Our Women’s Month feature is an interview with General Manager of Three Rivers Lodge and the newly opened Take a Break Coffee Shop in Vereeniging, Roelien Jansen van Rensburg. We discuss her passion for hospitality and connecting with people and how she exceeded her goal of becoming a General Manager before turning 30, at the age of 27.
An Interview With Go-Getting General Manager Roelien Jansen van Rensburg
Q:You are the manager of the lodge, as well as the newly opened coffee shop. Can you give us some background on Three Rivers Lodge?
A:The lodge started as a conference venue with accommodation for the Cum Books sales reps, and gradually expanded and became more integrated with the community by making the venues available for functions, like weddings and christenings. We have a beautiful chapel, which has become the weekly meeting place for one of the local churches in the area.
Besides the lodge, we also have a leather book cover factory, a hair salon, the Bread Republic bakery, a fine dining restaurant, Anna’s Kitchen, as well as the newly launched Take A Break Coffee Shop. We wanted to create a village and we’ve exceeded our expectations.
Q:The coffee shop has been off to a roaring success! How did the coffee shop come into being?
A:We are very engaged with the community, but had no idea that there was such a need for a coffee shop in our area. We already have Anna’s Kitchen for fine, leisure dining, so wanted to create something more casual for the day crowd. There are several offices in the area and many people only have a 30 or 45-minute lunch break, so the concept of a quick service restaurant was built around providing something for that. We also already had The Bread Republic, our artisanal bakery, on the premises and wanted to incorporate that. We built the bakery ourselves and invested in the best German equipment, as well as having our staff professionally trained in bread making. In turn, we now offer bread-making classes to the public. We initially opened a smaller bakery shop within Anna’s Kitchen, but it boomed with popularity and quickly outgrew the space. So, we knew that we had to expand on that. The result was Take a Break, a coffee shop that focuses on bread, pastries and other baked lunch items.
It is important for us that the high level of quality is consistent in everything that we do, so in addition to the best equipment and training, we also use the best ingredients. Our croissants are made with real butter, and everything is made from scratch, on-site.
So, when we opened Take a Break in the middle of July, we thought that we’d be off to a quiet start and gradually ease into it. However, we’ve been busy from as early as our opening day. I’ve repeatedly been told that it was something that everyone wanted and needed, but they hadn’t realised it. We have been so busy, that we literally run between stations.
Q:How long have you been involved with the business?
A:It’s been ten years! Anna’s Kitchen had only been open for a few months.
Q:Did you always know that you wanted a career in hospitality?
A:Yes! Even at school, I knew that I absolutely loved hospitality and I wanted to pursue a career in it. Every hotelier will tell you that it is something that you are born with, it’s part of you.
You can try to leave the hospitality industry, but it can’t be done. I’ve attempted different directions in my occupation twice and couldn’t do it! I started my first job in hospitality as a receptionist at The Emerald Casino immediately after I finished high school. I loved it!
I was able to study whilst still working full time. Two years later when I was nearly 21, I felt that I needed to challenge myself and get more experience. I managed to land a position as Front of House Manager with the Protea Hotels group. This was great for me because their hotel management programme was absolutely state of the art for its time.
Within six months I got the opportunity to be promoted to Rooms Divisions Manager. At that time I was the youngest woman ever to hold that position. It was such hard work – day and night, but I loved it. Like I said, if it’s in your blood, then there’s no other way! Every now and then my general manager would tease me and tell me that I should spend more time at home!
That’s how much I love it. Dealing with people is my absolute passion. The hotel was in Nelspruit, on the N4, on the busy route between Johannesburg and Mozambique. Corporate traffic during the week and leisure travellers on the weekend. It is a diverse industry – with all the people you meet, and the conversations you get to have. I can’t imagine another industry offering that.
During this time, I got married and had my first baby. My husband has always been incredibly supportive of my career, but after the little one’s arrival, I realised that I had to cut back from work and spend more time with my family. I also wanted to be closer to my parents, so was very happy when I got a 7 to 4 job as Executive Housekeeper at the Three Rivers Lodge. Being able to get into my car at 4 pm every day and leaving my work responsibilities behind was great!
