Stonings, hangings and PR suicides

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It has been mayhem. And it has been really hard to keep up with it. We waited and then waited more before writing up our opinions on the matter, hoping we would get a clear picture eventually. Not happening.

Last week Diageo, a drinks giant that owns half of our beloved country, announced that an historic Johnnie Walker bottling plant in Kilmarnock, the place where the famous brand started almost 200 years ago, was due to be closed and it’s 700 employees were being made redundant. On top of that they decided to close Port Dundas grain whisky distillery and Dundashill cooperage in Glasgow (up to 140 jobs). Together with job cuts in a few other places it adds up to 900 posts. The company stresses that some of it will be offset by the new packaging plant in Leven, Fife. We’re talking some 400 jobs by mid 2011. That means half a thousand people better learn new skills and fast.

That triggered some dramatic reactions from all directions. I think the first to throw a stone were Kilmarnock authorities. They blame the company, they say it was unexpected, etc. Fair enough.

Then the Scottish Government started its own lament. First Minister Alex Salmond told the press that the government reps had no less than seven (7!) meetings with Diageo people this year alone and no redundancies were mentioned (a lie). There goes another stone.

I consulted The Scotsman, The Guardian, The Independent and The Times over the last few days and guess what I found. More stones.

And the people from the industry? Some remarkably calm but some… yes you have guessed correctly.

But Diageo bit back. They said that it was their employees right to know first (that’s why it was unexpected) and that it was the harsh economic climate that pushed them towards that “extremely difficult decision” (poor innocent corporation run by good fairies, how dare the dirty politicians, journalists and industry people of all sorts claim you didn’t do absolutely EVERYTHING to save those jobs).

Now, if you think the stones were flying in only one direction, think again. Labour MP’s (Des Browne to name but one) were delighted when they could ride Mr. Salmond like a wild boar with no anaesthetics, no saddle and no brakes. ‘You didn’t do enough, Alex’ – they shouted in their high pitched voices – ‘as a matter of fact, you didn’t do anything at all you useless bum’ – they added unisono. ‘We would have guessed what was going to happen’ they cried and streams of tears as swift as river Spey itself ran down their cheeks soaking into the collars of their silk shirts bought for taxpayers’ money. Holyrood and Westminster both witnessed such scenes. There is no better way to get a couple of votes in, than to accuse everyone around when shit hits the fan. Was it the ancient Greeks who figured that out? Old trick but still seems to work just fine.

Eventually even tabloids became sufficiently interested in the matter. In their own manner, that is. Daily Record sniffed out the fact that Diageo made plans to convert parts of the Kilmarnock plant into luxurious flats. Juicy. Diageo, in full resignation after realising that their counterintelligence is practically useless, simply agreed to consider any alternative. How noble.

The saga continues. And it will for a while now. The only good thing is that Metro lost their interest and stopped delivering their revelations about “distilling Johnnie Walker” in Kilmarnock since 1820.

What’s our opinion? I spoke to Chris about that today and all we could say was that we were sad. It hurts that at least 500 Scottish families are now in shambles. It hurts that one of the iconic whisky spots and a significant tangible piece of Scottish heritage will be degraded to the status of accommodation for yuppies, and what hurts even more is that such a decision can be made by a huge multinational company and there is absolutely nothing we can do about that. It hurts that political elites think it’s business as usual and show no signs of anything which would even remotely resemble a united front in this case. Finally, it hurts that a company that owns a rather sizable chunk of the Scotch whisky industry got into so much trouble, they decided to restructure their operations at the cost of a spectacular PR suicide (read: at any cost).

It all looks grim. But you know what? We are not going blame anyone. We are not going to draw any wannabe analytical conclusions. Instead we are going to enjoy a few drams of Black Label from a bottle with the words “Bottled in Kilmarnock” still proudly imprinted on it.

No more time should be lost by infighting. The real fight lies elsewhere.

For daily updates on the matter, or to show your support to the Kilmarnock families, please visit:

http://www.keepjohnniewalkerinkilmarnock.com/

Comments

  1. Chris and Lucas are obviously to blame!

  2. I blame us too. We went to Poland for a holiday and everything went Pete Tong.

  3. This is a very controversial subject and I have the utmost sympathy for all those who will lose their jobs.

    However I think that there has been a little bit to much hysteria over this. I am sitting looking at a bottle of Johnnie Walker black and no where does it say it is bottled in Kilmarnock. The address on the label is Kilmarnock but it says bottled in Scotland. Yes I get the point about history etc but then how far back do you want to go…hand bottled in a wee shop in Kilmarnock for every bottle. Many of the other big name whiskies are not now bottled where they originally were.

