With a combination of pandemic, lockdown and winter, linking up with Millie, who left us in 2010, proved a little tricky. Why? Well the run-up to Christmas for a start: with the Estate hospitality and on-and-off trade knocked more than slightly sideways, and the consequent shifting emphasis on online marketing and sales, she is clearly extremely busy. We catch up, however, during her lunch break as she walks her dog around the airy, beautiful Rathfinny Estate which is her working world. Take a look at the website and you will immediately see what I mean. My first thought when I take a peek is that this is top-quality marketing: we are at once sweeping across idyllic, gently rolling English vineyards' green slopes, and I’m remembering pre-Covid travels and wine tours in Margaret River. Yep – that's how good it looks.
But back to a swift lunch break catch-up and Millie’s journey onwards from the Surrey Hills. With A Levels in Art, Media and Psychology she headed to an Art Foundation at Ravensbourne, followed by a degree in Film and Television at The London College of Communications, with a specialism in Producing. Having moved to Hurtwood from Wimbledon High School, Millie had changed her academic and career trajectory, veering from the sciences and towards a more creative portfolio. What brought this about, I ask, and learn that the trigger was a holiday internship in a film production company which opened her eyes to a whole new and enticing working world of possibilities. She did not look back, as she began working towards graduate study, including experience within Film Academy in Venice with Luke on specific film projects, including one in Venice.
Her degree gave her a superb foundation of knowledge and experience, and in her final year she began work experience within an innovation consultancy called Fearlessly Frank, building on her range and experience. This was followed by a couple of years with Partisan, a film production company, honing her skills and widening her knowledge base.
After four enjoyable years she took the major step of joining the family business in the production of English wine, gradually assuming the role of Marketing Manager. It has certainly had its challenges, she freely admits. But the advantages have been on display since we first made contact in terms of lifestyle and satisfactions. I refer her back to the impressive and innovative website that greeted me, and the seductive sweeping images connecting vineyard and sparkling wines, the Savoy and civilization. Maybe I am (are we all?) a little Covid-crazy, but Rathfinny Estate’s branding and image seem extremely successful, and all this has been consolidating over the four years of her time with the company. Millie is quick to point out the collective nature of the business, the pooling of skills and experience, the delegation of projects to a design agency, the film production expertise of her brother, the upskilling required by the complexities of the business of viticulture. Also aware that a family business brings demands of its own, I ask how tricky this has been. She answers thoughtfully that it has not always been easy: what is emerging though, is that Millie’s enthusiasm and quiet modesty is an integral cog in a large and successful wheel of an exciting business. She has brought a range of PR campaigns to fruition, building on communication through social media, and now of course, adapting to the challenges of a world-wide pandemic. ‘We have had to pivot,’ she tells me, a term that she has used already, in terms of adaptation and development, and I am beginning to see this self-awareness as a clear strength in Millie’s career success.
So the past nine months or so have seen the shift from focus on business through restaurants to more online sales, and, along with Millie’s input, Rathfinny Estate has been swift to optimize the opportunities in this market, setting up an attractive and accessible online shopping provision. The centrality of e-commerce has been a sharp learning curve, she tells me, but one that she has relished, I sense. With online sales healthy, and a lively Christmas market in full flow as we speak, there are many irons in the fire. I am reminded that Millie’s lunch break is coming to an end and she needs to get back to what she clearly does so well.
So a quick Hurtwood gossip: what does she remember of her days with us and what advice has she got to offer? Her memories are extremely happy. ‘It was so much fun,’ she tells me with energy. ‘It gave me the best, amazing friendships, and lots of mutual drive.’ Her days boarding at Peaslake were a lovely encouraging shape around her schoolwork and she remembers Nicky and Jason with affection. Advice for others? Pursue ‘what you enjoy. It will make you happier and more productive.’ She identifies the centrality of being prepared to adapt and learn ‘on the job’, referring again to the role that ‘self-teaching’ takes on once you get started. At present she and a number of other staff within the company are being educated in making wine itself. This is alongside developing other filmic narratives to illuminate the running of the estate, including a lovely series of interviews of happy local employees, clearly relishing their harmony with the natural world and their work, in this age-old process.
I thank Millie for taking the time in what is clearly a frenetically busy schedule to share her thoughts and advice with us. We part with her enthusiastically enlarging on the success of other Hurtwood pals—still pals, and like her, still grateful for what they found in the Surrey Hills. ‘It was a different attitude towards the arts. It was a change from the mainstream mindset. It was the bonus,’ was her final comment. Job done!