Profile: the women who know the value of a wee dram

‘Eating your own dog food’ may be a business concept that’s in vogue, but for Joanna Dennis, finance director of Blackwood Distillers – a company in the throes of building the first ever whisky distillery on Shetland – it’s something she’s working at. ‘I don’t really like whisky,’ she admits. ‘But I’m learning.’

She may not have developed a taste for the water of life, but that certainly hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm for the business dream she’s in the process of turning into reality. The £2m whisky distillery project – part funded by a £900,000 grant from Shetland Enterprise, some EU funding and a hefty bank loan – is on track. If all goes according to plan, the first Shetland whisky should be distilled by November. Once up and running, Blackwood aims to produce 40,000 cases of its single-malt whisky a year.

It has taken the Blackwood Distillers’ team three years to get this far. Founder Caroline Whitfield, a veteran of the drinks industry and former Diageo consultant, had the idea to build Shetland’s first ever whisky distillery in 2002, prompted by an article in the Sunday Times about a haunted house on the island.

At the time, Joanna, 42, was running her own accounting practice and Whitfield was a client. ‘We met at East Croydon station so I could sign some papers. She told me about her idea and asked if I’d be company secretary.’

The London suburb couldn’t be further removed from the Blackwood’s official base, off the coast of Norway and a 14-hour ferry ride from Aberdeen. Joanna says conditions on the island are perfect for whisky, with the Gulf stream keeping temperatures mild.

‘Given that whisky takes three years to mature once distilled, we had to do something to keep us going financially,’ Joanna explains.

But creating new spirits in a competitive market, with products strong enough to take on some formidable competitors, is no mean feat. The company enlisted the expertise of drinks guru Tom Jago, the man behind Bailey’s, Croft Original and Piat D’Or, and by October 2002, Blackwood Distillers had three products ready for market. ‘To go from nothing to having bottles to sell in that timeframe is a huge achievement,’ says Joanna.

The products – a gin, a vodka and a liqueur – are all made using ingredients from Shetland, including wild water mint, sea pink and angelica. ‘You need something credible,’ Joanna stresses. ‘The fields of Shetland used to be covered with juniper and we’re convinced a gin used to be made, so we’re carrying on a tradition. We’ve created the world’s first vintage gin.’

Blackwood’s ice filtered vodka uses Shetland spring water. The liqueur, meanwhile, is a combination of vodka, cream and vanilla. It may sound unusual, but it works. It also demonstrates the company’s commitment to shake up the spirits world with a range of compelling products.

Gaining business momentum and spreading the Blackwood gospel has added a new spin to Joanna’s job. ‘I’m FD but I do all sorts. We didn’t have money to spend on advertising. Instead we went to every consumer and trade show going. That’s where I realised I’m such an accountant – we’re so mean with our samples. I managed to get 200 out of a bottle!’

The effort appears to be paying off. In the last year, growth has been phenomenal. Blackwood’s products are now sold in 15 countries, including the US and South Africa, and the company has a distribution deal with Sainsbury’s across the UK. But it’s been nothing short of a slog.

‘You have to try everything to get a foot in the door. They give us targets in terms of volumes per store. The best thing we did was find a freelance consultant who was used to getting products in there. He knows how they work. But we had to convince them that we were solid in our systems and finances.’

Blackwood’s decision to outsource distribution has certainly eased the pressure. ‘We’re good at brands and selling but we’re not a transport company,’ Joanna explains. The company also uses a third-party supplier, Commerce Connections, to manage the electronic data interchange for orders from Sainsbury’s. It removes the need for an in-house IT team, and goes some way to tackling the absence of industry standards for EDI.

‘We’re doing another review of fulfilment – I need to make sure our systems can cope with three times growth over the next 12 months,’ Joanna admits.

