Tapping the Trade: Nancy Thomas of Chambers & Chambers
In July of 1986, Nancy Thomas checked out the help wanted ads in the Honolulu Advertiser. She saw an ad for an administrative assistant being run by Chambers & Chambers and applied for the job. Shortly thereafter, she was hired. In her ﬁrst week on the job, one of the ladies in the ofﬁce had just ﬁnished her last day with the company. Jack Chambers called Nancy from San Francisco and said it’s so-and-so’s last day, go and pull a bottle of Vueve Cliquot and take everybody in the ofﬁce to dinner at Michel’s on me.
It was her first brush with the lifestyle of the wine industry and, at that point, Nancy said to herself, “I’ve come home.” Today, Nancy heads the Hawaii Branch of Chambers and Chambers. Somehow her sublime serenity, easy confidence, and love for the wine industry is just as fresh today as it was at the time of that pivotal evening.
When I asked Nancy for her business card, so I could get her official title with the company, she said that as a matter of policy, no one has titles on their business cards, including herself. The reason for that is basically that they are all just co-workers and everyone at Chambers & Chambers essentially works for Suzzane Chambers. In a nod to the rest of the world, which tends to feel more comfortable dealing with titles, it is possible to find titles for specific folks in their catalogue phone directory which Nancy kindly dug out for me.
Officially Nancy is a partner and a Vice President of Sales and Marketing with Chambers and Chambers; and here in Hawaii, “the buck stops” at her desk. Advances in computer technology and software have enabled not only an increase in productivity, but also the consolidation of whole offices. Subsequently, Chambers and Chambers was recently able to fold their Hawaii accounting office into their San Francisco office. You can see a quantum difference in the layout of their office. Where before their office looked like a large work area spotted with desks armed with in-trays, blotters and staplers, today you see an executive conference room, ready for a high powered sales meeting at the drop of a hat. Whenever you fold one office into another there are bound to be wrinkles, but Nancy has the authority to smooth out those wrinkles. And she does not hesitate to invoke that authority. Customer service is her pet peeve. When she hears that a customer was not taken care of, her “hair goes up.” Her motto is, “We work for our customers, our customers do not work for us.”
She said, “The company vision that Jack and Suzzane have is that we provide the ‘Best in Category’. Best does not necessarily mean huge volume, but the best in quality. The best in product and the best in service, and, if I may, I would also like to add the best in having a good time. It’s really an honor to work with the ‘Best in Category’ and I do believe we also have the best employees.”
I asked her how she manages to hire and retain her great employees. (None of her employees who remain in the state have moved on to other distributors.) She said, “Personnel is a challenging area. In a lot of ways, it is still a crap shoot. Basically I look for someone who would be a good fit in the company, someone who is interested in wine and has a desire to sell in the market. It’s difficult to make the transition from buyer to seller, and it doesn’t always work out. Selling is tough, a lot of times the door is slammed in your face. So as a team we encourage and reinforce each other’s confidence. We support each other like a family, we’re united.
This industry is really about relationships and relationships are fun. We are fortunate to be able to sell “best in category” wines that we are proud of. They are wines that I would be happy to have on my own table. That is not to say that we don’t feel the pressures and stresses of the daily grind, sure we do. I’ve probably lost some sales along the way because I don’t play some of those games out there. But at the end of the day, if you treat everyone with honesty and integrity, you have nothing to be ashamed of, and you can go to sleep at night knowing that.
Sure screw-ups happen, but they’re not intentional. It is our goal to represent the wineries well and to provide great customer service. To accomplish this we all work as a team. We tap each other’s strengths in different areas for example Jim Powlan on Maui is an expert in Burgundy and Sky Cameron is an expert in Spanish wines. We all help each other to meet our goals. I think we have good employee longevity because we are true to who we are and our employees trust and enjoy working with us.”
If the tone of a company comes from the top down, then Nancy hums an irresistible harmony that none of her staff can resist. Though she sees herself as a part of the team, she is really the conductor, catching their attention and ensuring that everyone plays in tune. Her staff always speaks very highly of her. She is always so gracious and compassionate and unruffled with a soothingly disarming smile. I asked her how she withstands the stresses of the industry so remarkably, and she said, “I trust that things will work out for the best. I think it’s important to do business in such a way that you are comfortable in your own skin, so I conduct business honestly. You still have to go to sleep at night. For some of my staff, they get all wrapped up in the stresses of the day, and I tell them, “It’s not life and death. It’s only the wine industry.”