The great escape

The great escape

Grouse and the Gloags, part 2: Margaret Rand meets the current Matthew Gloag, who had escaped the corporate rat race and handcuffs to live in France and have a reverse career pattern

People | 13 Jun 1999 | Issue 4 | By Margaret Rand

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Talk to Matthew Gloag about his life and the phrase ‘stabilising influence’ crops up several times. His wife, whom he married when he was just 23, was a stablising influence; having the same advertising agency for the brand for years and years was another. It struck me as quite telling: Gloag ‘went on the company payroll’ at the age of 18 and his parents died, within four days of each other, when he was 22. He was forced to sell the family company but remained working for it as an employee; the responsibilities must have been considerable. So now that he has, as he puts it, ‘escaped the rat race and the handcuffs’ and gone to live in France, one can only cheer. ‘I’ve had a reverse career pattern,’ he says; ‘I’m having my year off now.’Not that he wants to talk much about his life: he’d rather talk about brand building. This is not surprising, given that The Famous Grouse was so much part of his life that drunks would ring him at home after they’d had a skinful, or local pubs would ring him at home on Saturday morning saying they’d run out and would he deliver a case. He even had a death threat once, though it doesn’t seem to have been anything personal. ‘Eventually we went ex-directory,’ he says. But this is to skip many years. When he was growing up his name wasn’t nearly so famous.‘We weren’t in the Dewars league or the Bells league,’ he says. ‘We were mostly a wine company. We had the whisky because we’d always had it. After the war rationing didn’t come off until 1955, and in 1959 trade restrictions started relaxing. Whisky was only freely available in Britain for about ten years before my parents died.’ His father died of a heart attack on a Sunday; his mother, who had been ill for a long while, died the following Wednesday – ‘leaving the family in the mire, thanks to Harold Wilson. With the benefit of hindsight I suppose there might have been an alternative – merchant bankers, that sort of thing – but we were very traditionally Scottish, and we never liked owing anybody money.’ So the company was sold to Highland Distillers, who wanted a brand, and from whom the Gloags had long bought fillings. This was a time when many family drinks companies decided there was no future in independence; the Gloags were by no means alone in selling. And the sort of big companies that bought them were less relentlessly conformist than they are now. ‘We were adequately funded, and left alone. We had an open chequebook, and they had an open whisky bank. We were never set targets. We had board meetings, but they were mostly reporting meetings.’ Lunches, too, were different affairs 30 years ago. ‘When I was 18 I did a year in Paris, then I went to another company, who were famous for their lunches; they went on from 12.00 until 5.00. You’d be working in the cellars near
Bermondsey, and at about 10.00 the telephone would ring to tell you to come to lunch. You’d go and see the supervisor of the bond or the bottling line, go back to the flat, shave, put on a suit, get back at 12.00 and be given a half bottle of sherry which was yours until lunch. You’d get home about 6.00, rather the worse for wear, and go to bed. Then sometimes you were made to be host, and given about two weeks’ warning: the guests would be bankers, or people from companies like ICI and Shell. You’d choose the menu and be given access to the cellars; you had to meet and greet, do the introductions, carve – I was about 20. It was the best university in the world.’Gloag’s early experience was nearly all in wine rather than whisky. He worked for a retail chain and did stints managing shops: ‘My float and my cash register were never right; I caused enormous chaos. I trashed about five of their shops and moved on.’ He worked in Bordeaux for négoçiants Calvet (on the bottling line, the least exciting part of any establishment) and did a harvest at Château d’Angludet in Bordeaux. Then he went to Australia (his father had some wine connections with New South Wales) before coming home in 1969.‘I was brought up to drink good wine and appreciate wine. You didn’t know what bad whisky tasted like. In those days you had a drinking repertoire: you went from cider to beer to gin and orange or gin and tonic. I never drank whisky until I was 28 or 29. I’ve always said, you’ll never drink whisky until you’re comfortable drinking alone. It’s for when you give yourself a reward – what a marketing word. Over the years people have said to me that we must get young people drinking whisky. Well, my children don’t drink whisky. Young people don’t. It’s a fact of life. Although brands like J&B and Cutty Sark have made it into a chic club drink, and that’s very clever. Of course I tasted whisky before that age, but it was alien. I can understand people not liking whisky. But when you come to it you like it a lot. ‘I don’t drink malt whisky yet. I can appreciate it, and I can tell a good dram from a bad dram, but I’m not a malt drinker. In my humble opinion the malt whisky industry is only just getting itself into a proper situation. In the eighties everyone thought that malts would be a wonderful panacea for their cash-flow problems: it’s dead easy to make and put in bottle. But you never know what you’re getting. If you had a three-star, five-star and seven-star system, and it was priced accordingly, you’d know what you were getting. As it is it’s confusing.’ Last year Gloag moved from Perth to France. ‘I’m still very involved; I’ve got e-mail, I talk to the office every day, I get my instructions every day. But I seemed to have gone from always being the young person in the company to suddenly being the old person. I grew up as a young person in a fairly aged environment, because we had no middle management. Now all my contemporaries have gone. I had trustees, but I didn’t have a father figure, although I had mentors.‘I’d been there for 28 or 29 years, and I felt I’d missed my children growing up. I had to make a clean break, and France was the logical place. I have no idea how long I’ll stay, or what I’ll do in the next few years. I’m involved in various things in the company, but the structure has changed dramatically. I probably wouldn’t fit easily into modern companies. When you need about six people in the personnel department there’s something wrong – and it’s not a big company.’ His work now consists of being a brand ambassador for The Famous Grouse – a role that means being the public face of the brand, ‘going to talk to someone in America, having lunch with politicians, inducting a sales force, or just being nice to people.’ (Hosting those lunches early in his career could hardly have been better training.) He also has time to do the garden and have a proper life. ‘I think that I have a lot of influence in the company, but I probably have none at all.’ But he agrees that if Highland Distillers wanted to do something with which he strongly disagreed, he could stop it. His children probably won’t go into the company. ‘They’re both daughters. The older one might. The other is a travel agent. I suppose I persuaded them not to; they should have their own careers. I grew up with sometimes having the accusation of nepotism. But if they wanted to join, and they met the criteria, I’m sure they could. But it’s still a very masculine industry.’ No, probably Matthew Gloag wouldn’t fit easily into a modern company – and for that I’ll raise another cheer.
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