Spirit guide: Martin Cooke, Edrington

Martin Cooke, until recently the first and only lawyer at spirits business Edrington, also enjoys a heady cocktail of non-legal roles.

Martin Cooke
Martin Cooke

Scottish spirits producer The Edrington Group is now barely recognisable as the company Martin Cooke joined back in 1988.

The group is best known for its portfolio of iconic whisky brands, which includes Scotland’s best-selling whiskies The Famous Grouse, The Macallan, Cutty Sark and Highland Park.

It is a measure of how quickly the company has grown that none of those brands were owned by Edrington when Cooke was taken on as the group’s first lawyer 23 years ago.

Nine years after joining Cooke was made company secretary, a position he now balances with his roles as trustee of the group’s pension schemes, director of its insurance company Dunard Insurance and chair of the risk management committee. He is also one of seven executive ­directors.

“Things really began to take off in 1999,” recalls Cooke. “Until that time we always had money in the bank, but never borrowed.”

It was in that year that the ­company borrowed hundreds of millions of punds to fund its acquisition of ­Highland ­Distillers, picking up the Famous Grouse, Macallan and ­Highland Park brands in the process.

In 2008 Cooke played a leading role in another watershed investment, with the acquisition of a shareholding in Brugal, a leading producer of golden rum in the Dominican Republic. The deal was the first time Edrington had extended its portfolio beyond whisky.

“We had a number of premium brands in Scotch but felt that was a bit of a ­narrow focus,” he says. “We had detailed discussions with Brugal in 2004-05, but they came to nought. We couldn’t seal a deal, but we stayed on good terms. Then we got together for a catch-up a few years later and things got going again.”

Cooke, a Spanish speaker, was involved both in the negotiations and arranging financing with the banks.

Edrington, which covers the whole production process, from distilling, blending and bottling to marketing, is now looking to expand its brand across Europe, the US and Asia.

In April 2009 Cooke helped set up a sales and distribution alliance with Beam Global Spirits & Wine, giving it ownership of distribution companies in Sweden, Finland, Norway and ­Denmark, as well as Taiwan and South Korea.

A year later he worked on the acquisition of the Cutty Sark brand from Berry Bros & Rudd, giving the group access to the Southern ­European countries of Greece, Spain and Portugal.

All of which has led to a major hike in turnover in the past few years. In 2010 alone Edrington’s turnover was up by 11.5 per cent to £419.9m, while pre-tax profit was up by 25 per cent to £94.8m.

Despite Cooke’s wide remit – he covers everything from corporate governance and insurance to IP and bank finance – he was until recently the group’s only lawyer.

Last September he hired a newly qualified lawyer, but he also runs a secondment programme with Maclay Murray & Spens, which he describes as a “win-win situation”.

“We get a bright young lawyer and they get the chance to see what it’s like outside the ivory tower of the law firm,” he says.

So many aspects of Cooke’s role are non-legal – particularly his work as an executive director – that he now considers himself more a businessman than a lawyer.

“I see myself as a businessman who has legal qualifications,” Cooke says. “Where that helps is that I can approach non-legal matters with those skills, like going through huge amounts of information and being able to pull out two or three key points.”

A part of Cooke’s job that has become increasingly important in recent years is his work in relation to corporate social responsibility.

“Ninety nine per cent of people drink responsibly and the Scotch whisky industry contributes a huge amount to the Scottish economy,” Cooke claims. “We do a lot to encourage people to drink responsibly and we’re keen to engage with the Scottish ­government.”

That dialogue includes a debate over what Cooke claims are tax inequalities in the alcohol industry, which sees a higher duty levied on Scotch whisky.

“There’s a lot of prejudice against spirits,” he says. “The tax laws are like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”

Organisation: The Edrington Group

Industry: Alcoholic ­beverages

Title: Group company secretary

Reporting to: Group finance director Richard Hunter

Turnover (including share of JVs): £647.4m

Employees: 2,200

Legal capability:Two

Main external law firms:Gómez Acebo & Pombo, ­Headrick Rizik Alvarez & ­Fernández, Maclay Murray & Spens