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Leadership in Wine #29 - Stephen Wong MW

Malaysian-born Chinese, Stephen Wong MW moved from Borneo to Singapore and finally to New Zealand to read Law at the University of Otago. While studying, he worked part time in cafés and as a club DJ. He moved to Central Otago in 2000, and his journey into wine progressed rapidly from vineyard worker to hospitality. Shortly after completing his Barrister examinations in Wellington, he picked up his first fledgling sommelier role and started teaching himself on the job.

After seven years as a sommelier, Stephen moved into a consulting role, helping restaurants and hotels in New Zealand and Singapore with their wine programs. He now runs a small hospitality education and support business based in Wellington - Wine Sentience, training staff and managing wine lists around the country as well as hosting tastings and organising wine events for the public.

Stephen became a Master of Wine (MW) in 2016 and has 20 years of experience in the wine industry.

 

How do you define leadership?

I would say leadership in the wine industry and in hospitality is about demonstrating an ability to execute strategic and short-term plans incorporating a diverse team of people with different strength and skills. It requires an intimate understanding and experience of the roles and challenges being faced by people working in wine and hospitality, and requires boldly confronting any issues where they arise so the members of a team can do fulfilling and worthy work.
 

What are the main challenges of being a leader in the wine industry today?

I think there are quite a number of issues which people working in wine today face - my perspective is naturally from a hospitality viewpoint so my comments will be based on that. The opportunities to learn and grow as a hospitality wine professional in NZ are still not what they need to be to retain our best talent. An improvement in pay (requiring an accompanying increase in operational margins) and professional development is required to change this situation. Hospo workers are also faced with the same increase in living and accomodation costs as other NZers but the pay rates have not kept pace, resulting in an erosion in relative pay for our industry. The main urban centres and tourist towns (like Queenstown) are suffering from a shortage of affordable housing and transport, which puts immense pressure on hospitality workers who are very vulnerable to these costs. If the staff are having a hard time living and justifying working in NZ, then our teams will suffer from instability and our skill levels will erode. This is always a challenge for leaders as they are forced to work with more restrictions to achieve the same results.
 

What are your major breakthroughs in your career to become the leader you are now?

I wouldn't say I have discovered any silver bullets, nor do I view myself as a particularly noteworthy leader. Given the state of maturity of our industry and the challenges mentioned above, empathy and humanity has been an important aspect to overcoming adversity. Trying to maintain a sense of equality amongst the team, and not being afraid to do the hard work can motivate all members to look beyond a self-centred approach to consider the entire team working as a unit. This helps build the kind of bonds and relationships which provide resilience against the issues we face.
 

If you were starting your career in 2019 in the wine industry, what advice would you give to yourself to become successful and content?

The best advice I could give myself would be to remain patient, to continue working for someone else longer before heading off to start my own business. There is much I could have learned without finding out the hard way, if I was part of a larger business for longer. There is always so much to learn in this industry - find someone you can train under or with and make the most of their experience and knowledge.

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