for your company?

Financially, we hope to continue to grow organically on our upwards trajectory, keep our margins healthy and expand opportunities for our producer portfolio. I also want us to be known as the best wine distributor in the business.

When I say best, I mean not only by providing the highest levels of service, but being known as the people who are the resource or knowledge base in the industry. I’d also like us to be known for having the best portfolio in the business. 

This article originally appeared in the 7 September edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.

wine  |  wine farm  |  entrepreneur