The sixth of our Boss Ladies series shines a light on Sarah Bonoma, Managing Director of Golden Bay-based gin distillery, Dancing Sands.
Originally from Yorkshire in the UK, Sarah’s business venture began when she followed the man of her dreams across the other side of the world, which led to her newfound life in New Zealand. Having almost no knowledge or experience in the alcohol industry, Sarah and her partner took a complete leap of faith when starting Dancing Sands five years ago. Today the business has become New Zealand’s most awarded gin distilleries, praised for its handcrafted and unconventional gin that uses high-quality ingredients.
Getting to this stage in her career and driving an incredibly successful gin brand and distillery operation has been no walk in the park, however Sarah is accomplished in whatever she puts her mind to, whether that be business or family.
What made you take a leap of faith and join the alcohol industry?
Since early on in our relationship, Ben and I had talked about starting our own business together. We researched a number of different options, all were in the Food and Beverage space. We fell in love over gin martinis in a cocktail bar in New York and when Ben by chance found an old copper still for sale in the Golden Bay town of Takaka we decided to go and take a look. We saw a lot of opportunities – the craft spirit industry in New Zealand had not yet taken off – and so despite no prior knowledge of distilling or the alcohol industry we decided to give it a go.
Being self-taught in distillation and with no formal training, we have approached gin making with an open mind and a drive for innovation – making gins that we like to drink.
What does a day in the life of a Managing Director look like?
My role is incredibly diverse and I love how varied each day is. I am still very involved in overseeing our Distillery operations and logistics which involves regular days on site at the Distillery. That’s my happy place and I love being there with the team! We have grown our team significantly in the last year and having people to lead our Distilling, Marketing and Sales efforts has been transformational – allowing me to spend more time on our growth plans with Ben. We recently launched into the UK with well established wine and spirits importer Enotria & Coe, so I have been working closely with our Commercial Director on that. My current focus is the installation of a new still at the Distillery which will quadruple our output – juggling a complex mix of regulations and planning the upgrades that will be required to the Distillery to make it happen.
How does it feel to be a female leader in a male-dominated space?
Distilling is significantly less male-dominated than it was a few years ago, and I’m now surrounded by other female distillers who are also leading their businesses whilst honing their craft – Frankie McPhail from Southward Distilling and Jo James from Juno to name just two. It’s refreshing to have others to share experiences and challenges with, and after 5 years of making our products I’m confident in my distilling skills and knowledge. That said there are still times when people assume I’m in a supporting role in the business – ‘do you do the admin?’ is a question I wish I didn’t still hear! But as I’ve grown into my role as MD my confidence has grown, and I try not to let the odd negative experience bother me. Our business is thriving, we’ve had some big wins in the last year and ultimately that comes down to leading a team well. When I need to dig deep for additional motivation, I think about the positive example I am setting for my two girls (aged 6 and 3).
Do you think there should be more females in management roles?
Diversity of thought in management roles is the key and so yes that means more women and more diverse ethnicities as well. I think women, and especially women with families tend to be more efficient, and focused on the end goal. I know my whole outlook changed when I had my first daughter, I was at work to get what needed to get done, and get home to her as soon as possible, I became very effective at getting things done quickly and efficiently!. It’s easy to make generalisations about men and women, but it’s been my experience in the corporate world and working in distilling that the more variety of experiences and perspectives your team has the better.
What advice would you give to young women considering starting their own business?
In the early days do as much as you can yourself – it’s the best way to learn the inner workings of your business. That can be hard and challenging but I have a really solid grasp of how every aspect of our business works now – from the bottling machine to the intricacies of social media advertising. Then, once you have some momentum and wins under your belt, hire good people to help you grow, particularly in the areas which are not your strengths. We probably waited longer than we should have to bring in key roles like a Marketing Manager. In hindsight I would have done it sooner!
Second – do not be afraid to shake things up. Ben was our Managing Director for the first 3 years but we sat down and figured out that it would be more beneficial to the business and our own individual skill sets for me to take over as Managing Director. It takes a strong team (and a strong marriage!) to switch roles like that, but we are laser focused on what is best for the business and not individual egos or titles.