My Memories of Van Wyngaardt
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On Monday, 18 March 2019, I started working at Van Wyngaardt in Johannesburg. Here are my memories of the company.
Arrived Early 2019
I drove my car up from Cape Town on the weekend of 15 March 2019. I was appointed as sales manager, but the factory was in such a state that it demanded urgent and detailed attention.
Paul, the financial manager, the Van Wyngaardt team and I embarked on a turnaround strategy and the following received urgent attention:
- Food safety;
- SOP’s (Batch Companions);
- Re-doing spice make-up;
- Equipment maintenance;
- Factory capacity optimisation and flow;
- Staff discipline;
- Product costings;
- Plant refrigeration;
- Client base and business model;
- Production plans;
- QC program headed by a competent QC manager;
- Aligning with the right micro laboratory;
- Outsourcing R&D; re-evaluate the product offering;
- Software packages and IT integration;
- Linking sales and operations;
- Competitive strategies and product mix;
- Dispatch procedure;
- Revamping night shift.
Before we could seriously look at sales, these all had to be addressed.
It took us till the end of July 2019 before most of these received sufficient attention for us to shift focus to test and adjust the business model to establish a commercially viable operation.
The first order of business was to understand the current business model. We did promotions at existing clients which helped to give us the insight we needed into the reasons why they are actually doing business with Van Wyngaardt. The current business model became clear. There was a big problem in that it did not align with the objectives of the shareholder.
To develop a new strategy in line with the hopes and dreams of the owner, for myself, I first had to find the soul of the company and the region. Nothing without a soul is ever worth pursuing.
I turned 50 on 13 April 2019, which I celebrated on Eastwick Stud Farm. By itself, this was very symbolic – indicative that something profound is developing. I came from the Western Cape – an area replete with soul and substance. Johannesburg is notoriously soulless and devoid of substance. Why was I here? How did this happen? Previous business partners stole and destroyed the soul of my previous project, Woodys Brands. They killed it! Why did the universe bring me here to Johannesburg?
Glimpses of the answer came to me on the day I turned 50. My introduction to Van Wyngaardt was very rough. A shock to the system, to state it mildly.
Etienne gave me an introduction to his Nguni cattle; I climbed to the top of the Magaliesberg mountains; I discovered old ruins. When this occurred, I took notice. Slowly but surely I started seeing a vision. The Nguni cattle showed me their soul and introduced me to the ancient inhabitants who took me in and my eyes were renewed. The haze of violence done to Woodys by my previous partners lifted and I started seeing clearly. For years before I even knew a company like Van Wyngaardt existed, I fell in love with speciality cured products.
In my heart there has always been one certainty: together with colleagues and loved ones we will achieve the impossible! Paul and I headed the turn-around team. Carlo joined us from Cape Town as production manager. Jaques was appointed to head Food Safety and QC. Johann continued to ensure that staffing is done correctly; Hennie took over electrical work; Jonathan made dispatch his own. Julian’s staff from Johannesburg took over the refrigeration plant with Lu as the point man. Slowly but surely a new model started taking shape in our collective mind. Tristan, Minette, and Lauren continued to be instrumental in motivation and encouragement.
A new concept was first suggested by Frank from Castlemaine, Australia. A year later it was precipitated by Haresh Keswani from Spar, Nigeria. It so happened that Etienne Lotter had the same dream. Concepts that started in Cheviot and Gore Bay in New Zealand around Manuka honey distilled. Etienne and Christo continued preaching a very focussed vision. I was still in New Zealand when I developed the Manifesto of an Artisan Curer. Upon my return to SA I presented this to the old MD of Woodys and my previous partner who saw no place for it in the make-up of Woodys. Yet, it captivated me! In Johannesburg, I hiked the ancient ruins while my family remained pivotal. The vision started taking shape for Van Wyngaardt. Cherise, Nicole, Jocelyn – they all became custodians of the future, of something remarkable! Carlo with Stephen by his side continued to improve on the basics of our growth and transformation, the factory itself.
Back at the factory, key aspects of running a meat plant were addressed as top priority. Any new, dynamic approach had to be predicated on an efficient factory with proper world-class systems. Such systems have been my sole concern for more than 7 years. During this time I made loads of mistakes, but knowledge is built on such ruins.
We were all given heart and soul to the project! After one deep clean I landed up in the emergency unit with severe breathing difficulty. Some colleagues left us but even more importantly were the ones who joined us. The team grew in its ability. Dr. Francois Mellett re-did all our functional ingredients and continued to work closely with the team. He became the custodian of the meat technology that is used in production. Some people see him as being too academic – we embraced his academic approach and supplemented it with the best experience in these kinds of products from around the world. The combination is nothing less than volcanic!
A New Concept
In August 2019 the new way of marketing the range was launched. A conduit was created for high-quality German, Spanish, Italian, Danish, Dutch, Belgian, French, and English cured and fermented products. The quest for its African soul continued. The goal is and is nothing less than to create something authentic which will celebrate the great culinary heritage of our land.
Years of research started bearing fruit. There emerged evidence of a great heritage of smoked, fermented and cured meat, born from the African soil. Dr. Henry Lichtenstein describes a scene in his book, “Travels in Southern Africa” that conjures up the heart of the new concept. He writes that when their party traveling through South Africa approached the Winterhoek Mountains in the Cape, they met an old German who once worked for the East Indian Company and who was a veteran of the Esterhazy’s regiment. For the greater part of the year (he) saw no Europeans, lived among his African friends and sustained himself almost entirely on dried mutton and biltong.” The Guardian (London, England), 21 July 1952, page, from the article, “Biltong for the Arctic.”
I imagine his surname to have been Van Wyngaardt. He knew how to prepare the best German cured and fermented dishes but was clearly influenced by African tradition. By drying the strips of meat, he created biltong which is an African dish, influenced by North European practices of adding vinegar to their hams.
This is the heart of the spirit of the new approach! It takes the best from Europe and fuses it with homegrown African dishes and curing methods. The influence comes from all the people and tribes of this land. From Boer to Brit, German to Italian and Spanish. From Tswana, Sotho, Venda, Swazi, Xhosa, and Zulu. From the Khoi to the San Bushman.
Just after we launched the revamped concept in Jasmyn, Lauren, my daughter, joined me in Johannesburg to lend a hand in rolling out the new strategy. It was in its infancy, and we needed to think on our feet.
Paul crunched the numbers and kept us all focused on the bottom line. A master of good practices, he diligently patrolled the fences and worked on the strategy. Paul was unique in that he is a chartered accountant with a very strong operational leniency. We decided not to spend too much time on figuring out what happened in the past of the company and instead to build new and correct systems for the future.
The ancient voices spoke to me from the technology they embraced, the cities they built, the lands they walked and the food they prepared. I am not sure where any of this will end, but I am convinced that the universe has uniquely gifted and prepared the group of people, assembled for the task to give the manifestation of a grand vision.
The story continues!
Sadly, the story did not continue. I left the company at the end of June 2020.
(c) Eben van Tonder