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Fairview Wine and Cheese Farm: Charles Back

Charles Back of Fairview Wine and Cheese farm has long been recognised as a pioneering force in the industry. Unafraid to take risks and chances, he’s built an internationally recognised brand. Here’s how.

Juliet Pitman



Charles Back

At the entrance to the Fairview Wine Estate stands an iconic goat tower, the home of two resident goats that have become so closely associated with the Fairview brand. It’s a playful, whimsical touch, added by Fairview owner, Charles Back 30 years ago, but it shouldn’t for a moment deceive the visitor into thinking that this isn’t a serious wine company. Fairview has a string of ‘firsts’ under its belt and Back is recognised as a pioneering force in the South African wine industry.

He’s built Fairview up from a family farm to a brand recognised globally for its wine, cheese and tourism. Fairview’s wine labels — Fairview, the Spice Route Wine Company and newly-introduced La Capra — along with the The Goats Do Roam Wine Company, have won countless local and international awards, as have Fairview Vineyard Cheeses. The Goatshed Restaurant on the Paarl premises is packed to capacity most days and the farm attracts over 250 000 visitors a year, making it one of the most visited tourist attractions in the Western Cape.

When it comes to wine, Back is known for experimenting with unusual grape varietals (Tannat and Petite Sirah among them) and was the first wine producer to introduce Viognier to South Africa. He’s taken on the force of the protectionist French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée when they moved to prohibit the registration of the irreverent Goats Do Roam wine label (a cheeky nose-thumbing at Côtes du Rhône), and come away laughing. Internationally he’s conquered the US wine market, while locally he’s pioneered wine brands that represent a refreshing break from the conservative traditional image. He’s even convinced South Africans that eating goats cheese is de rigeur.

The Goatfather

Back believes in taking gambles and while he’s delighted when they pay off, he isn’t too perturbed when they don’t. “Risk is part of business — you don’t take risks, you don’t move forward,” he says philosophically. It’s an attitude that informs his willingness to try new things. One of these is the production of goats cheese. “It was actually my father’s idea to get me involved in cheese making before doing the wine every day. My training was a French book, badly translated, on how to make goats cheese. I’ll never forget that there was a chapter on all that could go wrong and my cheeses ticked every box. They were appalling.” He persevered, even though the South African market initially expressed no interest in eating goats cheese, and he finally knew he’d hit on something when a group of visiting Frenchmen raved about his crottin. Since then, Fairview cheeses have grown from a single-room cottage industry to a market leader.

In many ways this foray into cheese making was the catalyst for so much of what people associate with the Fairview brand today. While in Portugal on a family holiday, Back came across a goat tower and was so enamoured with it that he sketched it on the back of a cigarette box to take back home and build. “My father thought I was mad but at the time I was looking for something to tie our brand together, something iconic.”

The goat tower ended up on the Fairview label at a time when the conservative South African wine industry was still very much tied to the image of Cape gables. It set the farm apart and established it as something of an attraction. “The public found it endearing, I think, and people started coming to visit to see the goat tower that was featured on the label,” says Back. The tourist attraction gave rise to the successful Goatshed restaurant, a must-stop for lunch among winelands tour operators.

Ultimately, the goat tower gave Fairview a brand DNA. “It showed people we didn’t take ourselves so seriously at a time when many people found the wine industry pretentious and inaccessible,” he adds. But a playful brand has its downsides too, and Back explains that it put even greater pressure on the estate to produce wines of the highest quality. Because while the brand might not be serious, the wines certainly are. “Our wines needed to stand on their own, they needed to be outstanding to convince serious wine buyers to purchase them,” he explains.

Goats do roam…

The Fairview goats were to add to the DNA of a new company and wine label too, and open doors to the lucrative US market. “I wanted to make a Rhône-style blend but I needed a brand that had a story, something special that would help us get into the US market where South African wines had not previously done all that well,” he said. Back toyed with the idea for the Goats Do Roam Wine Company for two years before eventually implementing it. “I was initially uncomfortable with it as I didn’t want the wine to be thought to be mimicking Côtes du Rhône — we had always been unique and I wanted to retain that. Eventually we came up with the story of a family of goats that get out into the vineyard and eat from a variety of vines, which are then used to make a Rhône-style blend. This made it uniquely ours and I was happy to go with it,” he adds. The result was South Africa’s first so-called ‘critter label’, a separate company from Fairview. Goats Do Roam added Bored Doe (Bordeaux), Goats in Villages (Côtes du Rhône-Villages), Goat Roti (Côte Rotie) and The Goatfather.

