Deer Creek Winery Owners Plan to Step Down
(Pictured above: Rhonda Brooks. Photos and videos by Dave Cyphert of ProPoint Media Photography)
Both Rhonda and Denis are natives of Clarion County, with Rhonda hailing from Lake Lucy, while Denny was raised in Fryburg. Getting married right out of high school, they will be celebrating 40 years of marriage in August of this year.
The Brooks opened Deer Creek Winery in 2009 and have been at the center of the business since that time, steadily growing a small winery in Shippenville into a successful destination with accompanying bed-and-breakfast. Over the years, the Brooks continued to grow and set up retail locations at South Hills Village Mall, Hermitage-Kohl’s Plaza, McCandless Crossing, Beaver Valley Mall, and The Mall at Robinson.
Winemaking was not in the Brooks’ earlier background. Denis was a mechanical engineer, while Rhonda had experience in health and wellness.
“I was trained as a nurse, but I went into natural health,” said Rhonda, who explained she ran a health food and supplement store in downtown Grove City and sold it just last year.
She added that although running Deer Creek has been fun, “life is too short,” and she and her husband want to move on and try new things.
“We worked very, very hard for many, many years here. We just want to see more of the country.”
Rhonda feels confident that Deer Creek’s existing staff is more than capable of running the business by themselves.
“We really have a good staff that can do this without us,” she explained.
The business will be passed down to Rhonda and Denny’s children: James, Sarah, Seth, and Joanna.
“We are in a process of passing it down to our children who are our board of directors right now. We are going through a process that, as they train on the business, they’ll be able to make more of the decisions instead of ourselves.”
The takeaways from their time active in the business are plentiful. Rhonda said it is important as an owner to give employees enough space to accomplish their tasks.
“Sometimes, you just have to get away in order to let people do their jobs. You have to get away and trust what they’re doing, yet have enough things in place to recognize when things need to be addressed,” she said.
Communication is critical, and Rhonda explained that training staff to ensure effective communication is always a worthwhile use of time.
“It has amazed me how much it takes to get one communication down through 50 people and six locations. It just is crazy. It doesn’t seem like it’s that big of a deal, but until everybody hears about it, and everybody understands it, it’s weeks,” Rhonda said. “Communication is huge, and training is huge. You have to take the time to train and communicate if you want the outcome to be to the degree you need it to be in order to move to your goals.”
Regarding goals, Rhonda was confident that she and Denny achieved theirs during their 13 years of ownership.
“We’re very goal-oriented, and our goal has been to retire at about this age. We’re about a year behind where we thought we would be, but with the pandemic, we’re happy we’re this close to where we wanted to be,” she added.
If she had to do it again, there is very little Rhonda said she would change.
“We went fast on many things, but I don’t think we went too fast,” she said. “Right now, our operating system is EOS, Entrepreneurial Operating System, and that is the whole layout of the company, the whole communications, meetings. I wish we were introduced to that a lot earlier than we were to really know what numbers to focus on, but it came at a good time, and now we’re running it.”
As any small business owner, one of the fulfilling moments is when the business grows. Looking back, Rhonda had that proud moment when their business grew and they were able to hire their first salaried worker.
The winery and inn have provided Rhonda with the opportunity to meet many people, and she reminisced fond memories of the patrons.
“Just talking to some of our inn guests and what this place means to them gives me joy,” she said. “They tell us: ‘I’ve been coming here every month. Sometimes we come down just for live music.’ To hear someone resonate back what you have put so much into is just so fulfilling.”
Although retirement is in The Brooks plans, Rhonda said she isn’t sure they will ever truly leave the business.
“We’re looking to retire, but at the same time, if it’s going to grow, we need to expand by more bed-and-breakfasts. But, if we’re going to expand, we need to hire a lot more staff to do the work that we used to do.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever be truly done. We have a lot of skin in the game. I don’t plan on being here for any length of time unless something comes up that needs us.”
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