Raise your glass to a spirited idea

Luxury branding for the whisky market is at the centre of attention at Strathclyde's exclusive MBA

It features the world's best selling single malt whisky, a master blender, a 125-year-old family business and a group of Scotland's top academics. Strathclyde Business School's specialist MBA, developed in partnership with Glenfiddich distillers William Grant & Sons, puts Scottish luxury brands and its most famous product centre stage.

Whisky is a booming worldwide industry and a key luxury brand in emerging markets such as Asia, Latin America and Africa. A few weeks ago, international drinks giant Diageo announced it was investing £1bn in boosting Scotch whisky production. Pernod Ricard, the world's second-biggest drinks producer, followed suit with a £40m shot in the arm to raise its Scotch whisky production by 25 per cent.

Strathclyde is positioning itself as a supporter of high-end Scottish businesses. William Grant employees make up around half the cohort of 25 students with the rest drawn from a range of organisations, including luxury tweed producers Johnsons of Elgin, Dundee-based asset management company Alliance Trust, health sector software developer Craneware, and the Prince's Scottish Youth Business Trust.

"We call it the 'MBA 25' as that's the maximum number we admit to the programme," says Strathclyde dean Susan Hart. "Our focus is on luxury, high-value Scottish brands and companies with a clear global ambition."

Taught part-time over three years, MBA 25 has three distinctive new electives in luxury brand marketing, entrepreneurship and family owned businesses, as well as a focus on leadership and innovation. All were developed in association with William Grant, which also assisted with scenarios and data for case studies. One "live" case study is the recent market research that went into William Grant's decision to export whisky to Brazil.

The idea kicked off when Charles Gordon, life president of William Grant and a fourth generation member of the founding family, approached Scottish business schools with a proposal to run a tailored MBA programme for the William Grant Foundation. William Grant takes half of the places on the programme, but sponsors a further four places for entrepreneurs and not-for-profit organisations.

So why an MBA? William Grant saw that the best way of maximising price and profits was by defining its product as a luxury item. Emerging economies are an obvious growth area and, in a highly competitive global marketplace, William Grant decided to boost expertise in supply chain management, marketing and luxury brand management among the company's 54 senior managers. Strathclyde's triple-accredited MBA and its background in tailored MBAs and executive education secured its bid.

Broadening recruitment to attract senior managers from other high-profile Scottish businesses gives William Grant a benchmark for its own performance. "A William Grant only MBA would not have offered the same insights. Part of learning is working alongside people who have high quality business experience," says Rosemary McGinness, group HR director at William Grant & Sons.

The programme was launched last September at a celebratory dinner given in honour of Strathclyde academics, the first cohort of MBA students, sponsoring companies including William Grant's own senior management. Held at Grant's Dufftown distillery, the high point of the evening was the invitation to guests to draw their own bottle of 15-year-old single malt from the cask.

"Brian Kinsman, the master blender of William Grant, is on the MBA programme and having the opportunity of a whisky-tasting programme with him at the Dufftown distillery is amazing," says Sandy Wilson, head of executive programmes at Strathclyde.

With a £951m turnover, William Grant is Scotland's third-biggest whisky producer and the company has been expanding in recent years through the acquisition of drinks brands such as Sailor Jerry Rum, Hendrick's Gin and, most recently, Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey. The group owns distribution companies in the USA, China and Taiwan, as well as operating through a global network of joint ventures. The company employs 1,600 people worldwide. Delegates on the first cohort included Grant's general manager from China, its US operations director and the global brand director for Sailor Jerry Rum.

Strathclyde's newest MBA has accordingly introduced an international dimension with partnerships with the Stockholm School of Economics, where family-run enterprise is taught, and Ca' Foscari University of Venice for sessions on the Italian approach to luxury brand management. "We will learn about Murano Glass, Ferrari cars, Italian furniture and fashion. But certainly we expect the Italians to be keen to learn about Scottish luxury products, too," says Hart.

As befits a focus on luxury brands, admission to the MBA 25 programme is by invitation only. "They could be supply chain partners of existing companies on our programme, or people they want to work with. We will be looking at Scottish knitwear, salmon farming and meat industry [sectors] for possible candidates next time round," says Hart.

Blurring the boundaries between academia and executive education, Strathclyde has a history of running tailored MBAs and postgraduate qualifications. It runs a similar programme for the Weir Group, which has a strong focus on operational excellence.

Added to this is an MSc in hospitality leadership for a consortium of Scottish hoteliers and it is about to launch a tailored MBA for Spanish utility company Iberdrola, the owners of Scottish Power, developed jointly with Icade in Madrid. But, for sheer style and chutzpah, its hard to beat an MBA based around the world's favourite after-dinner tipple.

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