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In the first just-drinks interview of 2010, we sit down with John Beard, CEO of Whyte & Mackay, and ask him about his first nine months in the hotseat, his company's relationship with its Indian owners and where he sees opportunity for growth going forward. Go on, take a guess.

John Beard became CEO of Whyte & Mackay in March last year. Whilst it would be unfair to describe the position as a poison chalice, Beard took the helm just as the biggest waves following the credit crunch started to hit our industry. Not only that, but the Scotch whisky firm was also having to deal with speculation at the time suggesting that its parent company was considering a sell-off.

One would be forgiven, then, for assuming that Beard spent the bulk of 2009 cursing his timing, as well as his luck. But Whyte & Mackay had - and still has - quite an allure for the former head of UK joint-venture Bacardi Brown Forman. "

"Compared to the corporate lives of the big drinks companies," Beard says, "Whyte & Mackay has a lot of autonomy. That's thanks to the nature of the structure and ownership of the business. There's also an ability to run something in its entirety, as opposed to the more controlled role of running an individual market within a bigger operation."

Since assuming the CEO-ship, Beard feels the rest of 2009 was "pretty dramatic" for Whyte & Mackay. The year was defined for the Scotland-based firm by its announcement in August that it was in the process of a "major review" of its organisation, which forecast the loss of up to 15% - or 85 people - of its total workforce. Now that the process is complete, Whyte & Mackay actually cut 18% of its employees - around 90 jobs.

"We're a very Scotland-weighted business," notes Beard. "Around 90% of our employees are based in Scotland. We've been sensitive to the needs of local communities in the country. In hindsight, I think it's been well-coordinated as a process.

"This has been difficult for the business, but I'm absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do. It makes us leaner and fitter going into 2010."

Beard is particularly pleased, however, that the company avoided closing any of its facilities in the country. Indeed, he concurs that this was part of the reason why the move did not garner anywhere near as many headlines as Diageo's plan, announced in July to cut around 500 jobs in the country.

"I think Diageo were in a particularly difficult situation," he says. "Because of their size and profile in Scotland, whatever they were going to do in Scotland, they were going to be criticised for. We were able to take some learnings from the way they handled it, purely because their announcement was ahead of ours. But they (the situations) were fundamentally different. One was closing a facility, the other was a restructure of all elements of a business. We didn't have the even more emotive topic to deal with of closing a facility."

Back in May 2007, eyebrows were raised when Indian conglomerate The UB Group acquired Whyte & Mackay for US$1.18bn. The Indian firm, headed up by the flamboyant character of Vijay Mallya, subsequently put its United Spirits division in charge of Whyte & Mackay, and sent over Ashwin Malik, who had been with UB for 19 years, to be chief executive.

Despite the Indian ties, Beard was attracted to the position last year in part because of the level of aforementioned autonomy he is afforded. "It (the business) is very much driven by our recommendation for what is right for Whyte & Mackay," he says. "We put those recommendations to India and we move ahead accordingly. Compared to larger businesses, there is less bureaucracy, there is more autonomy and there's a management style from Dr Mallya that encourages his people to get on and run the businesses and that's proving very exciting."

The reports out of India earlier this year, suggesting that UB was looking to sell off some or even all of its Whyte & Mackay ownership must have been unsettling. (The Indian company spent most of this year looking at debts thought to be in the region of $1.5bn, so the rumours must have had some credence). Beard seems satisfied, however, that the dust has settled. "In the last few weeks," he notes, "there's been a very successful deleveraging share issue in India, which reduces the United Spirits debt. That was over-subscribed on the Indian stock market during the autumn and has reduced the debt incurred by the purchase of Whyte & Mackay.

"That's gone extremely well," he continues. "My read is that there is renewed optimism and confidence in the Indian market within United Spirits. The business is set to break 100m cases of spirits in 2009. I also think Dr Mallya is delighted by some of the recognition that Whyte & Mackay has received in the last few months. We've had strong coverage for some of the successes we've had with The Dalmore and we also achieved the Global distiller of the year at the IWSC. So, there's some very positive momentum in the context of United Spirits and its links with Whyte & Mackay."

At present, around 60% of the Scotch whisky firm's business occurs in the UK. Looking forward, however, it is pretty obvious which market Beard believes offers Whyte & Mackay the greatest opportunity. 

"Going forward, we think that the US is a significant opportunity for us," he teases. "In France, we're having a great time with our malt whiskies."

Here it comes.

"It would be impossible," he says, "to ignore the huge potential for Whyte & Mackay in India." Beard believes that India should be viewed as "one of the net winners of what we call a global recession - the likes of India and China never actually went into recession".

"United Spirits is going from strength to strength - it's recent results are very strong and it has recently overtaken Pernod Ricard by volume to become the second largest spirits company in the world. So, India is a disproportionately large opportunity for Whyte & Mackay."

As India's thirst for Scotch continues to grow, Whyte & Mackay would appear perfectly poised to make the most of this opportunity. Provided UB can afford to keep a hand on the tiller.

Post-script: Since just-drinks spoke to John Beard, Whyte & Mackay released its results for the 12 months to the end of March earlier this week. Click here to view.