If you Google Glenfiddich, here is what you’ll come to learn: for 20 years, William Grant nurtured a dream to make the ‘best dram in the valley’. With the help of his family, he finally achieved that vision.
In the summer of 1886, with his seven sons and two daughters by his side, William set out to fulfil a lifelong ambition. Together they began building his Distillery by hand, stone by stone. After a single year of work it was ready and William named it Glenfiddich, Gaelic for Valley of the Deer.
With such a successful family business - and global brand - My Business was lucky enough to sit down with Peter Gordon, the great-great grandson of the late William Grant to discuss the ins and outs of this generational business.
Peter Gordon will tell you he’s “positive, creative and competitive” and he loves “getting close to a place, its people and its history”.
Immediately you can tell Peter is the kind of man who invests his heart and soul into what he does - that includes the family business. The desire to know more than what appears on the surface or in front of his eyes shows there’s an interested mind.
What does a day in the life of Peter Gordon look like?
“There isn’t necessarily a typical day,” Peter says.
“The year revolves around a number of board and committee meetings, which means a sizeable amount of reading and commenting on a large number of board papers and brand plans.
“I try and spend as much time as I can acting as a brand ambassador for Glenfiddich, visiting markets all over the world.”
There’s a good chance that you’re either a family business, know one or have been part of one at some point and I wondered what it would be like being part of a global family business that has withstood a great deal of time.
“We have been a family run business for well over 125 years,” says Peter.
“This encourages us to be a pioneering whisky company, and we are not afraid to try new things if it makes our whisky better.
“So whilst every Glenfiddich has a characteristic fruity flavour, each of the whiskies is completely unique, thanks to the innovative ways they are created.
“This pioneering attitude was established by our founder William Grant, who back in 1887 fulfilled his dream of creating the ‘best dram in the valley’ by building his own distillery by hand.
“William’s vision and example gives us the freedom to be innovative and inventive with our whiskies, and we constantly try to explore new possibilities.”
Back in time
I asked Peter to take us back to when he first started working in the family business? I wanted to find out who he was and what his life views were at this point.
“I first worked at the distilleries in 1976,” he says.
“I was an economics student and I had no idea about business.
“The manager at the time was Duncan Stuart and I stayed with his father-in-law who was the “Grieve” (farm manager). I remember those few months very fondly. I consider myself incredibly lucky and fortunate to have had that time to learn at the real coal face of a well-run distillery like Glenfiddich.
“Not many people can say that they have been inside a copper still, scrubbing and cleaning the base with a hard fibre brush and a bucket of powdered caustic, and feeling the heat of the coal fire through thick rubber boots.”
Was there an expectation that you would become part of the family company?
“I don’t think so. Not that I knew of!” he laughs.
Did you think you would become involved in the business?
“No – we didn’t talk about business at home, so it didn’t occur to me,” Peter says.
Over the years Peter’s involvement has taken him through many areas of the Glenfiddich business.
In the beginning, Peter says he was very much “at the coal face as a young student learning all the different stages of distilling and what was required”.
“I worked with the mashman, stillman, and prepared and painted casks. I learnt by getting my hands dirty,” he says.
“When I re-entered the business I worked in various roles from being the first global brand manager for Grant’s through to coordinating events to celebrate the company’s 100th anniversary, as well as creating the company’s first archive.
“I have represented the company in the various industry bodies such as the SWA and Scotch Whisky Experience.”
Peter also served as Chairman of William Grant & Sons from 2008 to 2012 and he very humbling says it was a “great privilege”.
“I was very fortunate to have a number of very capable people working in and around our board,” says Peter.
“It was a period of significant external economic tumult, in which most companies were pulling in their investment plans.
“We were in a position to significantly increase the support of our brands. With the benefit of hindsight, this was a wonderful opportunity.”
Today Peter is still involved “very closely” in a very “multi-faceted role”.
Now, his involvement has him “dealing with legal compliance through to evaluating plans for each of the company’s different brands, putting them through the ringer, challenging them, and helping to get to them to a stage where they can be endorsed”.
So what does Peter see as the greatest delight in seeing this family business still standing?
“Our business is fascinating. We walk a tightrope which encourages professionalism and a drive for performance on the one hand, and on the other, wishes to retain the family’s focus on the long-term, and the upholding of cultural values. This is a difficult balance, but one which can keep us different,” he says.
