How Wendy Appelbaum Came To Be South Africa’s Best Wine Maker

In 2012, she was listed in Forbes Magazine as one of Africa’s female millionaires to watch. She, in fact, has a claim to being one of Africa’s richest women.

Her name is Wendy Appelbaum and it has been one heck of a life for a feisty woman who hated failure and was not afraid to assert her demeanor in the boardroom just like the father.

In South Africa, she is often portrayed as a tough and ruthless businesswoman. However, she has made clear that being rich comes with a heavy responsibility – that requires a certain degree of assertiveness. Anyway this by no means has to do with being snobbish. On the contrary, with an estimated net worth of over $390 million, Appelbaum has said it’s a ballpark figure she discounts as complete rubbish. “I don’t think the point is how much you’ve got. The point is what you choose to do with it,” she says. “The more you have, the more responsibility you have to share it with those who don’t.”

In the past 25 years, she has sat on countless boards – most of them dominated by men. She was deputy chair of IT and retailing company Connection Group Ltd and is still a trustee of investment holding trust The Tribune Trust as well as director of Sphere Holdings Ltd, to name a few. Her very first seat, however, was on the board of her father Donald Gordon’s Liberty Group, when she was made director of Liberty Investors Ltd, the group’s previously listed holding company.

Who is Wendy Appelbaum?

Wendy Appelbaum is the only daughter of former South Africa billionaire, Donald Gordon. She grew up with two brothers Richard and Graeme.

When Gordon appointed his daughter in the early 90s, he certainly had not expected to be challenged by her. But it would have been very much unlike the proactive Appelbaum to adopt a passive role.

During her very first Liberty board meeting, she posed various questions and Gordon simply not pleased. Soon as the meeting was over, he took his daughter aside, firmly instructing her never to question him in his boardroom again. But Appelbaum still stood up to him: “I’m not here to rubber stamp everything. Nobody else would take him on. I was always the one who had to do it.” She remembers.

Her father’s condescending attitude toward women was an eye opener that led her to become a feminist, she says.

It takes someone of Appelbaum’s steadfast self-confidence to operate and make her mark in those corporate patriarchal environments. Appelbaum, who is in her 50s, however, says she never once in her life felt she had to prove herself for being more than just Donald Gordon’s heiress. She is simply self-inspired.

She believes what made her strong and independent, apart from her period as one of her father’s directors at Liberty, she was always an entrepreneur who worked for herself.

In due course, therefore, it became imperative in Appelbaum’s life to help close the gender gap by leading the way for other women.

Learning the business discipline

Appelbaum had the benefit of growing up in a family environment where entrepreneurial spirit and business acumen were passed down to her and her brothers Richard and Graeme on a daily basis. It was her father who taught her how to identify opportunity and maximize its benefits. This made her a great admirer of her father’s. “He wasn’t interested in your opinion, he was interested in you as an audience.”

While her brothers found their father intimidating, Appelbaum insists she never did: “I’m not easily intimidated, by anybody. In fact I can’t think of anybody that I find intimidating. I am definitely the most similar to my father.”

The Family Company

Coming from a family of European immigrants who arrived in South Africa in the mid-1920s “with absolutely nothing”, Donald Gordon knew from an early age he wanted to make money. Having worked as an auditor with an insurance company, he started the Liberty Group, which later became a major insurance and investment emporium.

Decades later, Gordon sold the Liberty Group to Standard Bank, and all three of his children pursued their own business interests. Appelbaum, however, says she has no regrets about the sale of group, “I would have found it almost impossible to work for my father. Because we are so similar, we used to argue a lot,” she admits.

Fully fledged Businesswoman/ Investor

Since then, Appelbaum has proven herself many times as a businesswoman in her own right, with pretty much all of her ventures ending in success. After selling off her Liberty Investors stakes, she bought De Morgenzon [the Morning Sun] with her husband Hylton, a wine estate in midst of the Stellenbosch winelands, a suburb of Cape Town, their maiden vintage, a 2005 Chenin Blanc, became the first wine ever to get five stars in South Africa’s leading wine guide John Platter.

