“It was in a bit of a state,” Melissa Bell, 41, recalls about the first time she visited a 138-acre property near the southwestern edge of Australia, 186 miles south of Perth. That was in September 2020, nine years after Bell left a job with Deloitte in London and moved across the world to work for a small, local firm called Velrada.
The location was ideal: deep in what Bell calls “the food basket of Australia,” where 80% of the country’s avocados are grown and 99% of the world’s Perigord black truffles are hunted (five times what comes out of France), with the famed Margaret River wine region nearby. Bell, looking past the estate’s less-than-pristine aesthetic, saw a way to cultivate it into something better.
Just over a year later, in December 2021, Bell—along with her longtime friend and business partner Corrie Scheepers—reopened that property as Ampersand Estates, Western Australia’s newest vineyard and winery. In addition to hosting events such as weddings and conferences, the estate offers accommodations and, of course, libations. Guests can stay overnight in three modern-farmhouse cottages overlooking the vineyard. The tasting room features an outdoor pergola overlooking a pond.
From humble beginnings
Although owning this idyllic locale may look like second nature to her now, Bell didn’t always have an easy time navigating an affluent lifestyle. “The first time I went on a business trip, I had to call my wife and ask her how room service worked. Like, when the guy came, what did I do? Did I shake his hand with the money in [my hand]? I just didn’t know,” Bell says. “I had barely stayed in any hotels, let alone ordered room service.”
Bell spent the beginning of her childhood in a Biloxi, Mississippi, trailer park. After her father, a laborer who built greenhouses, suffered an accident and realized he could be just one accident away from being able to support his family, he enlisted in the military. This took the family to Germany and England. Between the ages of 5 and 18, Bell lived outside of the U.S.
“My parents saw that as an opportunity for myself and my sister to experience everything Europe had to offer,” Bell says.
These travels were far from the luxurious holiday most people imagine when they hear destinations such as Paris and Venice. Bell describes traveling all across Europe in an old station wagon, sleeping in tents and living on peanut butter sandwiches while touring Italy and Greece.
Still, just like most people who get to see a bit of the world, Bell emerged from these experiences more fearless and ready for more adventures. “I know what it’s like to live with not very much [and to be] from a very humble background,” she says. “I’m willing to take risks because I’ve come from pretty much nothing.”
Carving her niche
At 23, Bell spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine, where she learned about vodka production from her host family, who distilled it from potatoes. She had just graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science with a Master of Science in international relations and affairs in 2005.
Years later, when she arrived in Australia to work for that small, local firm called Velrada, she met Scheepers, a South African native who grew up on a citrus and sugar cane farm. They left Velrada together to launch a consulting firm, The Terrace Initiative, in Perth in 2014. After expanding to offices in Wellington and Auckland, New Zealand, as well as Cape Town, South Africa, they sold the firm in 2019.
“There’s this fantasy that owning a winery is like a dream,” Bell says. “And, of course, we’re doing it for fun and passion, but it’s a business. It has to be profitable. It’s not something that we just endlessly do for fun and sink cash into.”
Founding Ampersand Estates
At Deloitte and Velrada, Bell felt she missed out on setting and achieving personal goals. Being self-employed has allowed her to do that—but there are also drawbacks to being the only boss.
“The pleasure and the difficulty of being an entrepreneur… is that you’re wholly responsible for the shape of your whole work,” she says. “The downside of that is that there’s nobody else to blame if things go wrong.”
Entering into a new industry was a risk, Bell acknowledges, but it paid off. She attributes their success with Ampersand Estates in part to her and Scheepers’ years of consulting experience to draw on as they ventured into the other side—they’ve been ready and willing to roll up their sleeves and apply that knowledge. But mostly, Bell credits the fact that they never took their eyes off their dream of making the best wine in Australia and taking steps to make that happen.
“One of the fundamentals of running a business is that you have to have a great team,” Bell says. “You have to have a compelling product market fit, a compelling proposition for your customer. We went out to find the best winemaker in Western Australia,” she says, adopting that same mantra for their hotel manager and viticulturist. “It’s about finding the right team who’s willing to go on a journey with you.”
Scaling with passion: Rainfall Distillery
Today, Ampersand is transitioning to where grapes are 90% estate-grown, giving the estate further control over the viticulture. Bell and Scheepers also launched Rainfall Distillery, which produces gins and vodkas on the same site, sourcing ingredients from the surrounding Southern Forests Region. They’re in the process of transitioning from conventional electric to solar power.
“I’ve had a long-standing love of wine, but probably more particularly a passion for vodkas and gins,” says Bell, who handles operations at the winery, distillery and firm, while Scheepers looks after growing the business, shaping new opportunities and pitching to new clients. “I spent 10 years telling Corrie [Scheepers] we should make vodka. And he kept telling me, ‘Well, we own a consulting firm.’ And so, when we no longer owned a consulting firm, I decided it was time to cash in on a 10-year promise.”
In July 2023, Rainfall began distributing internationally to markets in Singapore and Southeast Asia, followed by the U.S. Infused with one gin are Australian rain and Scarlet Bottlebrush; in another, pinot noir and strawberries. The vodkas are infused with heirloom citrus, Australian rain and karri honey roasted macadamias. Rainfall is also about to launch one of the world’s first single-estate gins, where all of its ingredients are sourced from the estate, not just the region.
“What Ampersand and Rainfall Distillery have given us is an even deeper experience in how to deliver something big and complex,” Bell says. “There’s lots of people who are well educated but have [not] actually had the real, practical experience of having their own skin in the game around managing and funding and delivering a project.”
Ampersand Advisory: a full circle
Shortly after Ampersand Estates opened to the public, in December 2021, Bell and Scheepers returned to their consulting roots and debuted a new boutique consulting firm, Ampersand Advisory, helping boards and senior leaders deliver big, complex projects with ambitions and values built around sustainability. What attracts clients to the firm is that Bell and Scheepers are running a business, too—a rare find in the consulting business.
Although it could have been possible, entering into retirement after she and Scheepers sold their firm back in 2019 was never an option for Bell. “I quickly learned that retiring at 38 was not for me,” she laughs. “I’m 100% an entrepreneur at heart.”
This article originally appeared in the Sept/Oct 2023 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photos courtesy of ©SHOT BY THOM/Courtesy of Ampersand Estates.
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