‘‘When you drink malt whisky, it’s not just about drinking a liquid. You become a part of the journey, you consume a dream,” says Stella David, chief executive officer, William Grant and Sons Ltd. After briefly working as an aircraft designer at British Aerospace, David transitioned into marketing roles before finally taking over as chief executive of William Grant in August 2009. In the following three years, she found herself weathering turbulent economic conditions, while overseeing an acquisition and a divestment. Recently in India, David chatted with Indulge about the challenges of running a family-owned business, and being part of an industry considered by many as ‘‘a man’s world”. Edited excerpts:
Tell us something about the history and legacy of the brand.
William Grant and Sons was founded in 1887 by William Grant in the small highland village of Dufftown (Scotland) and has been an independent company ever since. It is still owned by the same family, which makes it very different from public companies. The passion the family has for it is amazing.
Also, the family is fiercely independent, which makes a big difference because then we can do things with the brands that we want to do. Take, for example, Glenfiddich, the world’s first malt whisky. It pioneered an entire category and that’s what the brand stands for: innovating and coming out with new expressions in order to retain its No. 1 position.
We often talk about the amazing David Stewart, the malt master for Balvenie, another popular brand with its handcrafted nature, for the past 50 years. But we also have Brian Kinsman, another brilliant malt master, who looks after Glenfiddich. For them, it’s not just a job, it’s their passion. And that translates into the way we want to build the brand.
And finally, we believe that you can’t force brands on consumers. That’s not sustainable. You build relationships. I want the consumer to call the product off the shelves.
The company has been independent for more than 120 years. How has it sustained the pressure to sell out?
Well, I am not that old (laughs). But the company has been very fortunate because the family has always been very committed and I am 100% sure they are not interested in selling.
And this would be the fourth generation?
The fifth, in fact. And they want to make the company stronger for the next generation. They don’t run the company themselves; they have professional managers. However, they are very connected with what we do.
It’s not common to see businesses of the scale of William Grant being family-owned independent bodies. What role exactly does the family play in the day-to-day operations?
Their role is to steer the company to the future. If you look at how the management works at a company, you would see that the time horizon is not that long; they might not be at the company for that long or they might not have long-term vested interest.
So you get the best results when you combine professional management with the values of the shareholders, which, in this case, is the family. Because they plan for the long term. In our industry, one has to plan 10, 20, even 40 years in advance. Otherwise there won’t be any whisky. You have to make substantial, long-term commitments. That’s the perspective the family brings in. Our job is to make sure that we listen to them and respect their commitments.
Any plans to go public?
Absolutely not. Not even in the long term.
What are your core brands?
Glenfiddich is the world’s No. 1 malt whisky and obviously our flagship brand. Balvenie is doing great. It only launched here some 15 months ago, but is being developed and nurtured for many years. We have Hendrick’s gin, the world’s No. 1 super-premium gin now. It’s just started to get some traction here. By the way, it is the only gin that goes with cucumber.
We also have Grant’s whisky, which is starting to get some traction in India. Also, we acquired Tullamore Dew in 2010 and are going to launch it here very soon. Another brand doing quite well in the UK and France is Monkey Shoulder, a blend of three malts, which is consumed with Coke.
How does India figure in your overall business plan?
India is definitely one of the fastest growing markets for us. It is not the biggest market yet, but if you look at future projections, it will become increasingly important over time. There are several reasons.
The Indian consumer likes whisky and is very knowledgeable. It is very different from China where people don’t like whisky and it is still being pushed at them by certain companies. But here, whisky is a massive category and malt whisky is very niche. But for certain consumers, looking for premium products, turning to malt whisky is a natural trend. It will always be niche but is certainly growing.
Many distillers have complained about the tax structure in India. What is your take on it?
I am not in control of the duties they put here. But what I can control is how we build our brands. That’s the most important thing. Ultimately, and hopefully, the duties will go down, but that doesn’t stop us from doing the right thing. The most important thing is to build a relationship with the consumer and to make sure that we are well placed for the future. That’s where we are putting all our attention. India, fundamentally, is a huge and attractive market.
You studied engineering and then landed in an industry most people consider “a man’s world”. How did that happen?
Because I was stupid enough not to realize that there was supposed to be a glass ceiling, and if you don’t know it exists, you can’t hit it. It was a long time back that I did engineering. So long ago that it seems untrue. I was an engineer for a short period of time. I still read about science though.
But I find it funny to think that, at that time, there were hardly any women and it was fun competing with the boys.
I have been fortunate not to notice the barriers and walk straight through them. And if someone in my job doesn’t enjoy it, that person should be fired because it is a great industry and we work with great brands. It would be disrespectful not to enjoy it.
What about the pressures that come with the job?
There should be pressure. Without pressure, you don’t progress. Pressure is good. One of the things that we have right now is that all our brands are growing, which is good. We have got great momentum behind them, but we can’t take that for granted. We have to constantly keep thinking of ways to grow and make sure we don’t copy the big brands. Because despite the scale, we aren’t massive and we have to obsess that our brands are wanted by consumers. Otherwise we will be squeezed out of the market. That’s the pressure that keeps us going.
We got to know that David Stewart is retiring. How will that affect the company?
Well, we may let him retire, but I am not sure yet (laughs). He is not retiring yet, but he will, gradually. But we have another fantastic malt master in Brian. David has trained Brian for many years and we are lucky to have two fantastic malt masters.
As for David, he is incredible. He has been with the company for 50 years. How many people work for a company for 50 years these days? You can’t buy that; you can only grow that passion and knowledge.