Nicholas McFarlane at Glenfiddich distillery, Dufftown. Scotland
Nicholas McFarlane at Glenfiddich distillery, Dufftown, Scotland © Jo Hanley

Entrepreneurs have been identified as one of the catalysts kick-starting the economic recovery.

In Scotland the Saltire Foundation has taken this mission to heart and is investing in a generation of entrepreneurs to improve the growth prospects of Scottish companies. In 2008, with the support of Scottish Enterprise, the government agency charged with encouraging innovation, it launched the Saltire Fellowship. More than 100 business leaders have followed the intensive immersion programme, which includes studying at Babson College in the US, renowned for its focus on entrepreneurship.

William Grant & Sons, Scotland’s largest family-owned distiller, has ambitious international expansion plans.

Attracting the right people is key, says Bill White, operations director. However, competition from the high-paying North Sea oil industry and the geographical isolation of its Highland distilleries make talent-retention a challenge, he says.

Nicholas McFarlane, who joined the company as a chemist in 2007, enrolled on the Saltire Fellowship in 2012.

Why did you apply for the Saltire Fellowship?

The fellowship looked like an exciting opportunity to take myself out of my comfort zone and gain commercial experience. It was also a great opportunity for me to study at Babson College.

I had been a team leader for a few years, overseeing the commissioning and operation of an anaerobic reactor plant at one of the company’s distilleries.

William Grant decided to provide full financial support for one of its employees to complete the fellowship programme. Following an internal competition, I was the company’s nominated candidate.

How did Babson approach the course?

I found the business school’s case study method a great way to learn. The Babson faculty were not traditional academics but people who had been out and done business.

However, I learnt as much from my cohort of students as from the tuition. All the fellows came from different academic and industry backgrounds and brought different perspectives.

What other opportunities opened up?

Although Saltire formally set you up with one company internship, I found two other companies that I wanted to get involved in. You just meet people at Babson and in the city and make your own opportunities.

I worked with two Boston-based technology start-ups and the third placement was with a Scottish company trying to break into the high-tech headphone market. The projects were very varied and completely different to making whisky.

What did you learn from the experience?

The Babson course focused heavily on pitching to customers. Their “value selling” approach has universal application as it is more about influencing – the selling of ideas, not simply products. Working with the start-ups also gave me a greater commercial awareness. Given my academic background as a forensic chemist, I was only vaguely familiar with balance sheets.

Our cohort of fellows became a very tight-knit bunch and we still support each other. Through the fellowship,I have access to a wide and growing network of alumni across Scottish industry.

What has been the result of the programme?

Five months after returning to William Grant, I successfully applied for a promotion. I am now managing production at the company’s Balvenie and Glenfiddich whisky distilleries in Dufftown, the heart of the Speyside whisky region.

Before enrolling on the fellowship I wanted to develop the skills I would need to become a senior leader in the company. Though there’s still some way to go before realising that ambition, I have certainly taken a step in the right direction.

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