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Bruichladdich Secrets to a More Empowered Workforce: Try a Wee Dram

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The isle of Islay, a two hour ferry ride from the western coast of Scotland, is a great spot for getting away from it all. My older son Josh and I took an extended weekend on the isle to tour the famous scotch distilleries and celebrate his two great achievements of 2009: a PhD from Harvard and his marriage to Megan Wall-Wolff, a marvelous young woman and the love of his life.

As we toured Bruichladdich, the last independent distillery on the island, we expected great scotch. We didn't expect a lesson in how to engage and empower employees.

If you ask Bruichladdich's Managing Director Mark Reynier for the secret sauce of Bruichladdich's success, he'll tell you at once and in rapid fire speech: "equal parts of integrity, humanity, authenticity and variety." But, don't think for a moment that it's marketing speak. This humble operation is not lacking in spirit.

What makes Bruichladdich a school for how to manage people? First is management's pride for the 50 employees of the company. The pride is demonstrated by putting employees' pictures right on the packaging. One product shows the packaging team at work. Another shows the group that makes the great scotch that earned the company its worldwide reputation.

Second is ownership. The company was rescued from oblivion some years ago by an investor group headed by Reynier that was smart enough to invite every employee to be an owner of company shares. David Ferguson, the young man who gave us a tour of the distillery, was quick to point out, "I'm an owner. We all are." Accountability follows when ownership is -- and feels -- real.

Third is the opportunity for employees to be involved and to grow -- a hat trick that Bruichladdich makes possible by giving employee/owners the chance to do different jobs. Mary McGregor, the manager of the distillery shop, has worked the filling and packaging line, is actively involved in marketing and advertising, and is an able and enthusiastic salesperson. She and other employees even designed the most recent product label.

Fourth is a spirit of innovation. Led by Reynier, the distillery is unafraid to challenge the industry both by returning to traditional methods in designing new scotch products, and also creating eye turning package designs. They call themselves "progressive Hebridian traditionalists," and it works. In fact, it was named "distillery of the year" in three of the last 10 years -- not a small feat.

Fifth is a special culture that binds colleagues together and promotes an awesome willingness to help one another. Reynier took a break from a busy day to help Mary tell the company story to Josh and myself. Ferguson excused himself during our tour to help another team member move some material. We saw the same generosity at work on the filling and packaging line, where "mates" cheerfully offered help to one another.

Sixth and last is the courage to build a company that competes on the isle of Islay against big companies like LVMH, Diageo and Baccardi that dominate scotch production. More than a decade ago, it was quite the investment -- and leap of faith -- for a new ownership team to reopen the mothballed distillery and put Bruichladdich back in business. Management continues to demonstrate its courage with a commitment to both marketing and packaging innovation yoked to traditional production methods.

Bruichladdich is no throwback to the old days. It is a modern, impressive company that has learned to put pride back in the workplace and a spirit of empowerment that makes it as special as its products.

What does your company do to empower and engage employees?

Jon Younger is a Partner of The RBL Group, a firm providing consulting and executive education in strategic HR and leadership. Jon leads the Strategic HR practice area, teaches in many executive education programs and is a Director of the RBL Institute. He is co-author, with Dave Ulrich and three other principals at The RBL Group, of "HR Competencies" (SHRM, 2007), "HR Transformation" (McGraw-Hill, July 2009) and many articles, and last year logged client work in 35 countries.