Will the Real Owner of Backsberg Please Stand up?

I am a teetotaler – unashamedly so.  However, in my MBA classes at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB), the one company that provides me with so much referencing material, is Backsberg.  Backsberg is a beautiful wine estate against the slopes of Simonsberg near Stellenbosch.

Why have I become a customer evangelist of Backsberg, that sells something that I do not drink myself?  As Chris de Burg would say in his “Patricia – the best stripper in town” (Spanish Train and Other Stories), the reasons are not very hard to see!

What am I talking about?

First of all, they do make a number of great wines.  Although I do not drink alcohol, there is nothing wrong with my taste buds.  I am particularly in love with their 2004 Klein Babylonstoren (KBT) Red, of which the stock levels are unfortunately running low.  The  Babylons Toren (BT) Red 2003, which is sold out, is (was?) also an exquisite wine!  Fortunately, the 2005 KBT is developing into a worthy successor for the 2004.  Unfortunately the BT still needs to get a successor as it is not made every year.  They only make it if they have sufficient quantities great quality grapes for the blend!  Amongst the whites, the John Martin Sauvignon Blanc is another wine I love tasting.  It has a wee bit of exposure to some oak, which just gives it that unique taste! The cherry on the cake is that Backsberg has just been chosen as one of the Top 100 Wineries of the Year by Wine & Spirits Magazine in New York. Wineries are chosen based on consistently high performance and scores throughout a 12 month tasting cycle.

Point being?  Backsberg strives for excellence and achieves it!

Secondly, the people at Backsberg are serious about sustainability and show it in a very real tangible manner.  They were the first wine estate in South Africa to be declared carbon neutral, and the third internationally.  Examples in this regard entail the use of water at about 1.5m below the surface of the dam to cool down the wine making process.  Not only does this save them a considerable amount of money (saving electricity), but it helps with bringing down their carbon footprint.  You also need to check out the small pickups the people of Backsberg drive around in.  No big fuel-guzzling 4X4’s!  In addition, Backsberg is closely involved with “Food & Trees for Africa.”  This has obvious advantages for our planet.  Backsberg has also won the Sustainability Award at the inaugural Drinks Business Green Awards of 2010.  As I am also a member of the Backsberg Wine Club, the Wine Club plants a tree on my family’s behalf every year!  In this way, they are helping me to become a carbon neutral family!  What a way to go!

Thirdly, they have a great restaurant which serves a wicked lamb on the spit, with great veggies.  Their baked potatoes are to die for!  Imagine enjoying all of this, either outside in the sun under the trees, or nice and warm inside the restaurant in front of the fire-place during winter rains!  For those inclined to it, having a glass or two of Backsberg’s finest, white or red, really does add a lot of value.  Take my word for it, I am drooling as I am writing.

Fourthly, the people at Backsberg are serious about making a difference in society.  They will not make it a big issue, but they offer bursaries for worthy school children to study at university, with no strings attached.  The one condition is that the recipients of bursaries need to pass their exams and complete their studies.

And so we can go on.  However, the fifth reason for my customer evangelism has to do with the ownership structure (or is it actually the culture?!).  According to the law, Michael Back is the owner, with his son Simon in line to take over a few years from now.  That is what the law says (the part about Michael owning the estate in any case!).  Should you not know who the owner is, you could be forgiven if you made a number of mistakes.  Allow me to elaborate.

  • First you meet Clive Trent, the viticulturist, general manager, and general dogsbody (his idea of his position).  He will take you to his vineyards and explain what they are doing there.  He will chat about getting the soil back into pristine condition, to ensure sustainability.  He will chat about ensuring that the best quality grapes get to the winery.  He will tell you about the black berries, figs and pomegranates.  He will tell you about using the dam water to cool the wine making process.  He will also chat to you about the passion his farm workers, both the permanent and seasonal workers, have for the farm.  He will tell you about the corporate social initiatives of Backsberg.  All of this he will talk about in such a way you clearly realise that he is the boss of Backsberg.  The passion, the sense of ownership, is clear for everyone to see!
  • Then you go inside and meet the sommelier of Backsberg, Danwin James.  His passion for his wines are clear.  His sense of humour is a treat for everyone meeting him.  I take about 10 to 12 groups of MBA students, most from abroad, to Backsberg every year.  They all love him to bits.  When you hear him speak about “we did the following in 1950,” you have to remind yourself that “we” is only 28 years old!  I must confess though that Clive has this same affliction!  In any case, after visiting Danwin, you realise you made a mistake; Danwin is actually the boss of Backsberg.

So, what does it all boil down to?  The people of Backsberg own Backsberg.  The Backs of Backsberg have succeeded in creating a culture of ownership that most organisations worldwide will give their front teeth to achieve.  The passion and enthusiasm of the people of Backsberg is a key resource of competitive advantage, one which is extremely difficult to imitate!  The success of the estate can directly be ascribed to the people of the estate.

When I read Jim Collins and Jerry Porras about the importance of getting the right people on board in the right positions, the importance of the 3 to 6 core values held in a cult-like fashion, I think about Backsberg!

When I read Alex Osterwalder on the importance of business model innovation, I think about the clarity that the people of Backsberg have of their model.  I think about their innovative and creative ideas and their willingness to try new ideas!  I think about their focus and their willingness to cut ideas that do not work!

When I read Christo Nel and Jim Collins on leadership, I think about what is happening at Backsberg.  The unassuming management and leadership style of everyone in managerial positions at Backsberg!  The willingness to reach out and let visitors feel that they belong at the estate!

So, the next time you are in Cape Town, and you do not take the time to visit Backsberg, do not blame me for not giving you a heads-up!

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6 Responses

  1. Piet Maritz says:

    I love this – I am not a teetotalor, but don’t know wine so well. I do know roasted potatoes!

    I wish more employers would understand this, though. I really have trouble with service levels at so many companies. And when I complain, it is always the workers. And now we see what can happen in the same environment with the same workers. It is not the workers – its the leaders!

    • johanhburger says:

      How does the saying go, “any friend of Batman is a friend of mine.” So if you love roasted potatoes, let’s chat!

      I agree with you. If the employees of an organisation is at fault, it is always a good question to ask who is to thank for that. Who appointed them, educated and developed them, drove the development of the culture?

  2. Marius Ungerer says:

    Hallo Johan
    Congratulations with this new way of communications!
    On Backsberg – I accept that they are greate. On a comparative basis, are they bettter than other owner and professional managed wine farms? Beyerskloof, Spier and a host others? Performance is allways relative to the players in the market.

    • johanhburger says:

      Thanks for the feedback Marius. In principle I agree with you that performance is relative. You have to agree, however, that 70% plus of organisations struggle to survive or implement strategy. Here we have a wine estate that is doing well financially, and is selling good wine. In addiiton, they have a culture that is worth emulating. This will remain the case, irrespective how well other wine companies are doing. They have also complemented their core business model of creating and marketing great wine, with adjacencies in the form of the restaurant, additional crops in the form of black berries, figs and pomegranates, a conference centre, a wedding venue, and providing a venue for entertainment. I can’t help it, I just like what they are doing, and how they are doing it!

      Of course there are other estates that do well. I can name quite a few. On the other hand, I also know of quite a few that we might remember for all the wrong reasons, and quite a lot that we will not remember at all.

  1. May 11, 2010

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  2. December 8, 2010

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bohoparadox and Woman of Wines, Praekelt Foundation. Praekelt Foundation said: Will the Real Owner of Backsberg Please Stand up? http://t.co/H7E1kSJ (via @johanhburger) Well done, @simonback! […]