However, this did not last long! Due to my background, my General Manager roped me in as Operations Manager. Shortly after that my General Manager got another job offer, so I was made Acting General Manager. After being in this position for exactly 12 months, the owner, Mr Johnson, formally appointed me as the General Manager. I was 27, which meant that I had achieved a goal that I had set for myself when I was 20: to be appointed as a General Manager by the age of 30.
It was and still is such a blessing. Not only to have a big career goal realised ahead of schedule, but to be based close to my family. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities that I have been given and the opening of Take a Break has been one of those opportunities. I get to challenge myself all the time, it’s all new for me and I love it!
Q:It sounds like your boss clearly sees your value and supports you. What can you tell us about him?
A:The owner of the lodge, Chris Johnsen, is a brilliant businessman. He has the ability to not only turn almost any idea into a success but allows his staff to take ownership of the various projects.
He genuinely cares about people. Looking after the community is incredibly important to him and his example has prompted several other businesses to follow with support for community projects.
He has spearheaded several community initiatives, from the maintenance of our roads to tuition sponsorships. And with his own businesses, from the Lodge to Anna’s Kitchen, to the bakery, to the coffee shop, he’s ensured that everything has been fitted and equipped to the highest standard.
When planning the coffee shop, he did so much research and approached the project with so much enthusiasm. It’s truly wonderful to work for someone like that, it makes one’s job such a pleasure when your employers share your passion.
Q:You also mentioned that your husband has been incredibly supportive of your career. Tell us more about your family and how you juggle family life and a full-time job?
A: Yes, my husband has always been wonderfully supportive. From the early days, when I was still working at the Emerald, he used to bring me dinner if I was working the evening shift. We had another baby after I joined the Lodge and we now live on the property. It’s great to be close to home when I’m needed! My children and husband often join me at the lodge or at the coffee shop. I really love being a mother and always knew that I wanted to be a mother.
A few years ago, my husband and I became more involved with local orphanages after experiencing a spiritual calling to be a place of safety for children in need. Within a week of our interview with the church’s welfare branch, we were asked to take in a baby girl. She was with us for a year and a half and we were both happy and sad when she was able to reunite with her birth parents. It was a wonderful experience for us and we would do it again in a heartbeat.It is so important to give back, not just to appreciate your blessings, but to pay it forward.
Q: You’ve referred to your home and your place of work as a village. Tell us more about how the role has played in your skill set?
A: Being on this premises really provides you with the opportunity to become the best version of an all-rounder. I can do plumbing and I know where every electrical distribution board is. We have an incredibly strong team, and someone is always able to jump in where they are needed, even if it’s not necessarily within their job description. No one is pigeonholed. Everyone can add value to every aspect of this village.
Q:You’ve referred to your home and your place of work as a village. Tell us more about how the role has played in your skill set?
A:Being on this premises really provides you with the opportunity to become the best version of an all-rounder. I can do plumbing and I know where every electrical distribution board is. We have an incredibly strong team, and someone is always able to jump in where they are needed, even if it’s not necessarily within their job description. No one is pigeonholed. Everyone can add value to every aspect of this village.
Q:Tell us about your team?
A:I am so proud of this team and of everything that has been achieved here. One of my biggest mentors is the hotelier, Horst Schulze. He’s introduced the concept of 21 principles into his restaurants. It’s a compilation of 21 good practices for good hotel management, applied over 21 days on rotation. We’ve simplified this to 7 principles that we focus on every day of the week. We have a staff meeting every morning at 8 am, open in prayer and then discuss the principle of the day and how everyone can apply it. For example, if the principle of the day is “Presentation” we discuss how each person has one opportunity to make a first impression on guests and how their appearance and behaviour impact on the impression on a guest. “Teamwork” is another of our valued principles. We continuously discuss the importance of being there for your team and jumping in where you’re needed if you’re needed. (We love the concept of the 7 principles, so will be covering this in further detail in a future post!)
Q:Lastly, what advice do you have for a young person who is considering a career in hospitality?
A:My belief has always been that if you are willing to work hard, you will be able to become a general manager in this industry. Not many people have the financial means and other opportunities to go and study and become, say, a doctor. But if you are a hard worker and you put your heart and soul into it, you can get very far in this industry. Something that I learned during my time with Protea Hotels, that I apply to this day is “Hire for Attitude, Train for Excellence”. If you are hungry and driven enough, you can be trained to become an excellent general manager. I have witnessed a waiter without any qualifications become a restaurant manager because they had determination, ambition and passion.