Appelbaum also breeds racehorses, and describes herself as an absolute perfectionist. “Whatever I decide to do, I will drive myself insane until it’s right.” She is a game player at heart, which she says is based on her deep competitiveness – she was a provincial tennis player as a child and a provincial golfer as an adult, although she only took up the sport at the age of 30. Business, to her, is like a game, too, one that demands strategic thinking, passion, skill and stamina.

Going into the wine business has been one of the greatest challenges of her career. To produce a top quality organic wine, she planted wildflowers between the vines for natural pollination, while Baroque music softly floats throughout the vineyard to bio-dynamically support plant growth. Appelbaum has also taken utmost care in selecting the right winemaker for the estate.

But there is one major component to wine making that is out of every farmers’ control: the weather. It’s an aspect, Appelbaum admits, she struggles greatly with. That’s why she is as hands-on with the day-to-day running of her wine farm as her time allows. The Appelbaums live in a beautiful mansion on top of the highest point of the farm, overlooking the vineyards and far-reaching, charming views of Stellenbosch’s rolling hills.

From here, Appelbaum manages the estate, admitting that she can be “a little bit authoritarian. It’s my way or the highway. But only because I’m so sure of what I want.” Her staff seems to appreciate her driven, forthright management style.

Challenges

Integrity is a trait Appelbaum rates highly, and it was when she auctioned a second wine estate, Quoin Rock Winery and Manor Estate, for $6.5 in 2011 and sniffed corruption that she decided to publicly take on a multi-million Dollar industry – to protect her own integrity while fighting a battle for South Africa’s greater good.

She laid a complaint with the National Consumer Commission after discovering she had competed for the estate with a ghost bidder, someone hired by South Africa’s largest auction group, Auction Alliance, to drive up the price. Suddenly, Appelbaum, who doesn’t like the limelight and chose not to keep her maiden name because she “did not want to be just associated as Donald Gordon’s daughter”, suddenly found herself in a very public fight with Auction Alliance CEO, Rael Levitt.

Appelbaum’s love for a “good” fight stems from a friendship with well-known anti-apartheid activist and politician Helen Suzman, who was a family friend of the Gordons and later in life became one of Appelbaum’s mentors. “She was a no-bullshit woman; tough, clever and not intimidated by anybody. She encouraged me to be feisty and cheeky. She’d fight anybody as long as it was for somebody’s benefit,” remarks Appelbaum.

Appelbaum’s regrets

If there were one, it would be that she never became a doctor – a profession her father, who wanted her to take up accounting, didn’t approve of.  When she wasn’t accepted into medical school due to strict quotas on women at that time, she studied psychology instead, with economics as one of her subjects. But her interest in medicine became a lifelong passion, with a large chunk of Appelbaum’s philanthropic investments going towards health.

She founded the Wendy Appelbaum Women’s Health Institute for the advancement and improvement of treatment for disorders affecting women.

Much later in her life, she found time to pursue her childhood dream somewhat: She enrolled in a course at Harvard Medical School to learn about the connection between human rights and health care.

She founded the Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs), and the Donald Gordon Medical Center with over $23million.

Philanthropy

Her philanthropic involvement includes her being a director of the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre, a post-graduate teaching hospital wholly owned by the University of the Witwatersrand’s Faculty of Health Sciences. She is a trustee of The Donald Gordon Foundation, one of the largest private charitable foundations in Southern Africa, of CHOC (Children’s Haemophilia & Oncology Clinic) and of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Wendy is also a member of the Global Philanthropists’ Circle (GPC) and a director of the Southern African board of the Synergos Institute.

She is a member of Harvard University’s Women’s Leadership Board and of the International Women’s Forum (IWF).

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