Big Interview: Scotch Whisky Experience CEO Susan Morrison

Susan Morrison welcomes the cheaper pound since the Brexit vote, but fears recruitment problems. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Susan Morrison welcomes the cheaper pound since the Brexit vote, but fears recruitment problems. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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While the medical profession might take issue with the moniker “water of life”, few would dispute the fact that whisky is the lifeblood of Britain’s food and drink sector.

It accounts for some 20 per cent of all UK exports in that sector in 2017, earning £139 every second, according to figures from the Scotch Whisky Association.

But for Susan Morrison, chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, the bald figures only go a small way to explaining the spirit’s enduring appeal – which has made it the mainstay of another of Scotland’s biggest exports: tourism. And she should know, as she oversees a business which ushers 380,000 visitors through its doors each year – many of whom barely touch the stuff.

Moreover, she expects those numbers to continue growing as attitudes towards the drink are changing – at least to judge by the make-up of her customer base.

“The whisky industry is moving away from being seen as an old person’s drink,” she says. “Our biggest demographic for guests now is 25 to 35-year-olds, which is amazing.”

The Scotch Whisky Experience offers guests more than the traditional traveller’s distillery tour. Part museum, part barrel ride and part drink tasting, it is a temporary immersion into the world of whisky, even if it proves to be the only brush with the drink many customers ever have.

“We get a lot of people through the doors who aren’t really whisky fans but they come to tick the attraction off their list,” she says. “They’re in Scotland and it’s what you do when you’re here. But you can see them become interested as they learn more along the tour. It’s wonderful to watch their perceptions of whisky completely change, even though it may still not be their drink of choice.”

Morrison wasn’t originally drawn to the business in 1988 by a love of the drink. But, having fallen into her first position in the whisky industry, she soon discovered a passion that has driven her to the very top.

She was looking for a weekend job around the time she started her university degree, applying to become a tour guide with the company in the very year it opened its doors in the former premises of the Castlehill School. As a student of German and Russian, she thought a customer-facing role in a tourist-friendly business would give her a chance to use her foreign language skills. She never looked back.

After graduating, Morrison landed a full-time position as a whisky buyer. “I think that was the time I really thought, ‘I can build a career here, this is the industry for me.’ I just fell in love with whisky,” she says.

This year presents a milestone in her career. Not only is she celebrating her 30th anniversary in whisky, at the same time as the company itself, but in June, she was appointed CEO – one of three key female appointments in the business. She is the Scotch Whisky Experience’s first female chief executive.

As general manager of the company since 2000, and a board member since 2005, she appears relaxed about making the transition to chief executive, saying it isn’t “a dramatic change” from her previous role.

Morrison has long felt motivated to keep improving the business, drawing on her years of experience across different levels of the company. “There have always been lots of things going on in the back of my head about where we can go next; how we can improve as a business moving forward,” she says.

Only a handful of women have been awarded the revered title of Master of the Quaich; one is Morrison, and a second is one of her colleagues who sits on the board. Encouragingly, she has never felt any barriers were put in her way because of her gender.

“Almost 50 per cent of our board is now female. It’s still fairly unusual for any company to have three female board members, but particularly for whisky, which is traditionally a very male-dominated industry,” she says. “I personally have never had a negative experience because I’m a woman, I feel all I’ve received is encouragement.”

Morrison is also keen to stress that things have changed significantly over the years. “There are a lot more female distillery managers and master blenders. It wasn’t like that when I started out.”

Morrison describes the company, like the industry in general, as “riding the crest of a wave”. Financial results for the year ended 30 November show turnover hit £7.9 million, a jump of £1m from 2016, while gross profit for 2017 increased to £4.8m, up from £4.2m in the previous year. The company has invested some £6m during the past few years to improve its offering, with additions such as the barrel ride and an interactive drinks tasting room.

“I can only see whisky sales growing, especially with new international markets such as China, India and Brazil. These are all huge markets and, particularly in China, whisky is becoming hugely popular,” says Morrison.

“We see it here with our visitors. The Chinese now make up our third biggest international group of visitors.” Asian markets are becoming increasingly important to the Scotch industry, with 25 bottles exported to China every minute. The US tops the company’s international visitor table, and outstripped England for the first time last year.

The Scotch Whisky Experience is not tied to a particular brand or distiller, but works in partnership with the majority of producers across the sector. Set up when 19 individual Scotch whisky companies jointly invested to showcase their industry to international visitors, the company represents more than 90 per cent of the industry.

“I see us as having not just a unique position, but a privileged position, in the industry. Bosses from the key companies come and sit round the same table for meetings twice a year. It does make you think ‘this is amazing’,” says Morrison.

It’s clear that, for senior industry figures, presumably as for many lifelong lovers of the drink, the production and distribution of whisky goes beyond a profession. “They are so competitive out on the market, but they take the time to sit round and talk to each other for the greater good,” she adds.

This shows in the apparent boom in whisky tourism. Macallan has recently unveiled its own £140m visitor centre; Diageo currently has a network of 12 distillery visitor centres and recently announced plans for more, including a Johnnie Walker experience in Edinburgh. This is not a challenge to her own business, says Morrison, but an “extension of the work we are already doing”, educating customers about the joys of whisky.

The Scotch Whisky Experience is also expanding, with Morrison currently overseeing a £2m refurbishment which will create a VIP area in the company’s Amber Restaurant and add to the business’s flagship tour.

After spending three decades with the company, Morrison feared she might have been reaching a point where her motivation would start to wane. She was fortunate to discover a peer-to-peer membership organisation, Vistage, which prevented that from happening, she says.

“Vistage came to my attention at just the right time. It was about one-and-a-half, two years ago when I had a small patch of wondering where I wanted to go,” she says.

The organisation offers coaching sessions and provides networking services for business leaders, and it’s the latter, in particular, which Morrison has found most helpful. “You don’t always realise just how lonely it is at the top. Now I have a network of people from different industries who I can call to chat with in full confidence. The team here is great but there are sometimes things that I’m not able to discuss with them yet.”

The whisky wave Morrison spoke of shows little sign of breaking, with the Scotch Whisky Experience seeing a nine per cent increase in visitors in 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum.

The short-term effect of that vote has been “very positive”, something Morrison attributes to the recent currency exchange rates, as a weaker pound means international guests know they are getting better value for money.

That’s not to say there are no storm clouds on the horizon. Morrison is worried about recruitment in the post-Brexit UK. “We try to be as inclusive as possible and, because we are such an international business and a lot of out visitors come from abroad, we need staff who speak a variety of languages,” she says. “I could see hiring becoming more difficult after we leave the EU.”

One thing that seems unlikely to change, though, is Morrison’s drive for the job. She shares the secret of staying motivated: “It’s my passion for what I do. That’s my one piece of advice for any young person starting out in the industry. You have to have that passion.”