Recognising the Strength of Women at Compagniesdrift

Every day thousands of cars whizz past Compagniesdrift, driving to or from Stellenbosch on Baden Powell Drive, blissfully unaware of what goes on at the large warehouse. In a nutshell: bottling, labelling and storage of millions of bottles of wine ahead of local and international trans-shipment. Keeping track of it all is a hands-on, dynamic yet low-key MD – someone who never dreamed she might one

Perhaps the most significant achievement at this Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) project established in 2010 by the Myburgh Family Trust and the Land Reform and Development Programme of the Department of Agriculture is the massive change it’s effecting in people’s lives.

Former US President Bill Clinton said: “It turns out that advancing equal opportunity and economic empowerment is both morally right and good economics, because discrimination, poverty and ignorance restrict growth, while investments in education, infrastructure and scientific and technological research increase it, creating more good jobs and new wealth for all of us.”

There are 2.4 million bottles of wine stored at Compagniesdrift and every day massive freight trucks arrive to load up containers of wine for export. Keeping track of it all is a hands-on, dynamic yet low-key MD – someone who never dreamed she might one day run a business.

Ilse Ruthford has grasped the challenge with both hands and not just risen to the occasion but soared like the proverbial eagle! In August 2014, after being announced as the Western Cape’s top candidate, she won the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ national female entrepreneur award in the agro-processing category.

What’s her story? She matriculated from Bloemhof Girls High and enrolled at Boland College in Stellenbosch, dealing with her parents’ disapproval. “They wanted me to go to University like my brother and sister – but I didn’t want to do a degree. I’m the black sheep because I went into the wine industry.” She did a two year marketing course instead – as well as her Cape Wine Academy certificate qualification to boost her marketable skills which led to her first job at Chamonix wine farm in Franschhoek. But she credits Mark and Hillary Makepeace, former owners of Amani  Vineyards in Stellenbosch, for broadening her scope beyond just staffing the tasting room. Her administrative efficiency led to a job at Kleine Zalze where she did admin and exports in addition to hosting tastings. Ironically, she left because owner Kobus Basson wanted to “push me into marketing”. Instead she went to JF Hillebrand and the fast-paced world of logistics, exporting wine to multiple destinations abroad. Juggling the demands of marriage, a newborn and the pressure of shipping schedules led to her decision to quit – and join Meerlust wine estate as an export clerk in 2006. 

“At the time there was a lot of discussion about the BEE project but it was only once the building took shape that it became real.” Ruthford helped set up the systems when Compagniesdrift opened its doors in 2010, and moved over to the business full-time in 2012. 

She candidly admits struggling in the early days but credits Meerlust owner Hannes Myburgh and chief executive Albie de Waal for patiently mentoring and guiding her. Board meetings are a cinch now and she’s quite comfortable calling the shots. Not that her style is autocratic – far from it. “Our success is because of the mentorship we received from skilled business people, and because of the Myburgh Family Trust’s belief in us as workers. This is more than just a place of work; it’s like a family.”

A flattened management structure means that Ruthford interacts informally and listens to the team of 28 workers, men and women. “Everyone wants recognition.” These former general farm workers have never worked so hard – or been so motivated in their lives, she says. “Everyone has a role to play – and they need to live up to the responsibilities and opportunities they’ve been given.”

While she emphasises the positive and the close-knit ‘family type’ relationship at Compagniesdrift, it’s not always sunshine and roses. Ruthford recounts how she took personal responsibility for a problem one of their clients experienced recently. “We all spoke as a team about what had happened and how, but I made it clear that I took the ultimate blame.” The next morning she had separate visits from three staffers admitting their roles in the screw up – but also coming up with potential solutions for how to prevent a recurrence. “For them to have gone away and analysed the situation, expressed accountability then worked out a fix showed maturity and great potential.”

Ruthford believes everyone wants respect, recognition and reward. “I always tell my people that the biggest factor is trust and respect. All here have somewhat limited schooling – but we’ve made the business a success because we’ve seen the opportunities and made the most of them. We had the will and the desire to succeed.” Like the former cleaner who proved herself – without any formal training – worthy of promotion to logistics co-ordination. Or the general worker who used to man the front gate who now also works in logistics. “She has such potential! She takes initiative and is capable of more than she knows. She’s already got her driver’s licence and Professional Driving Permit. I want to send her on additional training courses because she needs to spread her wings and achieve more.”

Her management approach is people-centric. “I have a passion for the people. I understand their backgrounds and how to manage both their expectations and capabilities.” It’s important to recognise potential and harness it accordingly, she maintains and strongly advocates female empowerment – not for the sake of it but because she recognises the strength of women.

“We’re changing the social dynamic which is a massively important thing. It’s tough. Women on farms not only lack self-confidence but frequently have nothing of their own. Women’s empowerment doesn’t mean taking anything away from men or overpowering them – it’s about independence for women, saying it’s OK to have dreams and goals of their own. I want women to better themselves so that they can elevate their children and improve the lives and prospects of the next generation.”

The changes that go hand-in-hand with employment – such as economic independence, improved self worth and an increase in living standards bear out President Clinton’s quote: empowerment is morally right and good business.

That’s one of Ruthford’s personal goals: to assist the children, the next generation, to broaden their horizons and develop.

“That award for entrepreneurship in 2014 was not so much for me but for Hannes (Myburgh) and Albie (De Waal) – for giving me and 71 farm workers the opportunity of doing a better job and changing our futures. I want to pass that on and invest in the people here – to not just believe in dreams but to achieve them.”

As the writer of a book about a boy wizard named Harry Potter said: “We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.” - J.K Rowling