Diplomacy isn’t the first thing you think of when it comes to running a wine cellar. But for former South African envoy, Greg De’eb, it’s everything. From his initial lobbying of government officials for storage space to his daily dealings with stakeholders, savoir-faire has long been an integral part of his role at Crown Wine Cellars. The general manager of Asia’s largest cellar chats with Rick Gangwani.
How did you get involved in the wine storage business? I was the acting head of mission here for the South African consulate, but was looking for a way to move to Hong Kong permanently. In June of 2000, I attended a talk by the TDC [Trade Development Council] about the possibility of Hong Kong becoming the wine-trading hub of Asia. Everyone in the audience thought it was a stupid idea.
The speakers mentioned that there were a number of old military buildings that could be used for storage, at which point some of the audience actually started laughing and walked out.
There were a couple of available sites that were interesting. One was Victoria Barracks, which the Asia Society took over, and the other was what eventually became our current site in Shouson Hill.
In August 2003, I was talking to Jim Thompson, owner of [relocation and logistics concern] Crown Worldwide Group. He offered me the opportunity to start up a new division – Crown Wine Cellars – which I then went on to create, develop and run.
What was most challenging about moving into the private sector? As a diplomat, I was given, let’s say, HK$20 million at the beginning of every year and told that if I didn’t spend it by the 31st of December, I would have my budget cut and be in big trouble.
Then, literally, overnight I arrived in a private business where I was given zero money and told that if I didn’t make HK$20 million by the end of the year, I would be in big trouble. That was probably the greatest challenge.
What does your day-to-day job involve? My day-to-day work predominantly involves logistics work. We handle the biggest single collection of rare and fine wines in Asia, valued at more than a billion Hong Kong dollars. As general manager, I’m responsible for overseeing these assets, while also managing my staff and tending to the needs of my clients.
How would you describe your management style? I’m very much an old-fashioned boss. I tend to have a really close relationship with all of my clients and tend to know a lot of what goes on in the company from day to day. I never want to hide behind a position or title.
Every one of my staff members needs to have open-door access to me. Equally, every one of my clients has the same access.
How do you deal with uncertainty? With heart, energy and commitment. The moment you start dealing with your company as a mere entity is the moment you’ve lost the plot.
Every one of my staff members means a hell of a lot to me. You need to have an investment in your staff, emotionally and otherwise. If you do this, they’ll support you when the chips are down. At the same time, you can also turn to your clients, with whom you need to invest an equal amount of time and personality. At the end, you work together with your staff and clients to create something bigger than the uncertainty around you.
What areas do you struggle with? I’m not big on red tape, but I understand that it has to exist. I find that many rules and regulations are designed by people who enjoy rules and regulations and they tend to apply them to a vast majority of the workforce who don’t actually require or benefit from them.
Do you focus much on strategy? Not really. The reason we survive is because of the personal relationship we have with our clients. I’m not going to go out and conduct research and what-not. What I am going to do, however, is spend time communicating with my clients and asking them how we can improve.
Where does this focus on communication come from? Probably from my time in the diplomatic corps. It becomes an intrinsic part of you.
What advice do you have for those new to management? Look back to the bosses from 50 years ago, the kind who genuinely lived the life of the people they worked with, who knew the names of their employees’ spouses and children, and who personally did all the hiring themselves.
I know it sounds clichéd, but you need to build up a family of people that genuinely cares about each other. Once you have that core element in place, no matter what financial difficulties your company goes through, no matter what economic uncertainties you face, they will band together and work as a family to get through it. Look after your people.