William Grant celebrates its president

20 March, 2014

A commemorative expression of Glenfiddich will be released this year to mark the passing of Charles Grant Gordon, the man who turned it from a boutique label into the world’s leading single malt brand.

Gordon was the life president of William Grant & Sons until he died earlier this year at the age of 86, surrounded by his family following a short illness.

The new expression will ensure he lives on in shops and homes across the UK as whisky lovers enjoy the “extremely rare and ancient” single malt.

But his strongest legacy is the ethos he instilled in the team at William Grant: brands must be nurtured over time before they become market leaders.  

Chief executive Stella David, who runs the family firm that has a turnover of £1 billion and is the third-largest Scotch whisky producer, was among the mourners as memorial services were held in New York and Glasgow.

“There’s a degree of gravitas but it was a great opportunity to pay tribute and remember some of the great contributions,” says David.

“Tributes were paid at a company conference in Phoenix. There were 300 people in the room and half were in tears – but in a nice way.”

Gordon interviewed David when she joined in 2009 and she spoke to him frequently as he acted as a mentor to the team.

“He was always interested in what was happening 10 to 20 years in the future,” she says. “He was always about building brands, glass by glass, bottle by bottle, even in his 80s – it never went.”

The William Grant stable is packed with household names – Grant’s, Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Hendrick’s, Sailor Jerry, Monkey Shoulder – but they were all built up patiently for years before their popularity exploded.

“We are very fortunate that brands like Hendrick’s were conceived and nurtured for 10-12 years,” says David. “It’s now the leading super-premium gin brand. People call it an overnight success story but it took all that nurturing, and that’s his legacy.

“Nobody noticed Monkey Shoulder until a year ago, but it’s been around for 10 years. It’s about nurturing them slowly.”

Gordon first dipped a toe in the family firm at the age of six, helping out with menial tasks and learning the ropes, but he joined full-time in 1951 after spells in the navy and as an accountant.

A mere 18 months on, his father’s sudden death propelled him to the position of director. Along with his brother Sandy, he rose to the challenge and set the company on a path to expansion.

In eight months he built one of the world’s biggest distilleries at Girvan. He stayed in a caravan onsite and toured the building works on his bicycle to ensure it went to plan.

Gordon then spent his career incessantly driving the team to ensure the brands continued to grow.

“The business was in his blood quite literally,” says David. “He had an enormous wealth of knowledge from eight decades and everybody called him Mr Scotch Whisky.

“He would be asking questions, giving advice, challenging – but it was a good challenge.

“The passion of building brands for the future was the absolute core. The influence will be there long, long into the future.”

While rivals like Diageo and Pernod Ricard are public limited companies, subject to quarterly financial reports and wrathful shareholders, William Grant has maintained its independence, and David believes this allows it to be more patient. 

“When bigger drinks companies struggle with innovation it’s because they are too keen to get a result too quickly,” she says.

“The key thing is to be patient. You aren’t going to build a great new spirits brand in three to four years – there are very few examples I can think of.

“Suddenly they are hot and interesting but it’s because of the massive amount of work that goes on beforehand for all the years where it just sold 1,000 cases. Sailor Jerry rum was only around in the US for years, but now it’s a million-case brand globally.

“The family structure is very solid and there are a lot of examples where taking the patient approach from Charles paid off.

“He wasn’t a patient man – he could be challenging, difficult and say ‘I am not here to run a social club’ – but he was patient when he needed to be and impatient when he wanted to be, but in a good way.”

The family’s patience may run thin if David failed to deliver results for a prolonged period, but all six core brands are currently growing and she sees plenty of scope to build on that.

“I don’t think family-owned alleviates the need to perform, to be competitive,” she says. “You have to perform, but it’s about understanding what performance means. It’s about not taking shortcuts.

“Being family owned we don’t rely on quarterly reporting. People worry about that. I understand it, but it takes a lot of energy and effort.

“We want to deliver results and that’s my job, but not in the same way as a PLC. You take a longer-term perspective. That gives us an advantage.

“For example, we bought Tullamore Dew in 2010. We built our own distillery in its hometown. We didn’t debate it for ages, we just said ‘of course we’re building a distillery’. It makes decisions like building a new distillery easy. It’s not about short-term payback but what’s best for the brand.”

The patient, nurturing approach has clearly rubbed off on David and she has ambitious plans for a raft of brands that currently have a niche following.

“We have small brands we are nurturing in the UK and the US,” she says. “We can only nurture so many at a time as we have to give them enough attention, but some are growing slowly. Salerno, the blood orange liqueur, we are slowly feeding into the marketplace, getting bartenders into the brand.

“We have launched the Girvan Patent Still. Nobody has really been doing what we are with single grain whisky.

“We have Reyka Icelandic vodka, which has great heritage. Hopefully in three or four years time people will start calling it an overnight success.”

Scotch whisky is still the core of the business, and Scotch is an odd business in that it sells a product aged for decades and chief executives like David are thus reliant on the foresight of forebears like Gordon.

“The business has a future that’s defined by its history,” she says. “It’s not just about those decisions going forward. It’s about those decisions made historically. We have great liquids laid down in cask for many, many years.

“We have whiskies that are 30, 40 years old.”

With only a limited of Scotch whisky laid down and a raging thirst for it growing in emerging markets like China, there is a danger producers could abandon the UK market with its exorbitant tax rates and aggressive health lobby, but David said William Grant is committed to the UK.

“The UK accounts for around 15% of our sales,” she says. “It’s an important market. It’s a home market.

“At the end of the day it’s down to the Scotch whisky industry to be planning ahead to make sure that stocks have been laid down to make sure demand can be met.

“Certain products are very attractive in Asian markets, but from my company’s point of view it’s about producing brand equity in the UK.

“We see our growth in the UK as giving choice to consumers in the premium segment. Generating value and choice. We are not into the driving volume game.

“Balvenie is doing extremely well. Grant’s is operating in a very big category. We have really interesting plans for it.

“Hendricks is a tour de force.

“I forecast long-term growth in Irish whiskey. We envisage it being as big as Scotch. It’s dominated by Jameson but there’s plenty of time for further growth of Tullamore.

“Glenfiddich is doing very well. We are slightly restricted by stock conditions. We are trying to grow it carefully without using up too much of our precious stock.”

The stock may be precious, but it is a testament to Gordon’s importance to the history of William Grant that the firm is giving him his own expression. 

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