Denise Stubbs of Thokozani Wines named FEDHASA's 2024 Leader of the Year

Friday, 19 April, 2024
Big #wineforgood news: In recognition of her pioneering spirit, the FEDHASA has named Denise Stubbs of Thokozani Wines as its 2024 Leader of the Year.

In recognition of her pioneering spirit and outstanding leadership, FEDHASA (Federated Hospitality Association of Southern Africa) has named Denise Stubbs, managing director of Thokozani Wines and Hospitality in Wellington, as its 2024 Leader of the Year. These inaugural hospitality awards focus on individual excellence and shine a spotlight on the industry, providing a pathway for passionate, driven individuals to build meaningful and rewarding careers while positioning SA as a global destination.

"Despite the very senior competition Denise was up against, it was her determination and authenticity, the way she fought for her people, and her ability to navigate different stakeholders – from labourers to experienced board members – that made her the obvious choice for winner of the leadership category. She has tenacity too, showing impressive grit to get products onto the shelves of retailers. At the awards ceremony she moved the audience to tears; everyone celebrated this exceptional woman's win,” said FEDHASA Cape chairperson, Lee-Anne Singer.

For Stubbs, the prestigious honour is a tremendously emotional moment after over two decades in hospitality. "I lost both my parents in a year, they were my anchor in everything," she reflected. "My mom constantly said to me, "do it from the heart". If you ask me, I'm still very much overwhelmed by this award. How is it possible that a small farm girl like me was chosen amongst all these legends?"

From humble roots to industry leader

Denise's journey began from humble roots – her parents were agricultural labourers in the community of Pniel. Before 2002, she was quite happy working in corporate project management. That year, she joined Diemersfontein Wine and Country Estate with owners David and Sue Sonnenberg, a third-generation family wine business, as her mentors.

Denise with her mentors, David and Sue Sonnenberg, the owners of Diemersfontein.

"It was a passion that one day we would have our own guest house and wine," Stubbs explained, who identified staff from similar backgrounds who had ideas but didn't know how to start a business.

Overcoming scepticism and ‘window dressing’

The path was not easy. Upon starting, Stubbs faced daunting industry scepticism when seeking bank loans rather than handouts. "With David, we worked around this. We don't have time for window dressing. We need to make this work," she stated.

Her perseverance paid off with the birth of Thokozani Wines and guest accommodations providing staff ownership. In November 2020, Thokozani did a groundbreaking deal purchasing a 55% share of Diemersfontein Wines, making Stubbs a black female majority shareholder.

Stubbs' advice from overcoming challenges: "Never doubt your gut. Secondly, make sure you do your research. You need to work damn hard to make it work. You need to delve deep inside the industry. If you get into hospitality and give up too soon, you were never made for this industry. The dream is only good as long as you keep it alive.”

Stubbs shares that only recently, in November last year, after six years of trying, they got Thokozani wines into the Netherlands market – proof that perseverance will pay off.

Fostering excellence through tough love

Stubbs' leadership approach is defined by nurturing her team with a tough love mentality. "I didn't come into this business to make friends, I didn't come to make enemies," she said. "If you can't get the basics right, then you're in the wrong industry.

"I learnt early that tough love is the only way to grow a business," Stubbs noted. I preached every day to the ladies, when you make up the bed – it's your business – you have a share in this business."

This culture of shared ownership and accountability has fostered excellence. As one guest commented when Stubbs brought women from her cleaning team to the FEDHASA Hospitality Awards ceremony: "You have shown me that this stage is for our people."

Inspiring the next generation

Looking ahead, Stubbs aims to expand Thokozani's offerings while leaving a lasting legacy. "I'm going into my 60s. The legacy needs to continue. These farm workers' children need to have something to look back to when we're no longer there."

Her goal is to inspire other small businesses. "No one knew Thokozani when we started. I want to see the small names shine at the FEDHASA awards next year. Don't see yourself as less than. The stage is yours to claim."


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