Not many MBA programmes start with all the participants being invited to draw their own sample bottle of 25-year-old single-malt whisky from a large wooden cask in a warehouse in the Scottish Highlands.

But then not many MBAs are launched in surroundings so distinctive as the Glenfiddich Distillery at Dufftown, a small town in the Speyside district that is marketed as the malt whisky capital of the world.

Glenfiddich, one of the best known single-malt whiskies, is produced by William Grant & Sons, Scotland’s biggest family-owned distillers. The company has created the MBA programme in partnership with Strathclyde Business School in Glasgow for 25 people – senior leaders from Grants and a handpicked selection from Scottish entrepreneurial businesses.

Peter Gordon, chairman of Grants, says investing in the MBA 25 programme reflects the family’s values, which include a strong belief in education, progressive leadership and philanthropy and a desire to give back to Scotland. “We are partnering with those pioneering businesses we believe have DNA in common with ours, including global ambition, vision and commitment to people development as key elements of their business strategy,” he says.

Susan Hart, dean of Strathclyde Business School, says that the MBA
has been tailored with Grants and contains three distinct elective courses – family/owner-managed business, ent­repreneurship and luxury brand marketing.

Founded in 1886 by William Grant and still controlled by the fifth generation of his family, the distiller has
an enviable record of innovation. It claims to have been the first to market single malt as a premium product in the early 1960s. Forty years ago Grants was also the first to open a visitor centre and the one at Glenfiddich – which attracts 75,000 people a year – is on the “Whisky Trail”and is a mainstay of Scottish tourism. Fourteen years ago it launched its own premium gin, Hendrick’s.

Prof Hart says one reason Strathclyde was chosen by Grants is the expertise it has developed through the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship, an academic department endowed by Sir Tom Hunter, the Scottish retail entrepreneur.

“Entrepreneurs tend to be running family businesses but such companies are actually quite neglected in terms of understanding of how they work, why they work, why they fail,” she says. “There tends to be a cut-off in the thinking because family businesses are assumed to be small, when actually they can be big, they can be influential.

“But they have their own problems: what they do about succession, transferring family values, how do they professionalise . . . So Grants are very keen on the MBA that is focused on all these general management and leadership issues related to the peculiarities of the family business.”

Strathclyde has a long record of tailoring its programmes to the needs of specific companies. Babcock International, the UK engineering services support services group, has invested more than £2m over the past five years in executive education.

A series of acquisitions in recent years has brought a number of organisations into Babcock, each with its own culture and management approach. So the group partnered with Strathclyde to develop a Babcock Academy to help bring the expanded organisation together, create a common culture and drive it forward.

Strathclyde was chosen by Grants from an initial list of 10 business schools, but knows that it was not selected because it was the cheapest.

“We look at charges from the point of view of how much we are customising our courses,” says Prof Hart.

“If you are going to customise, you either do it at the margin and do it badly or you invest in it, and we prefer to invest. We give companies a menu, based on an analysis of their needs. There is no point in us trying to compete with low-cost operators – we don’t seek to be the Ryanair of business schools, with all due respect to Michael O’Leary.”

As well as 10 senior Grants employees from around the world, the MBA 25 intake also includes employees from Alliance Trust, the Dundee-based investment trust, and Craneware, an Edinburgh-based company that provides software for US hospital and healthcare organisations.

There are four fully sponsored places on the course: one has gone to Skillforce, an educational charity, and another to entrepreneur Fraser Doherty, who started his SuperJam business from the kitchen in his family home and now supplies products to the UK’s biggest supermarkets.

Mr Gordon says involving other companies on the course is “a bit like putting a good blended whisky together – there’s got to be diversity. If everyone was just talking about the same company, we felt that might be slightly self-indulgent.”

Stella David, chief executive of Grants, says that for the company to attract the best talent it must offer programmes that help it reach its maximum potential.

“We compete against much bigger players than ourselves and we have to provide people with something that makes us an attractive alternative. Because the course is not dominated by internal people, everyone is going to get a good cross-fertilisation of knowledge and experience.”

For Strathclyde one benefit of the partnership approach is the access it gives its academics to companies and business leaders, says Prof Hart.

“Business and the policy world is our laboratory. So the more we can get into companies, the better our research can be.”

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