By Scott Wright

Cara Laing admits it was “not entirely” the plan to step up to the role of managing director of Glasgow-based Douglas Laing & Co.

But equally, she says, her elevation “felt like the natural step”.

Ms Laing was officially appointed to the role at the family-owned whisky blending and bottling company in early February. As the granddaughter of Douglas Laing, who founded the company in 1948, there was arguably a sense of destiny to her promotion. But she insists it was by no means inevitable.

“It felt like the natural step,” Ms Laing told The Herald Business HQ. “It wasn’t entirely part of the plan. I had never planned to take on the role of managing director. But the opportunity came where [in] both in my personal life and my business life it felt [like] the right time.

“It felt like, personally I could take on the bigger role and importantly from the Douglas Laing team perspective, I didn’t want to bring in a fresh MD who had no understanding of the business, of the people in the business, of the many nuances of life at Douglas Laing.”

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Ms Laing is quick to point out that there is much for her learn, highlighting areas such as operations and finance, but equally she has plenty of experience to lean on. She entered the whisky industry in 2006 after graduating with a degree in marketing, and it is in this discipline that she has spent most of her career so far.

After starting out with Whyte & Mackay as a brand manager for Jura single malt, she went on to become marketing manager for the Bowmore and Glen Garioch single malts at Morrison Bowmore Distillers.

She eventually returned “home” to Douglas Laing in 2013 as head of brands marketing under her father, Fred Laing, then managing director.

Ms Laing admits she misses marketing, which remains her “passion”, but is relishing the opportunity of taking a “far wider view” of the business. She underlines the importance of the strong board supporting her at Douglas Laing, which includes Fred as chairman and the experienced Mick Ord (operations director) and Scott MacDonald (sales director). Their support and guidance are proving to be invaluable as the company and the Scotch whisky industry in general negotiates tough conditions in international markets.

Ms Laing said the current trading environment is a tough as she has seen it during her career, much of which has been characterised by “wonderful” growth.

“That has definitely made it [the role] tougher, because suddenly the growth that we have been enjoying has definitely slowed a little and a lot of the international markets are really challenging,” Ms Laing said.

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“That has certainly been another learning curve, but on the whole, what gave me a lot of confidence about stepping into the MD role was, hand on heart, not many people know Douglas Laing as well as I do. I really understand the ins and outs of Douglas Laing well and I have got a good knowledge and a real passion for the whisky industry. Those are the two areas that really stand me in good stead.

“But in terms of the operations and finance function within the business, those are probably the two key areas that I am having to get far more in amongst and get my head around more than I did in my previous role.”

Right now there is plenty to be excited about at Douglas Laing, which exports its whiskies to around 65 markets. The company, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2023, has just released the first ever single malt from the Strathearn Distillery in Perthshire, which it acquired in 2019. It was a seminal moment for a company that built its reputation on the art of blending and bottling whiskies sourced from distilleries around Scotland.

The Strathearn malt has been bottled from 32 selected casks, a “seamless” combination of ex-bourbon, virgin and ex-sherry oak barrels. Some of the casks were inherited when the distillery was purchased five years ago, while others were distilled in the period since.

The single malt, which retails for around £85 per bottle, is described as a “rich, deep whisky” and a “bold yet soothing dram”. Ms Laing said: “This moment has been a long time coming and one that we are extremely proud to share with the world.”

Douglas Laing had not been in the market to acquire a distillery when the opportunity to buy Strathearn arose. In fact, it been working on plans to build its own whisky-making facility, Clutha, on the banks of the Clyde in Glasgow.

Under the Clutha project, Douglas Laing envisaged bringing together its head office, bottling and cask storage warehouses and an operating distillery at a single site. However, a decision was made to put the plans on ice before Covid stuck in early 2020. Soon after, Strathearn came on to its radar.

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“Just ahead of Covid, we realised we had a call to make on where to basically allocate our time and budget and decided to focus on our bottling warehousing facility [just off the M8 motorway not far from Braehead], ultimately because we were tired of using external parties,” Ms Laing said. “We really wanted to get our hands around our own products and be masters of our own destiny.

“We wanted to make sure we were bottling our own products and bottling them the way we wanted, so we focused all our energies and indeed the lion’s share of our budget on getting our state-of-the-art bottling, warehousing, [and] office facilities established, which we have done.

“We are now very well ensconced and beginning to take on some third-party bottling within our facility – so, not just doing our own products but also being a bottling partner for other whisky companies.”

Returning to Strathearn, Ms Laing said: “That wasn’t really part of the plan. It was an opportunity that arose – that on gut feeling, which is often how we operate as a business, felt we would regret not jumping on.”