How to spot a trend, how to create a trend - Interview, William Grant & Sons' chief commercial officer, Simon Hunt, Part I

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Earlier this year, just-drinks sat down with Simon Hunt, chief commercial officer at William Grant & Sons, in a restaurant just around the corner from the company's global headquarters in west London. Before looking at the group's footprint, strategy, brands, what-have-you, editor Olly Wehring has one question he is desperate to ask.

Simon Hunt joined William Grant & Sons in 2007, becoming chief commercial officer in 2013

Simon Hunt joined William Grant & Sons in 2007, becoming chief commercial officer in 2013

Okay, let's cut straight to it. First up: Simon, what does a chief commercial officer actually do? "That's a very good question," says Hunt. It's a good question, Simon, because I don't actually know the answer.

"My responsibility is to manage all of the markets," he explains. "I'm responsible for all of the distribution companies, the joint-venture relationships and our third-party distributors around the world. I will manage the P&L of the business across those markets and then look at how we build sustainable capabilities for the long term."

An enjoyable job? "I love it," he smiles. "I spend a bit too much time on planes, but this is a really exciting time to be in the business. The balance between developed and emerging markets is strategically intriguing and the sheer opportunity is what gets me out of bed and running to Heathrow every morning."

Hunt has been in the CCO role for approaching two-and-a-half years. Prior to joining William Grant, as president of North American operations in 2007, he spent time with the likes of Diageo, Allied Domecq and Pernod Ricard. Like any executive who has made the move from PLC to privately-owned, Hunt is highly appreciative of the wider timeframes he now works to. 

"What makes William Grant different to all the other companies I've worked for," he says, "is that – and I don't want to sound self-righteous - they take a much longer-term view. It was a really refreshing change for me. In my time with Allied and Pernod, I saw that everything is run on quarters and half-years. Of the brands that we like to celebrate behind the bar, in some cases they've been around for upwards of 150 years."

I've often discussed this 'long-term' versus 'quarter-to-quarter' point of difference with the likes of Hunt, who has experienced both sides. But, does he not miss the cut-and-thrust of the listed world? "We're still very performance-led at William Grant," he counters. "It's very fast-paced. We just don't judge ourselves on a quarter. In terms of the pace and the competitiveness, that's exactly the same as any listed company.

"For me, it's more about getting out to the trade, listening to what consumers are actually saying about our brands more than it is about seeing growth detailed in a press release. I get more of a buzz out of that than from public recognition of the numbers." This approach would appear to keep Hunt out on the streets. "In the last eight to ten weeks," he says, "I've been in around 500 bars - not drinking in every one - watching and talking to consumers and bartenders. It's a different level of recognition that fits closer to what we really are as a business. We're trying to predict now what people are going to be drinking in 40 years time. That really comes back to everything that we do as a business - that much longer-term view."

I'm interested to know how Hunt and his team formulate their consumer predictions. After all, the one buzz-word that has risen to the top of the drinks industry in recent years is 'trends'. How does William Grant forecast drinks trends? Hunt holds up three fingers. "Firstly, he says, "we look at things like demographics and GDP per-capita growth over a long period of time. Those are particularly important drivers in the case of emerging markets.

"Secondly, we get out into the trade, we listen to our customers and to consumers. We use our network of brand ambassadors - we have about 85 around the world - because they are leading experts in the individual categories and they are very well-connected. Today, thanks to social media, you can see trends starting in LA one day and, instead of it taking a month or two, it's in London the next day, then in Hong Kong the next day, Singapore the next. You can see the accelerated pace of trends that we are dealing with but, because of out network in the field, we can pick up what the latest trends are.

"Finally, we consider the trends that we would like to see. If you take a look at craft, we've found it exciting to have new companies coming into the category because they're challenging us to see how pioneering we are. We still think of ourselves as a craft company. We're family-owned, we have incredible passion behind the brands, we have incredible attention-to-detail about what we put out and how we work with customers. From that point of view, we look at where we see opportunities to start some of the trends ourselves, whether it be with something like Girvan Patent Still or Monkey Shoulder."

Being able to start trends yourself sounds too good to be true, but Hunt maintains that it is doable, at William Grant more than at a larger spirits player. "It comes back to not being a massive company," he believes. "We can move very quickly. Look at our acquisition of Drambuie (in September last year); a lot of people had been talking about it, we felt uniquely-positioned to bring it into our portfolio. The entire transaction was done in seven days. There are very few companies that could actually pull that off. Now, when we see a new trend, then we can share what we've identified very quickly, because that's how our company is set up."

The first mention of Drambuie in our time together: I'm perplexed why William Grant was interested in buying a spirits brand with a long history but – in my opinion, at least – a short potential. "I think we are uniquely positioned to buy it," Hunt says. "We have the whisky know-how; Drambuie was previously owned by a family; It's an iconic brand that is in every cocktail bar around the world.

"We saw this opportunity to get a very good fit with our understanding of the Scotch whisky business as well as with our distribution capabilities around the world. It was a number of different areas that came together, which meant this was an acquisition that made absolute sense."

Is William Grant looking at Drambuie as a cash generator, then, or as a growth driver? "It's a combination of both," says Hunt, "particularly in a family business where you're looking to generate value over the longer term, you want to take advantage of whatever efficiencies you have as part of the acquisition. But," he adds, "you must be looking at where the brand's potential is. Up to now, we've been very busy at integrating the business, changing the distribution around the world. There's still more to go, but that's not the most interesting part. Next, we'll look at what we want to do with the brand. We think it's lost some of the magic in its packaging, so we'll look at that. Then, it's about where else we want to go with it."

I suggest to Hunt that it's going to take quite a strong wind to blow the dust off Drambuie. "Step back and look at the trends within different categories and in different markets over the last 30 or 40 years," he counters. "Categories have gone in and out of fashion. It comes back to that long-term view. There's not a quick opportunity, but that's not the way we work.

"Things change, geographies change and consumer tastes changes. What we do like, particularly at the moment, is that we have the original flavoured whisky. It has an authentic story behind it and we're in every cocktail bar in the world. We're very well-poisitioned to take advantage of that. But, we didn't buy it because of that, we bought it for the long term potential that we see."

In part two of this interview, which can be found here, Simon Hunt guides us through the lessons of craft, the US spirits market and the thinking that allowed The Glenlivet to overtake Glenfiddich as the world's biggest-selling single malt Scotch whisky brand.

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