Zane leverages his hometown connections in South Africa to find the majority of his workforce. Many are qualified accountants who stepped out of the office to start families.
Zane’s most successful marketing strategy involves networking with bankers. Bankers often meet vintners who are looking for funding but have messy books—the clients Protea Financial is well-suited to help.
South African-born Zane Stevens knows a thing or two about the wine industry. In fact, you could call him a master sommelier of wine accounting.
Zane got his start as a chartered accountant in audit with KPMG in South Africa, where he gained exposure to many industries.
“I was very fortunate with my experience at KPMG being in the smaller Port Elizabeth office,” he says, reflecting on his early experience. “Most of my work was in the automotive space but I dealt with some really large multinational corporations. I also had the opportunity to work on really small projects, where not only was I doing the audit, but I was also doing all the cleanup and accounting work and trying to help the business more.”
But it wasn’t Zane’s natural career trajectory that led him to where he is now—it was his wife’s.
On episode 49 of the Accounting Leaders Podcast, Zane chats with Karbon CEO, Stuart McLeod, about how he went from audit and consulting to the wine industry and how he developed Protea Financial as an accounting solution for vintners. He also details his vision for the company’s future.
From across the ocean to wine
Like her husband, Zane’s wife is a chartered accountant. Years ago, she worked for a winery in Cape Town, before its ownership split. One owner formed their own winery consulting and investment company and eventually reached out to Zane’s wife, recruiting her to join as CFO in Napa Valley.
That was in 2013. After tying up loose ends with his employer, Zane followed her to California, arriving in the US without a job. But eventually, he joined her firm, where he observed how weak bookkeeping was among wineries.
“We went to the market and looked at what was out there. A lot of it [bookkeeping service] was really expensive. A lot of it was really poor quality. And some of it was poor quality and expensive,” he recalls.
The gap sparked an idea to offer something better.
“I knew a bunch of people back in South Africa that have a chartered accountancy qualification that I know are smart. But I also know that they've spent some time having a family and are looking for a way to get back into the market.”
In 2014, Zane formed Protea Financial as an answer to the subpar options available to vintners. Thanks to his South African connections and client management skills in the US, he could offer a superior bookkeeping and accountancy solution tailored to winemakers.
The complexities of the wine niche
Zane credits his experience in automotive and consumer goods at KPMG for helping him understand the nuts and bolts of the wine industry. That, plus a little bit of faith in himself.
“I've had to learn to trust in myself that I could figure out the complexities on the way. I felt really good about my cost accounting because of my automotive background. Those companies care about the cost of the staple that goes in the headlamp secured to the roof. I had all these basic knowledge concepts, and I learned the rest along the way,” he shares.
One of the complexities that Protea and its clients wade through is licensing. Each US state has its own wine licensing rules and fees.
Fortunately, Zane has the patience to work through those rules—and even finds it rewarding. He shares the success story of one of Protea’s clients on the podcast.
“We've got a winery that was the fastest growing winery in the US. We started with them when they were a 1,000-case winery. They had this concept of how they're going to grow their business—a very unique story. They're forecasting to do 360,000 cases this year. We've been with them from the beginning, and we're still a vital part of the team,” Zane tells Stuart.
Finding the right growing conditions
Today, Protea has a staff of 36—eight in the US, 28 in South Africa—that operates across 10 time zones between its California hub and South African base. In the early days, Zane regularly put in 100-hour weeks while focusing on growing the South African team. Fortunately, things improved once he hired someone to help him in the US.
Impressively, much of the company’s growth has been organic.
We did zero marketing the first four years. Any growth we had was purely word of mouth—by clients or within our own network and just knowing people.
After noticing this, Zane started working deliberately to expand his network. He likes to engage other accounting firms and tax providers as well as bankers. Based on his observations, giving winemakers stronger bookkeeping helps them get bank funding.
How do bankers know if they should connect Zane with a potential client?
“If they ask the company for accounting information and it takes a week to get it, they should make an introduction,” Zane explains.
He also uses some social media for Protea, but mostly for name recognition when he approaches clients. The networking and marketing strategies have proven successful—Protea has added one employee per month since December 2021 to accommodate the growing business.
Finding the right balance (whatever that means)
Though long hours were a crucial part of Protea’s growth early on, Zane doesn’t have to stay on the grindstone quite as much as he used to. Now he finds other ways to prioritize different parts of his life.
“I'm not quite a believer in what everybody thinks balance is. I know what's important to me and what I need to focus on. If work needs me right now, that’s where I focus. If my family needs me, that's where I am. If my health needs me right now, that's where I'm going to spend the time. I've reduced my hours over time. But that's also come with learning lessons and getting to a good place with the team,” Zane explains of his approach to work-life balance.
As Protea Financial continues to age like fine wine, that healthy balance will undoubtedly serve Zane well.