Awards 2005: growing business FD – Joanna Dennis

This year’s award for Growing Business Financial Director of the Year goes to
Joanna Dennis of Blackwood Distillers. The company produces gin, vodka and
liqueurs, and is in the process of building Shetland’s first whisky distillery.
Without Dennis, however, it might not have been at this stage.

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‘She ensures that we have not only managed to survive the all-important first
three years, but more impressively, provides the financial credibility necessary
to gain wide industry support,’ said Tom Porter, director of the company.

Any startup is volatile, and ensuring the survival of the business takes
particular ingenuity and determination. Dennis was instrumental in securing a
£1.6m European grant for the company, without which the operation would not be
financially viable.

Tough cashflow management skills have been required. Even when debtors
delayed payment and due diligence revealed prospective investors to be
fraudsters, she managed to ensure that suppliers were kept happy. Although the
company did not always have the cash to pay its bills in full, she ensured that
the company kept its payment dates and built a reputation for integrity.

Dennis has had to be innovative when recruiting staff. The accepted wisdom
was that Blackwood Distillers would not be able to afford the salaries to secure
people with the skills they required.

Dennis has managed to find people who are willing to take a lower salary in
return for better training, ensuring that the business has all of the skills it
needs at a
price it can afford. The resulting salary bill is half the sum predicted by
industry advisors.

Perhaps her biggest coup was sourcing the equipment needed for the Shetland
distillery. Prices are high on distillery components in Scotland, due to a near

monopoly on both original equipment and servicing.

Through constant searching, she learned of another distillery that was
considering selling some suitable equipment from a nearly new but decommissioned
facility, but which had not yet advertised the sale publicly. By making
enquiries and keeping her ear to the ground, Dennis bought it for a quarter of
the price that she had been led to expect.

Our judges said: ‘Joanna is clearly a brilliant risk-taker and a good
communicator. She is innovative and delivers clear achievements.’

Dennis needs to be hands-on with the business to present balance sheet
information in such a way that it can be understood by banks, potential
investors and her own staff.

Blackwood Distillers now sells to 23 countries, a growth in exports that has
required the company to put in place local corporate structures and controls.
Dennis has implemented an innovative corporate structure to allow expansion but
minimise tax exposure. This enables the company to enter more flexible trading
relationships in many countries.

In addition to thinking globally, Dennis promotes the company’s brands at
trade shows and holds sample tastings for the public.

Here, her prudence comes in useful again ­ she once managed to get 200
samples out of one bottle.

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