Discover more from The Accidental VP by Susan Smythe-Bishop
An Inspiring Vineyard-side Chat with Erin MacInnis
Closson Chase Vineyards GM shares her thoughts on leadership, personal growth and the satisfaction of seeing her team succeed at one of Prince Edward County's most popular wineries.
The clouds were parting and a gentle breeze swept through the open windows of the car as I pulled into the Closson Chase Vineyards parking lot in Prince Edward County (PEC). I was there to meet with Erin MacInnis – the lovely General Manager of the award-winning winery.
The iconic purple barn that houses the tasting room and retail operation for the winery stands like a beacon on Closson Road - an incredibly popular and beautiful thoroughfare dotted with bustling businesses that include several wineries, an alpaca farm, a bike rental shop, a word working shop, a lavender farm and an outdoor cocktail space among others.
The moment you step inside the electric-purple barn, your eyes are immediately drawn towards the stream of light that shines brightly through the stained-glass windows, designed to compliment the Closson Chase label. This beautiful work by local artist (and a former Alliance Films colleague!) Vanessa Pandos, frames the entrance to the spectacular vineyard garden where customers can (and do!) enjoy the company’s exceptional wines. It was in front of this entrance that Erin greeted me and led us to our table.
Over the years, I’ve developed an insatiable appetite to learn more about compassionate leadership, I kind of love the study of it - which likely stems from some of the traumatizing employment experiences of my past! In fact, most, if not all of the illustrated tributes I’ve done have been inspired in one way or another by positive leaders. Erin is one of those leaders.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with her on a few events and witnessed her leadership style in action, and one of the many things I’ve admired about her is her “yes and…” approach to our collaborations. She seems to have the ability to take any pitch, idea or suggestion and make it so much more interesting.
Erin also really understands and appreciates the value of partnerships - she rolls up her sleeves and works tirelessly to honour them, and the icing on the cake is that she has a great sense of humour and is simply a joy to work with. It also seems apparent that her enthusiasm and ability to lead by example trickles down to her team because they are delightful to work with too.
As we started to chat, I learned a little more about her personal and professional background. Born in Nova Scotia – at age 19 she headed out west to Alberta where she worked for a number of years with Fairmont Hotels. That gave her a strong business foundation, not only through practical work experience, but also through the thorough management and leadership training the company offered. It was there that she met her future husband Josh (who was born and raised in Picton) and as their family started to grow, a decision was made to move to PEC to be much closer to Josh’s family and closer to her family on the east coast.
The timing of the move to PEC could not have been more perfect for her - Closson Chase needed to fill their retail manager position due to a maternity leave, and as luck would have it - she was just coming off of her own mat leave. And if that wasn’t enough, purple happens to be her favourite colour! Hello, Universe!!
That role turned into a full-time position and after just three years - she was promoted to General Manager.
As our conversation continued, I learned that out of the 19 seasonal staff that Closson Chase employs this year, 17 returned from last season, which I thought was remarkable considering how challenging seasonal hiring can be for many businesses in the region. So, I asked her why - what makes Closson Chase such an appealing place to work and what role does leadership play in it?
The short answer is that the company treats their staff exceptionally well. They offer generous compensation, host several team-building events, encourage professional development (they offer subsidized tuition to anyone who wants to take a course or workshops related to the business) and they genuinely care about the well-being of their employees. They also respect and trust their staff completely, so there is no micromanaging going on - which can kill motivation and creativity. In return, the staff show mutual respect and genuinely care about the company and their colleagues, and it extends to their customers too.
She even noted that on her first day with the company, two of the owners (Seaton McLean and Sonja Smits), both rolled up their sleeves and leaned in to work on the bottling truck with her and her fellow staff. Having worked with a somewhat abusive manager in the past – she was struck by how lovely and hard-working they both were. It felt as though a massive weight had been lifted off of her shoulders with the realization that there actually are kind and effective managers and leaders in the business world.
None of that surprised me, of course, because of my own personal history of working for two of the Closson Chase partners in the entertainment industry many years ago. You can read about that experience here.
HER DRIVING FORCE:
Personal growth is a big driver for Erin, but one of her greatest joys and favourite part of leading her team (and one of the reasons that she went into management in the first place) is the satisfaction she gets from helping to develop her staff, encouraging their growth, seeing them flourish and watching their passion for the industry blossom.
CURRENT FAVOURITE AUTHOR ON LEADERSHIP:
Before we wrapped, I had one more question for her. As someone who has leaned heavily on leadership books and resources (both personal and professional) to navigate my career, I’m always curious to know if others have done the same. And if they have, I’m interested to know who their favourite authors are and why.
I actually let out a loud “yeah!” when I learned that Erin’s current favourite is Mel Robbins because I too am a big fan - so much so that I did an illustration of her for my site a few months ago…
If you’re not familiar with Mel, she is a podcast host (The Mel Robbins Podcast), a former lawyer and the author of two best-selling books, The Five Second Rule and The High Five Habit. On the surface, the book titles may sound kind of superficial or gimmicky - but they both are a fun read and are packed with excellent and practical advice, all backed by research. And, listening to her podcast makes you feel as though you’re hanging out with a close friend over a cup of coffee.
I asked Erin if she had any specific takeaways from Mel that she has incorporated into her own life, and she had these great nuggets to offer:
“A growth mindset and ongoing development is key.” At Closson Chase, they do formal goal-setting sessions and talk about development regularly, and employees are encouraged to take courses/workshops that are related to the business.
She went on to say, “It’s important to be an active listener, and to listen with empathy; most people are trying to do their best, and if you always keep that in the back of your mind, you can lead more effectively. The conversations I have where I make time to really listen and ask thoughtful questions are much more fulfilling, memorable and effective than the conversations I have when I'm distracted, rushed or impatient.”
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit with Erin and our chat seemed to just fly by. After we parted ways - instead of immediately heading back to my car, I decided to take a quick detour…
Across the road from the purple barn sits a stunning and iconic white church. Originally built in 1840 in the small hamlet of Hillier in PEC, it was purchased by the owners of Closson Chase in the early 2000’s, physically moved to where it currently stands on the edge of their vineyards and converted into a residence for their seasonal migrant workers.
Inspired by one of Burgundy, France’s most prestigious monuments “Hospices de Beaune,” the owners commissioned late artist, Helga Boelen, to design the roof as a nod to the similarities between the limestone terroirs of Prince Edward County and Burgundy. I stop to marvel at its beauty EVERY time I visit the winery.
The transformation of that church is another example of the owners unwavering attention to detail that extends not only to the structures on the property, but also to the genuine care for their employees and the exceptional quality of their product (shout out to the fabulous and extremely talented winemaker, Keith Tyers, who was one of my first illustrated characters back in 2016). As Erin confirmed for me, that care directly affects the satisfaction and effectiveness of their team, which subsequently leads to a whole lot of very happy customers.
As I’ve learned, it takes solid management to hire great employees, but even stronger leadership to help them to prosper and grow.
It comes from the top, and as a customer walking through the doors of that purple barn, you actually feel the positive energy - it’s one of the reasons that we return to visit time and time again.
Thank you, Erin, for your time, your inspiration and for being such a pleasure to work with, and congratulations to everyone at Closson Chase Vineyards on achieving your 25th Anniversary milestone. Cheers to many, many more!
I am a proud supporter of THRIVE Prince Edward County - a community-led development of a collaborative vision for the future of Prince Edward County. For more information on this initiative, please visit www.thrivepec.ca