John Grant: why being a family business is key to Glenfarclas’ success

People are drinking less now, drinking better, and they are much more interested in what they are drinking. This was not always the case.

Back in the early 1970s, the bottling of single malts was not taken seriously by many distillers, and for us it was very much of a hobby. We reinvented ourselves from the mid-1970s by focusing on selling bottles of Glenfarclas as well as supplying whisky to the blended market.

It started with a conversation with my father after I returned to the distillery following a spell working at Teacher’s. I asked him what I was supposed to do on my return. He said: “Where do Teacher’s make their money?”

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I said by selling bottles of Teacher’s. He replied: “Well, that’s what we have got to do. Sell bottles of Glenfarclas.”

I then set about building a distribution network, with one of the first stops being New Zealand. I met a lot of nice people along the way who made recommendations and we quietly built up the network. We were open with people that this could take a generation to see results, as we had to build up stocks and single malts were relatively unknown.

Our early distributors have seen the benefit of this relationship over more than 20 years and we are now much more in control of our own destiny.

We have never had a huge advertising budget and have found that word-of-mouth is the best advert we can have. Opening our visitor centre back in 1973 turned out to be the best PR decision we ever made. It was only the second distillery visitor centre to open in Scotland. Distilleries at the time were not very open places and it was felt by the owners that it was in their interests to keep what went on inside behind closed doors.

At the end of our first year we had 5,000 visitors and now we can get more than that number in a week. When the bigger distillery groups saw how successful visitor centres had become they all wanted a piece.

In the mid-1970s, ourselves, Glenfiddich, Strathisla, Glenlivet and Tamdhu got together to set up the Malt Whisky Trail, but we had a challenge convincing the local tourism authority that it could work.

We have a good team of relatively young people, in their early 40s, and there is no reason why they shouldn’t be here for the long term. Continuity makes a great difference and we are lucky that our employees tend to stay with us for a long time.

The culture within companies has become a lot more corporate. Nowadays people are unwilling to make decisions because they do not feel empowered or are afraid to make mistakes. But as long as what you did was done with the best of intentions then that’s great. Don’t be frightened about it. Use the information you have along with common sense and 99 times out of 100 you’ll be fine.

We have had a number of approaches from other companies over the years and most people now know that we have no interest in selling. I have a standard three-word letter that we send out when we receive these approaches. It reads: “No thank you.”

Selling would be a disaster as it would eventually lead to redundancies. I am very conscious that we are a one-brand company and acknowledge all the risks that go with that. We have tried to buy and have made approaches, however we are not willing to pay over the odds.

The industry is seeing a lot of new distilleries emerge but how many are going to be here in the long term? The gin bubble will not last forever and when these companies do eventually have stock, the route to market is not an easy one.

We know how difficult it is for independents to break into established distribution markets.

I do, however, consider myself very lucky to work in this trade and I remind people who I work with that we are lucky to work in this industry.

John Grant is the chairman of the family-run Glenfarclas distillery

This article appeared in the spring edition of Vision. A digital version can be found here.