Fortunately Joanna’s risk-positive attitude has helped her overcome the challenges she’s faced. ‘I’m an entrepreneurial accountant and I’m not afraid of uncertainty. In fact, I thrive on it,’ she says. Like other young companies, cashflow is an ongoing headache, but Joanna believes having a clear vision of where the company is going helps you overcome some pretty daunting obstacles.

‘I know where we’re heading – we’re building a distillery and it’s a brand new industry in Shetland. How many people get to build a legacy? Along the way I’ve got to generate money however I can. The margins are in the whisky, but we’re building the brand and the distribution network.’

As a woman – and a non-whisky drinker – breaking into the old boys club has been an interesting experience. ‘Personally, I think being new to the industry is an advantage, but being a woman means it’s harder to be taken seriously. Whisky has always been geared towards the old bloke in a kilt but a lot of women are becoming interested.’

‘I won’t suffer fools gladly’
Few people expect to be finance director of one of the few independent distilleries in Scotland by the time they’re 30, but for Sara Bishop, managing Burn Stewart’s finances is almost as easy as nursing one of its well-aged single malts.

Having originally chosen accountancy behind law and economics, Bishop suddenly got a taste for number crunching and qualified as a chartered accountant with Grant Thornton in Glasgow. Specialising in audit she then moved on to become part of the audit team at Burn Stewart, progressed swiftly to account manager and since 1 July last year, seamlessly stepped into the role of FD after five years with the company.

Her rapid rise seems like second nature for Bishop who politely laughs off the idea of being a role model for other women who aspire to take a leading financial position at such a young age.

‘Moving office is the only change I’ve seen since I’ve moved roles in the company. I was doing the job for a while beforehand. The only difference is that I’ve now been recognised for my work. Yes, I am young to be FD but I’ve been lucky to be recognised at such an early stage.’

Lucky or not, Bishop is in charge of some serious money with a total balance sheet stock value currently worth £40m; plus potential future multi-million pound deals; leading the way in recent acquisitions; forward strategy planning for the distilleries’ products; and organising and monitoring large bank loans. Bishop certainly has her work cut out.

With the news that she could be the first FD to take Burn Stewart into profit since it was created in 1988 from a management buy-in, she may well need a sip or two of her own malt-based products.

But to get this far so early on takes hard work and dedication, something she believes she has proved in the only job she has ever known.

‘If there’s something to be done I’ll do it regardless of what it takes. Having said that I’ll tell people if they’re putting too much on me. I have a realistic assessment of deadlines, have assisted in the acquisition of two key brands and generally help out in different roles where I can.

‘It’s not as if I will just sit and fill out this ledger. I’ve always been project orientated in whatever needs to be done and I’m always the first to roll my sleeves up and help out.’

Being a high-profile young woman in such a traditional, male-orientated industry doesn’t seem to worry her either.

‘I’ll speak my mind but in a measured way. I won’t jump in at the deep end. But at the same time I won’t suffer fools gladly.’

With words and actions like these it is no surprise the company is moving forward under Bishop’s financial stewardship. But with the whisky industry poised to face one of its biggest crises in years ð- the government’s controversial 2006 plans for stamp tax ð the future’s far from certain.

The likely outcome, according to the Scotch Whisky Association, is that the government will introduce a stamp displaying duty. Bishop says this could harm the bottling process across Scotland, is potentially flawed, will cost the industry millions and lead to possible job losses.

‘Stamp duty is happening but we don’t know where the strip stamps are going to go or what the mechanisms are going to be – will it include a barcode or stamp across the top of the bottle? We just don’t know.’

‘I’d be very surprised if jobs weren’t lost over this and if some of the smaller companies didn’t end up being either swallowed up or just closed. They’re trying to police the wrong people. I think you need to be looking further up the chain, and not at the actual production level.

‘Criminals will always be able to forge things to a suitable enough level to get away and make it worth their while. All they’ve done is add a cost onto genuine people who aren’t doing anything wrong. In Italy within three weeks of strip stamps being introduced literally perfect forgeries were discovered,’ Bishop adds despondently.

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