Ian Curle - the quiet CEO who dragged Edrington into the 21st Century - Comment

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2018 is the year a CEO exodus ripped through the spirits industry. Constellation's Rob Sands, Beam Suntory's Matt Shattock and Brown-Forman's Paul Varga all gave notice of their departures.

Ian Curle, left, and his forthcoming replacement as Edrington CEO Scott McCroskie

Ian Curle, left, and his forthcoming replacement as Edrington CEO Scott McCroskie

Give or take a year or two, they all spent roughly ten years in the job. And indeed, ten seems to be the on-trend number for beverage CEOs - both PepsiCo's Indra Nooyi and The Coca-Cola Co's Muhtar Kent were there or thereabouts when they recently stepped down.

Ian Curle, the Edrington CEO who announced his exit last week after 15 years in the post, had longer than the magic decade. But then it could be argued he had more to do.

When Curle took the helm at Edrington in 2004, the Scottish distiller had less than 1,000 employees and was working out of a relatively remote, albeit beautiful, corner of the Perthshire countryside.

Today, Edrington's staff has more than doubled, and the Perth HQ swapped for a Glasgow city centre bespoke office. Meanwhile, the Edrington empire extends around the globe in the shape of a network of in-house and partnered distribution companies. Perhaps the most visible, and certainly most visually striking, change is the company's new US$180m home for The Macallan whisky, designed by the same architects behind Paris's Pompidou Centre.

At the centre of all of this change has sat the unassuming figure of Ian Curle. Edrington is a private company, so its executives do not have to trot themselves out for investors on a quarterly basis. Curle, therefore has been able to spend much of his tenure in the background, a situation that appears to suit him fine.

I, and just-drinks, interviewed him just the once, in December 2013 when the company was keen to talk about the global distribution system it was then setting up. Curle was serious, knowledgable and not inclined to suffer journalists gladly. He gave unfailing polite and rounded answers to my questions, but the rails ran smoother when we started talking about Edrington's charitable work. Suddenly, here was a topic of the heart. 

Edrington has a unique set-up. It is owned by Robertson Trust, the charitable body Edrington donates a share of its annual profits to. Curle says the company doesn't dole out dividends to shareholders, it makes donations.

It is a legacy business model built on some decidedly Victorian Scottish ideals of charity, faith and national identity. But for Millennials who seek more in payment from work than just money, it is a system that feels very modern. On that December morning in New York, Curle spoke passionately about the young people joining the team around the world, and the work they were doing.

That influx has outsized importance for Edrington. The dichotomy at the heart of the business is a company with amazing brands known around the world but controlled by a cabal of white, middle-aged Scottish men. That still rings true today - the company's board of directors page hardly screams diversity.

But that is changing, as it has to if Edrington is to achieve its goal of being truly global. Younger executives coming up include Igor Boyadjian, pinched from Edrington's Middle East partner FIX, and Tellis Baroutsis, who is MD for The Famous Grouse and Brugal rum.

A couple of years ago I put the question on Edrington's lack of diversity to Baroutsis during the TFWA exhibition in Cannes. There was a slight ruefulness to his agreement that Edrington was in many respects still an old-style Scottish whisky company with a board that's very much white Scottish rich men.

However, as he pointed out, just a few years previously 90% of the company was based in Scotland. Now, that ratio had reversed.

"It's been a big shift," Baroutsis said. "But looking at the development of the brands, I think it has been a successful transition."

This, in the end then, could be Curle's biggest legacy. A global expansion that in the process has equipped a small Scottish spirits firm with the talent and outlook it needs for global success.

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