Today technology is a huge aspect of business. The swiftly changing landscape requires businesses to really be on their game, to be at the forefront of the latest changes and to be integrating systems and process, which support the growth of business and also their consumer.
Clearly a business standing well over 125 years must know a thing or two about adapting and rolling with the punches?
“The dream of William’s was to create the best dram in the valley, and that is as true today as it was in 1886 when he first began building Glenfiddich by hand with the help of his nine children and wife, Elizabeth,” Peter says.
“We continue to use traditional methods and that will never change, but we have also fostered a culture of innovation and embraced technology where appropriate.
“As an independent family run company, Glenfiddich has a long and illustrious history of innovation. It was the brand that created the single malt Scotch category in the first place.
"It is this entrepreneurial mindset and passion to break new boundaries that has led to the creation of exciting variants which have delighted whisky connoisseurs and explorers alike. It is one of the reasons why Glenfiddich is the world’s most awarded single malt Scotch whisky.”
The secret to success
Peter has played a very noted role in “building on the remarkable Glenfiddich legacy – the brand that created the single malt category”.
Peter maintains the “relevance” of Glenfiddich by “participating in projects that will keep the liquid as the most awarded in the industry, and keeping the flame alight around the world, for it remains important and, thankfully, enjoyable”.
I’m not sure that William Grant had the intention of creating a business that would span the generations it has - or maybe he secretly did - however, since Peter is part of this historical enterprise surely he has a trick or two up his sleeve as to what supports a family business growing and expanding over the generations?
“The fifth and sixth generations of our family are still very actively involved in Glenfiddich,” says Peter.
“My cousin Glenn is our current chairman and Kirsten Grant Meikle, the first of our sixth generation to be involved in the business, is currently head of prestige brands for the UK market.
“Our family heritage is central to our Glenfiddich. For each generation, the quality of the whisky has been the priority. Looking after this enables us to achieve our business goals. The rare liquids that we work with today were laid down decades ago by my predecessors and it is an honour that we are able to continue their legacy.
“We work closely with all our distillery teams to ensure that the pioneering spirit lives on.”
And what would be the secret key ingredients to expanding Glenfiddich over the years?
To “never compromise on the magic of our liquid,” Peter says.
Where there’s no compromise there is integrity and I believe that is an essential part of all business relationships and growth.
Peter adds: “By maintaining the quality of our liquid we must strictly follow traditional techniques.”
“However, this is paired with a culture of innovation and creativity within the business.
“I feel that our long serving team members are really important as they connect our future with our past. They are able to ensure that we do not tinker with the fundamentals of Glenfiddich.
“Being family run means we made decisions generations ago to ensure we have an unrivalled stock today: A Glenfiddich 50-year-old single malt whisky exists because our forefathers did not open it and preserved it for future generations.
“We have an unrivalled stock of aged whisky which was laid down because we place more importance on a long-term plan for our descendants rather than reaping profits within our times. It is about preserving our proud legacy, whilst being passionate about the long-term and constantly seeking ways to innovate.”
Earlier this year Glenfiddich ran a project in the US called “Family Spirit”, where they asked - the very question I happened to ask Peter - to 11 other businesses and the Professor of Family business at Harvard, Prof John Davis: Do you feel there is a difference between family run businesses and non-family businesses? What difference do you see?
Peter says, “his observation was that family businesses see and act on the need to reinvent themselves two or three times a decade. Therefore, they take more risks and more managed risks.”
Glenfiddich knows the importance of succession planning and Peter says, “this is done by bringing through the next generation of our family and equipping them with the tools to ensure that the business is in a better shape than when they found it. It’s also about bringing in the right professionals to run the family business”.
Before we wrapped up, I hoped Peter could leave us with some advice he has received from being part of this legacy.
“It is difficult to say, as you do a lot of learning when you don’t realise it’s happening,” he says.
“I’ve learnt so many things from so many people, but if I were to single out a couple it would be my father Sandy and my uncle Charlie who were both extraordinary characters and have done extraordinary things for our brands, not least Glenfiddich.
“Their main message was that we should be brave and quick – without putting the crown jewels (our brands) at risk.”