    At the end of the day it will make comercial sense for Diageo to do this and any amount of political outrage will not change this. Was it not the government that gave Diageo big grants to help increase the size of production at Cameronbridge? Surely this was of no suprise to them, and with the building of the Super Heavy weight distillery at Roseisle I doubt this will be the last closure. (Just my thoughts).

    And one final rant – again with all sympathy for people losing their jobs – but I work in a company with about 15 employees if my boss was to cut 5 of these employees would the government come and help me!

    Sorry for the out of character rant! It has just been one of those days!

    Anyway this all a good excuse for us to drink more whisky to feel good about keeping people in work!

  4. Time to get out more Pete.

    The ones who are definitely not to blame are the workers and the community of Kilmarnock, who built up a product over many years. Diageo is taking that heritage and simply wringing it for short term value.

    If past managers of Johnnie Walker had so little concern for its brand values and identity, it wouldn’t be the global success it is today.

    Sign the petition, to help protect the integrity of the Scotch whisky product and the jobs of 700 workers.

    http://www.gopetition.co.uk/online/29112.html

  5. My question is what this means for the single malt industry. The production and sale of single malts is supported by the greater profit margin from blended whisky. When the so called “Whisky Boom” hit, prices of single malts and blends alike rose as Diageo bought up everything to pour it into Johnnie Walker (just look at the difference in price from the early releases of Compass Box Hedonism to the current one). Great for distilleries and mixed for consumers (we got greater variety but at higher cost). How is this closure going to affect production? If they start producing less Johnnie, will we start seeing the distillery closures or fewer single malts on shelves. Is this the beginning of the end or just a natural balancing of the market?

    Blame is difficult. Greed is the problem. Bankers, politicians, and Diageo working together to overextend beyond the market’s potential. It’s also our fault for not drinking enough Johnnie Walker.

    My heart goes out to all the loyal employees who lost their jobs. Hopefully, this will not be the widespread disaster that some of the politicians are screeching about.

    Meanwhile, I’ve got a bottle of Green Label and Gold Label to nurse me through the hard times until Diageo gets their act together.

  6. Pete, thanks for an interesting point of view. You are obviously right saying that Alex Salmond won’t come charging to your boss when you get sacked from a small firm. But this is the way politics work right? There would be no publicity, no votes behind trying to save your job.

    Duncan, the heritage value of Scotch whisky as a globally recognised product is the key to its success. No two ways about that. Ergo, cutting any brand away from its roots isn’t a good idea, whether it makes commercial sense or not. We also feel for the families down in Kilmarnock. Will post a link to your site under the post, it’s a great initiative.

    Matt, I find your question about single malts’ production too difficult. I think it would take an industry insider who has witnessed the 1980′s closures to answer that. One thing I can say is that I haven’t come across any information about dropping the JW’s production levels significantly. I think they are just moving the bottling to a more efficient, modern plant.

  7. I have to disagree with Duncan Maclean – maybe I should stay in more!

  8. How about the UK government as a choice? We’re ultimately still tied to London, the cycle of Labour/Tory policies, the Bank of England and the UK govts ruinous taxes have held us back for decades.

  9. London government is some idea…

  10. Few in Scotland seem to know, never mind be proud of the fact, that nearly 80 per cent of the UK’s gin and vodka is distilled or bottled in Scotland – with Diageo’s Smirnoff vodka and the Gordon’s and Tanqueray gins being produced at Cameronbridge and bottled at Leven, both in Fife.

    With whisky handled there too and an investment of £40 million at Leven in the last two years, it is the scale and efficiency of the Fife and Glasgow plants that spells doom for Kilmarnock.

    When Diageo bought Captain Morgan rum and brought the production to Scotland politicians raised their glasses. When Diageo closed the English distillery of Gordon’s London Dry Gin and started making all of its Gordon’s and Tanqueray gins at Cameronbridge it was seen as a coup for Scotland. There were no tears for the workers down south.

    The proud town of Kilmarnock has a long association with Johnnie Walker dating back to 1820, when the 15-year-old John Walker opened a grocer’s shop selling his own blend of whisky. Made from various Highland malt and grain whiskies, the brand has grown to become the number one selling premium Scotch in the world.

    Those protesting against the packaging hall’s closure should remember it is Scotch whisky that the world is buying, not Kilmarnock whisky. While the association with the town is strong it is not a significant enough component of what makes the Johnnie Walker brand so appealing for it to convince Diageo’s management to keep its operation in Kilmarnock alive – at a cost of £20m to its bottom line.

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