Trebles all round: Whisky boss cheers his staff by handing them £26m

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The Independent Online

For many a cigar-chomping tycoon, the obvious response to a £250m windfall is to book a table at a three-star Michelin restaurant, order a bottle or two of 1947 Château Pétrus at £12,000 each and settle down to choosing a new Ferrari.

Vivian Imerman, a South African entrepreneur who took over the ailing Whyte & Mackay whisky producer in 2003, celebrated his cheque from selling the rejuvenated distiller this week for £595m slightly differently - he gave a large chunk of it away to his employees.

About 600 staff at the Glasgow-based spirits company were yesterday celebrating the £26m bonus - equivalent to three months' salary each - after Mr Imerman decided they should share in his £250 million profit.

The eight-figure giveaway is part of an upward trend in corporate philanthropy which is growing at 10 per cent a year in the UK. British companies now give away £1bn a year to good causes.

The latest act of corporate benevolence, announced to whoops and cheers on the floor of Whyte & Mackay's distillery and bottling plants, was announced on Thursday after Mr Imerman concluded his deal to sell the company, which also owns the Jura single malt and Vladivar vodka brands, to the Indian billionaire Vijay Mallya. Described as the subcontinent's Richard Branson, Mr Mallya has a burgeoning business empire ranging from airlines to beer and now runs the world's second-largest spirits producer.

Mr Imerman, 51, whose acquisition of Whyte & Mackay drew derision in some quarters because his previous experience was running the Del Monte fruit empire, said yesterday that he had wanted to reward his workers after four years of upheaval.

He told The Independent: "I am delighted to be able to share the rewards with the people who have been through this journey with me. They deserve the fruit of their efforts."

Indeed, the cheers that greeted the announcement were the culmination of a dramatic improvement in Mr Imerman's image within his own workforce at the 129-year-old firm.

He incurred the wrath of unions and MPs in 2003 when he announced the loss of 200 jobs - about a third of the staff on the books - with the closure of a bottling plant in Leith, Edinburgh.

Since then, the company for which Mr Imerman paid £208m when he first bought a stake in 2001 has enjoyed a dramatic revival in its fortunes, increasing profits from £20m in 2002 to an expected £50m this year.

It now operates from two sites - a distillery at Invergordon in the Highlands and a bottling plant at Grangemouth in Falkirk.

Sales of the Whyte & Mackay core brand, which has undergone a £50m rebranding away from "heather, tartan and shooting birds" to something more "tough, urban and Glasgow", have risen by 26 per cent at a time when the whisky market has fallen by 2 per cent.

One employee, who declined to be named, said: "There's lots of chat about how to spend the cash - holidays, a new car and so on. It was very unexpected. I think there's a grudging respect for the man - he is a tough operator and there's been a lot of pain to get where we are today after the closure at Leith. But we have to give him some credit for sharing out a bit of the cash. Most of these guys would just use it to buy another yacht."

Mr Imerman's grand gesture overshadows the last high-profile profit share by a newly-monied magnate. In November last year, John Caudwell shared £3.5m between 500 staff from his Phones 4U telecommunications company after he sold it for £1.46bn.

Mr Imerman, who claims Nelson Mandela among his close friends and prefers to be described as an "industrialist" rather than a "venture capitalist", has a record for saving ailing companies. He sold his stake in Del Monte in 2001 for £380m and claims to have made similar payments to staff at nine other companies.

John Vincent, who is executive director of Whyte & Mackay, said: "Vivian doesn't take his pride from the amount of money that he makes from his involvement with a company. He is more interested in doing the job well and he wanted to show that he appreciates the effort that the workforce has made."

But while the staff at Whyte & Mackay may be celebrating the spread of employers' largesse, Britain still lags behind in the corporate-giving stakes.

While businesses in America contribute nearly 5 per cent of the total amount of money received by charity or good causes in the country, the equivalent figure in Britain is 3 per cent.

More than a third of the £1bn contributed by UK businesses last year came from a single company, the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline.

A spokesman for New Philanthropy Capital, a charity which seeks to match good causes with corporate donors, pointed out: "Things are improving - donations are growing by 10 per cent a year. We advise companies that they should treat philanthropy like any other part of their business - dedicate the man hours and resources to it and you will get results."

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