It came at just the right time, coinciding with a wave of anti-French sentiment in the US. “The US market really took to it — they loved the fact that it was so irreverent about the rules of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée,” says Back, referring to the French practice of controlling which names and areas of origin different types of produce can use. (The attempt to prevent Americans from using the word ‘champagne’ has consistently been ignored and fallen on willfully deaf ears).

The French attempted to block the registration of the Goats Do Roam label but Back only responded with more humour, organising a ‘protest march’ with his workers to the French Consulate in Cape Town to deliver a magnum of Goats Do Roam. (“The gentleman there received it very graciously,” he quips). The ‘protest’ was featured on CNN. “It gave us great exposure,” says Back, smiling.

He continues to pioneer new horizons in wine, and sustainable viticulture is his most recent passion. “We can’t just offset our footprint, we need to reduce it, and at Fairview we’re working hard to do that. We might be a big wine company but we’re still very much a family business with family values,” he concludes.

Spreading the risk

Incorporating complementary goods and services to the wine business has helped Fairview to offset its exposure to the exchange rate. The company exports around 70% of its wine so a strong rand can wreak havoc with its profit margins. Fairview cheeses are only sold domestically and the tourism trade, centred on the tasting room and the Goatshed restaurant, bring in additional sources of independent revenue. Because wine, cheese and tourism are happy bedfellows, it’s possible to leverage them off each other for additional profit.


The Numbers

  • 1937
    Back’s grandfather, Charles Back I, buys the property from the Hugo family for £6 500
  • 1978
    Charles Back II starts farming with his father, Cyril Back
  • 500
    Number of cases each of Cabernet, Shiraz and Pinotage bottled for the first time by Cyril Back
  • R3 a bottle
    Top price for wine at the first SA wine auction held at Fairview in 1974
  • 70%
    Percentage of export wine from Fairview
  • 7
    Number of farms owned by Fairview (two in Darling, one in Malmesbury, four in Paarl)
  • 250 000
    Number of tourists who visit Fairview each year
  • 3 500
    Tonnes of grapes grown annually
  • 500 000
    Cases produced by Charles Back annually

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.



Lesego Maphanga of Standard Bank

Lesego Maphanga is young (he only graduated in 2014 with an Industrial & Systems Engineering degree), yet he has already made a name for himself in multiple industries. His secret to success? Always doing more than is asked of him.

GG van Rooyen




Vital stats

  • Player: Lesego Maphanga
  • Company: Standard Bank
  • Position: Manager: Card & Emerging Payments; Africa Regions
  • About: At only 27, the maths & science whizz works at Standard Bank as an Emerging Payments manager responsible for implementing remittances products across multiple African Regions. He also has his own radio show on CliffCentral called the Urban Culture Drive, and is founder of social entrepreneurship movement called Unplugged and in Charge.

I studied engineering knowing right from the start that I would never work as an engineer. I just couldn’t see myself working at a mine, or something like that, but I knew that engineering would give me a solid foundation and allow me to keep my options open. A STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) degree is a great base, as it shows that you have a mind for numbers and the analytic mindset needed to get things done. I don’t think you can go wrong with a degree in one of these fields, even if entrepreneurship is your ultimate aim.

Related: 20 Quotes On Coping With Change From Successful Entrepreneurs And Leaders

How can I set myself apart?

You have to ask yourself this question. There’s a lot of competition out there. You might have a great academic history or work experience, but so do a lot of people, so you need to have a differentiator — something that makes you stand out. I entered Mr South Africa, for example, because I knew that it would increase my profile and add something interesting to my CV. I didn’t win, but I was a top-five finalist, which was good enough for me.

Find interesting things to add to your CV as well, since it’ll make it stand out in a massive pile of similar submissions.

Always go the extra mile

I had a lecturer who always said: “There are two kinds of bad engineers. There are those who don’t do what they’re told to do, and there are those who only do exactly what they’re told to do.” You need to add value and show that you are a crucial part of a team, so don’t just do what you’re told. Instead, look for ways in which you can go beyond the brief. Work hard and spend time coming up with your own ideas and projects. At the end of my studies, I interned at Standard Bank. I knew that I only had five weeks to make an impression, so I gave it my all. When you’re young, you don’t have many responsibilities apart from work, so that’s the time to put everything into your work.

Be audacious and make things happen

Seizing an opportunity that comes to you is great, but creating your own opportunities is even better. Don’t take no for an answer, and don’t wait for someone to give you a chance. A friend and I had an idea for a radio show and decided to put a proposal together. We had no experience and no contacts in the field, but we emailed our proposal to everyone we could think of. We spammed them, sending it out every single day. Eventually, CliffCentral got in contact 
with us.

