MBA students distill important lessons in Scotland

A funny thing happened on the way to Scotland this spring when a group of Olin Business School MBA students set off to study the scotch whiskey distillery industry.

Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted.

The volcano’s plumes of thick, toxic ash grounded most European air traffic for weeks last April and was still causing delays and cancellations when the Global Management Studies (GMS) trip was scheduled to leave in May. A British Airways strike provided additional complications.

Faculty adviser Greg Hutchings, adjunct professor of management, says their flight to London was cancelled three hours before take-off but the resourceful Olin students were undeterred. “Thanks to the trip’s student leaders’ organizing ability and communication skills,” Hutchings says, “we were rebooked within minutes on an alternative flight to Dublin.”

Mark Hikin, JD/MBA’10 and Stephen Lanese, MBA’10 initially conceived and planned the GMS Scotland trip. After the course group was formed, each of the students took on planning responsibilities to make the trip a success.

Student leadership is one of the hallmarks of GMS courses and Hutchings says the eight MBA students on this trip earned high marks for their flexibility to adapt to a different culture in addition to the real world frustrations of ever-changing travel circumstances.

“These skills will be put to use everyday in the corporate world,” Hutchings says. “They are directly applicable to their work and careers.”

In addition to the usual industry and historical research required for GMS trips, a “scotch tasting” was part of the group’s preparation, Hutchings says. “We engaged a scotch expert form The Wine Merchant, a local wine and spirits store, and teamed up with members of the Olin Wine Club to sample six different scotches.

“That experience helped us to begin discerning the different scotch producing regions of Scotland and help the team coalesce before the trip,” he says.

Once in Scotland, the group toured five distilleries with a mix of large and boutique players in the industry located in the Highlands and Speyside regions.

Through these visits, students learned the competitive advantages to each of the brands and the competition they face internationally. Historical sites such as castles and museums also were on the itinerary, along with visits to Scotland’s other major industry: golf, with stops at St. Andrew’s and Turnberry.

Above, right: Students engaged in serious research at a tasting session at the BenRiach Distillery. According to a report released by the Scotch Whisky Association this year, distilleries generate over $7 billion in added value to Scotland’s economy and support 35,000 jobs. After oil and gas, scotch is the country’s leading manufactured export with over $4.6 billion in exports annually.