Whisky's own grand national?

Whisky's own grand national?

Ian Bankier's dream is to give whisky lovers a national retail chain of their own. Gavin D Smith spoke to the former Burn Stewart boss

People | 04 Jun 2004 | Issue 40 | By Gavin Smith

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In February of this year Ian Bankier became the proud owner of the Whisky Shop, and the former Burn Stewart boss has ambitious plans for his retail chain.Bankier was born in Glasgow and educated at Edinburgh University where he read law. He subsequently returned to his native city to practice, specialising in corporate law, and becoming a partner in the leading firm of McGrigor Donald.“By 1992/93 I felt I’d gone as far as I thought I could go in that particular field,” he says, “and I went into industry. I started my own independent management company, and one of our clients was Burn Stewart Distillers. A couple of years later I was asked to become group managing director of Burn Stewart, and it seemed a good move, so I accepted.”Burn Stewart owned Deanston distillery in Perthshire, along with Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, and Bankier describes his early days with the company as “a bit of a whiteknuckle ride.” Much of Burn Stewart’s business was in the supply of whisky for supermarket ‘own-label’ blends, a part of the industry bedevilled by low margins.“Buying market share, selling whisky cheaply to the supermarkets, can be the road to ruin,”asserts Bankier. “You have to focus on what works and be brave. What worked in this case was to sell at a decent margin. We focused on quality brands, on our brand portfolio.”Turning Burn Stewart around financially was largely due to Bankier’s vision and commitment, and the future looked rosy when in December 2002 the company was the subject of a £50m takeover by Caribbean conglomerate CL Financial.Bankier was appointed chief executive of the new holding company, and oversaw the purchase of the Cognac house of Thomas Hine & Co, as well as the Islay distillery of Bunnahabhain, and the associated Black Bottle blend from the Edrington Group.Eventually, CL Financial decided to move its base to Geneva, with chairman Lawrence Duprey and executive director Arnaud de Trabuc taking over at the helm. Bankier subsequently parted company with the organisation.Although he enjoys playing golf and spending time walking and bird-watching, Bankier is a man who thrives on challenges, and he found his latest in the Whisky Shop chain, which he purchased for £1.5m, making the move from whisky producer to whisky retailer. As well as consolidating his acquisition, he is keen to open one new branch before Christmas.“I’d known about the Whisky Shop business for a long time,” he says, “they were customers when I was at Burn Stewart, and a high-profile business, leading the way in specialist retailing of premium whiskies. I also thought it had the potential to develop.”The first Whisky Shop opened in Edinburgh’s Princes Mall in 1992, and at present, the chain has branches in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Callander, Fort William and Oban, with a further three outlets being managed for the Inverness-based kiltmaker Hector Russell, though these three will soon be amalgamated into the main business.“Our next move is south of the border, I think,” says Bankier. “We’d like to put down a national footprint, and have ten Whisky Shops in big entres of population in England. It’s not just a tourist business, as we know from the customers in our shops in Glasgow and Edinburgh.“We want one key outlet in England before Christmas, and then we’ll see. I think it’s great news for the specialist end of the Scotch whisky market. There isn’t a national chain of specialist whisky shops, and that’s the opportunity I saw.“And there’s plenty of room for everybody,” he declares. “I don’t see the existing specialists as competing against each other. There’s no need to compete. It’s not price-sensitive. Nobody has anything to fear from me, nor me from them.”Bankier sees the Buchanan Galleries branch in Glasgow as a model for the rest of the chain, developing a greater uniformity than currently exists.“We’re not into the ‘curiosity shop’ style”, he says, “we want the stores to be bright, light and modern.”Already Bankier has been buying stock on a serious basis, and declares “we want endless variety, everything that exists.”This is obviously good news for customers, and the months ahead should provide good news in particular for whisky connoisseurs south of the border.IAN BANKIER’S EVOCATIVE DRAMS:
“These are three whiskies which encapsulate three touchstones of my life. I like them at 12 years old, I’m not into heavy sherry and big age.”Highland Park.Romantic detachment, geographically remote, land of the midnight sun where the ancient settlers sought comfort and refuge. It epitomises romantic escape for me.Deanston.Close to the industrial belt, but in the fresh, clean Highlands. The distillery building is an 18th century mill that resonated with the sound of wooden clogs and industrial machinery, but stands beside the restful waters of the calm River Teith. It evokes the work and play dichotomy.The Glenlivet.The establishment. Wealth and riches!
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