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Suntory proves that overseas ownership can be good for Scotch

SCOTLAND has had at least its fair share of trouble from decisions by big overseas companies over the decades.

It has probably had more than its share, if you consider the raft of plant closures by global electronics players, among them Motorola, NEC and Freescale, which have within the past 20 years cost many thousands of jobs.

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So it is easy to understand the oft-voiced desire, among the corporate community, the public and politicians, for decisions affecting business operations in Scotland to be made here. After all, Scottish interests are most likely to be taken into account if the key decisions are made locally.

Japanese giant Suntory's $16 billion (£10bn) agreed takeover of US group Beam Inc, unveiled this week, was a reminder of just how much of the Scotch whisky sector is owned by overseas-headquartered companies.

Suntory acquired a minority stake in Scotch whisky distiller Morrison Bowmore way back in 1989. It took 100% ownership of the Scottish distiller, best known for its Bowmore single malt from Islay, in 1994.

Assuming its agreed takeover of Beam Inc is completed, Suntory will acquire another Islay malt, Laphroaig, as well as blended Scotch whisky Teacher's. The Ardmore single malt will also come into the Suntory stable.

According to analyst Alan Gray's latest annual Scotch Whisky Industry Review, more than 200,000, nine-litre cases of Laphroaig were sold in 2012.

And, in 2012, sales of Teacher's amounted to 2.1 million cases.

So the Beam Inc deal will see Suntory increase its Scotch whisky interests very substantially.

Happily, our experience of overseas ownership of Scotch whisky operations contrasts with the hammer blows dealt to communities by multinationals in the electronics sector focused on cutting their cost bases.

Suntory has proved a worthy owner of Morrison Bowmore, with the type of long-term approach which is so often lamentably lacking in today's corporate world. Morrison Bowmore has prospered under its Japanese ownership, as Suntory has invested heavily in its Scotch whisky brands.

Suntory is privately-owned, rather than being stock market-listed. It is often easier for privately-owned companies to take a long-term approach because they do not have to pander to the wishes of investors with short attention spans.

The Japanese company's deal to take the listed Beam Inc into private ownership evokes memories of Glasgow-based Edrington's £601 million acquisition, in 1999, of the stock market-listed Highland Distillers. Edrington and Suntory have a long-standing positive relationship. Suntory holds a 25% stake in The Macallan single malt, one of Edrington's key brands.

During a visit to Suntory headquarters in Tokyo in 2010, the scale of the growth story at Morrison Bowmore was underlined by the Japanese company's executives. This growth has been achieved under a Scottish management team led since 2000 by industry veteran Mike Keiller, who has focused on the distiller's single-malt brands, which also include Auchentoshan, Glen Garioch and McClelland's.

Morrison Bowmore has moved away from volatile bulk whisky market.

In early 2010, Suntory executive Toshihiko Kumakura revealed sales of the Bowmore flagship single malt had climbed to 164,000, 12-bottle cases in 2009, from 146,000 cases in 2008.

He noted that the Islay single malt was selling just 21,000 cases in 1990.

Mr Gray puts sales of Bowmore in 2012 at around 173,000 cases.

Among other overseas owners of Scotch whisky interests, French group Pernod Ricard has an impressive track record of investment in its Chivas Brothers business. It has recently unveiled major investment to increase capacity as it gears up to meet growing global demand for Scotch.

French luxury goods group LVMH, the company behind the Louis Vuitton and Moet Hennessy brands, has been investing in its Glenmorangie and Ardbeg single malts. And the Thai-owned Inver House Distillers, owner of the Old Pulteney single malt, has been investing in international marketing and distribution.

So, while it is important to celebrate the success of the likes of Edrington, which is owned by a charitable trust and also counts The Famous Grouse, Highland Park and Cutty Sark among its brands, we should recognise what overseas companies have done to boost the Scotch whisky sector.

Suntory is a prime example. During a visit in 2010 to its Yamazaki distillery, located between the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto and the city of Osaka, Suntory's Hiroyoshi "Mike" Miyamoto underlined the company's passion for quality.

The group's old habit of using western actors to advertise its Japanese whisky brands provided the pretext for the fictional film Lost In Translation, in which a jet-lagged Bill Murray finds himself bemused at the instructions of an ultra-trendy and volatile director making a commercial for Suntory.

Bill Murray delivers the line: "For relaxing times, make it Suntory time."

Given Suntory's track record, we can probably be relaxed that Teacher's, Laphroaig and Ardmore are in safe hands.

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