Related: Design The Life Of Your Dreams Using These Simple Tips

I don’t want a ‘normal’ life

I want an extraordinary life, so I demand a lot of myself. I think Elon Musk is a great example of this. He’s doing things no one thought possible. Of course, it requires extreme levels of dedication and hard work. If you’re aiming for the top, I don’t think work/life balance is possible. You need work/life integration. You need to be pursuing your passion all the time. If you’re on a path you’re truly interested in, work doesn’t feel like sacrifice.

Exercise is important to me

I go to gym twice a day. It’s significant to me, as it allows me to relax and clear my mind. It also provides structure to my life. When I get up early and go to gym, I find that the rest of my day falls into place. It sets the tone. As long as I maintain focus in this part of my life, I find that things overall stay under control. Sometimes, though, I need to take a day off and just sit in front of the TV. Generally speaking, however, I find that routine helps maintain focus and momentum.

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Joel Stransky Shares His Insights On What Makes A Great Leader

Enter Joel Stransky just as friendly as the rest of the team, also casually dressed, also wearing a smile. As a founding director of the innovative Pivotal Group, he explained that their value proposition particularly in Pivotal Talent.

Dirk Coetsee




Posters displayed on companies’ walls representing the business’ Vision and value system are a common occurrence. A general value that numerous companies share is to be client centred and to provide excellent service. Yet, unfortunately a proportion of companies do not live according to their values as tools to actualize their collective Vision.

An observant individual would take only a few seconds to notice that the Leadership group at Pivotal has gone to great lengths to establish a definitive and value driven culture as well as a motivating climate for their team members. As I waited in the reception area I was met with smiles from several people passing by and there was generally no way to assess what their position was as they were all casually dressed, friendly and approachable.

Related: 5 Things Businesses Can Learn From Rugby

Enters Joel Stransky just as friendly as the rest of the team, also casually dressed, also wearing a smile. As a founding director of the innovative Pivotal Group, he explained that their value proposition particularly in Pivotal Talent, is the use of Augmented Intelligence and data analytics within the “human capital space”.  The application of AI and data makes talent acquisition and career guidance much less of an enigma and challenge as opposed to the recent past where traditional talent acquisition and career guidance methods became less and less successful and more and more time consuming.

The “pivot” of the 1995 Victorious Springbok world cup team shared that he always starts off an employee-employer relationship with the assumption of mutual trust and respect. He believes that once you have put in the sincere effort to understand people better, bigger belief in them is a natural result.

“The greatest asset in business is people,” Joel passionately explained and added that it is possible for a brilliant product to fail in the long run when the wrong people are employed.


“Hiring the right people that would not only help sustain the current culture but add more value to it is critical to any team or companies’ sustainable success,” Joel explained. The Millennial generation think differently and have different expectations from a working environment, therefore it is a critical factor for any manager and/or Leader to understand what drives the emerging generation and also how to manage the polarity of generational gaps.

Related: Servant Leadership – Will You Serve?

As a result of diversity and generational gaps Leadership and management has become a fascinating space to operate within South-Africa as not only cultural and language barriers might offer a challenging HR environment, the millennial generations unique behaviours amplify the need for useful adaptations within all spheres of work.

As a practical example, employee X is twenty-three years old. Some of the key questions that management needs to figure out, that is if they sincerely want the best for, and the best out of employee X, are:

  • Is X motivated by monetary rewards and/ or does she/he need a regular hug to feel part of and add to the company culture?
  • Does X need to interact with management socially for example be taken out do dinner?
  • What skills does X have or lack that impacts his/her performance?
  • It is impossible to motivate someone else. In what way can I create an environment for X wherein he/she can motivate himself/herself and excel?

How you satisfy Xs’ needs and manage all related factors to his or her needs has become critical success factors in how we as leader’s approach career development in general.

Reflecting on the development of his own sports and business career, as well as his family life Joel is adamant that whatever drives you in sport also drives you in business and within your family life. Whatever he has achieved within all aspects of his life came as a result of setting goals and making those goals a reality.

Both in sports and in the business world within South Africa there is a general tendency towards over structured management and coaching. Although a structure and daily management is an integral part of business and sports, a paradigm shift towards inspirational Leadership that empowers other leaders to succeed is key in terms of serving others and creating a motivating and sustainable environment within which all team members can thrive.

Reflecting on Joels’ observation: “Our countries’ value chain is broken” the moment has most certainly arrived within which more and more value driven and ethical Leaders, emerging from all generations must arise and collectively work towards an improved future.

