Ok, so maybe it’s the VP level of the company, but regardless there are so many completely counterintuitive things to take note of in this totally-worth-it 14 minute video on Balvenie Distillery. Here are some pretty radical things that I noticed about leadership and company culture in this business.
The first thing I saw was at the end, it’s like the key that unlocked the whole meaning of this little film, and why it inspired an emotional response. It’s the very end of their gathering, and the copper-smith pulls out an old WWII 1.5" anti-aircraft shell with a cork in it. This is the “Famous dog”, a tool traditionally used for illegally removing whiskey from barrels and sneaking it out of the distillery. To them it’s iconic, symbolic and treasured, they end this film by sharing a nip from the sacred vessel, and toasting the work they do.
So. Here you have your department heads, toasting, what is effectively corporate theft, something for which people are usually fired. They are praising the history of thieves and a tradition that is usually viewed with the highest level of disdain. I’m pretty sure the ethical review board of every large company would laugh at the idea of starting a tradition around stealing from the company.
But that’s what makes this such a story.
It’s the magic and fairytale of it all. Here you have the leadership espousing a spirit of innovation and passion. People who see the power of making something worth stealing. They spend the video constantly talking about pride of great work, the intentional focus on craft and being passionate about the role you play in the final outcome. These men all feel honored to make what they make and are enthusiastic to partake in the fruit of their efforts.
Not one of them side-steps a mention of another whiskey they like better. Or even one they don’t prefer.To them there is only Balvenie. There also isn’t any departmental strife either. You can’t fake the fact that these guys probably gather at the little restaurant where this is staged every week and hold their meetings around a fat-filled lunch, beers and a sip of their work. They each view the other as a vital component in the final product, and so they agree and support one another with avid devotion. Most of these guys had tenures that outlast most careers by decades. That’s incredibly low turnover, something that would astound many companies around us today.
Each man leads his role really well, and has his hands do most of the talking. The head-cooper was proud to mention that he was no longer the fastest barrel-maker. I’m sure to him, it was a sign that his pace had inspired someone below him to take up the challenge, to excel beyond what anyone thought he could do. That’s good leadership, to see your team outrun you in the direction to which you have pointed them. Most managers are apt to have a stern conversation with an employee that “threatens” their security. Are we in the habit of promoting or demoting these kinds of people?
The malting floor. You have to know a little bit about the world of Scotch Whisky to know that few to none of the other distilleries still do this in-house or even from a traditional method. Most single malts have sourced their grain from a giant computerized factory that manages their kernels of grain with sensors and electronics to produce the exact same results every time. Everyone else prizes the predictability, they don’t want to give their consumers even a hint of change. Balvenie prizes the tradition. Even if it is just “show” for a few barrels, they want to convey that they are about keeping the spirit of invention and discovery alive in their spirits. They want their bottles to have character and uniqueness across the world, they don’t want to sell to the fickle party crowd, people who will gripe if their Jack Daniels tastes one smidgeon different in their coca-cola. This is for the people who want nuance, who dream of discovering a bottle that’s special hidden amongst the standards, for the discerning palate.
Then there’s the Malt Master.“We do use our laboratories to analyze our whisky…The final say on whether a whisky can be bought rests on the Malt Master’s nose.”
This man carries notable confidence. Bourdain asks him point blank if he ever messes up on a batch, humbly, quietly, he says, “No. Not yet.” No more words need to be said and after a quick chuckle he carries on talking about the beautiful product he has the pleasure to carry across the finish line. And that’s why he’s confident. He knows all these other guys have put forward their finest efforts to get that whisky to him, and he will not be coy about the responsibility he has to blend it into something that represents that work. It’s not something he’s willing to talk lightly about messing up on. You also notice that at no point does he put the spotlight on himself and his own gifted nose. He know’s that he isn’t the icon of the Balvenie brand, even though he’s the best in the industry. It only means that after 60 years, he’s well-prepared to shoulder the responsibility of his job. And he’s happy with what he produces.
I bet he gets paid a lot. I bet he only drives a little Vauxhaul. There’s nothing showy about this guy, even though in most cases, people in that position would run around touting their importance, their longevity, and lording their indispensability over their peers.
If I was going to design a new logo for Balvenie, it would be the simple brass shell casing, the “Famous Dog”. To me it is the object that symbolizes the spirit that binds each person to the end result. Every one there puts his hands to the craft to lead his team to something that’s so special, it’s worth stealing.
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