Critical to the actualisation of a collective future vision is the development of Leadership skills therefore one of the keen interests of the author is to recognise and learn from other Leaders’ character traits. Joel’s’ highly effective communication skills underpinned by the core people skill of active listening quickly came to the fore as he could quote part of my question and comments in each of the very insightful answers that he provided. His keen willingness to innovate and to create inspiring working environments makes his enthusiasm and skill as a Leader tangible.

Let us all challenge ourselves to learn from prime Leadership examples offered by individuals such as  Joel Stransky and leave more and more Leaders behind for only in such a way can an inspiring future be built.

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Company Posts

Nhlanhla Dlamini Not Only Has Guts, But Grit – In Spades

An alumnus of WBS and Harvard Business School, Nhlanhla Dlamini did some soul searching when he was doing his MBA at Harvard, and knew that the corporate ladder, although tempting, was simply not going to be enough.

Wits Business School




It takes guts to venture into entrepreneurship. And when you’re in a ‘cushy’ job with a top global auditing firm who are grooming you for partnership, it takes even more guts.

Nhlanhla Dlamini not only has guts, but grit – in spades.

An alumnus of WBS and Harvard Business School, Nhlanhla did some soul searching when he was doing his MBA at Harvard, and knew that the corporate ladder, although tempting, was simply not going to be enough.

“I started thinking, ‘what is the best thing I can do with my life?’”, recalls Nhlanhla. “I always felt a pressing need to get involved in lowering the unemployment rate in South Africa.  It’s a notoriously difficult space, but entrepreneurship is the real engine of job creation and I felt compelled to rise to the challenge.”

When he left his job at McKinsey in March 2015, Nhlanhla decided to explore the agricultural sector – having no idea what product or what part of the value chain he would end up in. He spent until December that year exploring the agri-food sector, gaining as much understanding as he could about the entire industry by talking to famers, co-ops, agricultural associations and various other stakeholders.

Related: 10 Young Entrepreneurs Under 30 Share Their Start-Up Secrets

“I wanted to export products to the US and I looked at tree nuts, blueberries, dairy products or meat. Because of stringent FDA regulations, meat wasn’t an option – but a friend of mine from WBS days suggested meat in the form of pet food.”

And so Maneli Pets was born, and Nhlanhla moved his fledgling business into a factory, which he re-purposed for meat processing, in October 2016. By June 2017, he had started operations with 30 employees on board, and by September he had 50 employees.

Maneli Pets

What makes Maneli different from other US-bound pet food products in an already saturated market? The answer is high protein meat from animals that are unique to South Africa.

“I discovered a market for the off-cuts of meat  from specialist butcheries – so crocodile, warthog, ostrich etc,” Nhlanhla explains. “The result is a very high quality, high protein pet snack with a difference – and US pet owners are willing to pay for the best they can get.”

Under the brand name ‘Roam’, Maneli Pets products are exported to a pet food wholesaler in Boston, US, owned by the family of Nhlanhla’s former WBS classmate, who had planted the seed of the idea in the first place.  Nhlanhla is now preparing to launch the products under another brand name for distribution in South Africa and export to the EU.

But pet food is only the start. Maneli Pets is an offshoot of the Maneli Group, a diversified food company which is looking ooking to build further businesses in the green energy sector, while boosting black entrepreneurship.

According to a City Press report, South Africa has relatively few black-owned food production businesses, which is why government is actively promoting agro-processing and the manufacturing sector in general to spur economic growth.

Nhlanhla has worked tirelessly to secure government funding, and was thrilled to obtain R26 million from the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC). Just last month, he received the news that Maneli Pets had been awarded grant funding of R12.5 million from the Department of Trade and Industry’s Black Industrialists Scheme (BIS).

Nhlanhla, who was also a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, considers his PDM at WBS a “superb” way of preparing a student for the real world of work. “The group dynamics was an essential learning experience in terms of delivering on a mandate with a group with entirely different skill sets.”

Related: Edward Moshole Founder Of Chem-Fresh Started With R68 And Turned It Into A R25 Million Business

Describing himself as a “passionate and active WBS alumnus”, Nlhanhla still stays in regular contact with a core group from his PDM class, proving that one of the enduring benefits of a PDM (and an MBA) is the opportunity to connect and network with like-minded people and form life-long friendships.

Apart from what he learnt in the Entrepreneurship Management module of the PDM, such as the pillars of entrepreneurship, macro trend support and financing an idea, Nhlanhla considers the keys to success are threefold: Recognising the value of a social network, tenacity – and just a little luck!

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