Sir Patrick Grant may be living proof of the power of ill winds but his philosophy is far from bagpiperly.
Those who do not learn from their mistakes are, if the Spanish philosopher, Santayana, is to be believed, condemned to repeat them. Sir Patrick Grant, 14th Baronet of Dalvey in Speyside, is clearly of the same mind. Leaving nothing to hermeneutics, he keeps his in the top left hand drawer of his desk: a sort of inverted rabbit's foot. It is a cylindrical mistake, about two inches in diameter by 12 long, and full of holes. Inspection of the Ministry of Defence label attached to his object reveals it to be a topjoint bass drone, its NATO number DAG A0/9745. "Part of a set of army bagpipes," Grant says, fingering the item with some distaste. "The number's presumably there to ease re-ordering in case of nuclear attack."
Now, strong men might blench at the thought of being escorted into Armageddon by squaddies tooting Scots Wha Hae, and be excused for throwing the thing away. In any case, Grant does not, on the face of it, seem to be suffering unduly from past errors. The desk in question sits in the managing director's office of Grants of Dalvey Limited, in a light industrial unit overlooking the lapping, silver Cormarty Firth: a little soulless, granted, but more than compensated for by the fact that the product it manufactures - stainless steel giftware - now earns the firm in excess of £1.5 million a year and has just won a Queen's Award for Export. So why DAG A0/9745? "Because," says Grant, paling at the recollection, "everything that could be wrong with a business is wrong with the bagpipe business, and I keep it there as a reminder of what not to do in this one."
To recap. In the late '70s, Grant took over a small firm of bagpipe manufacturers called Granger and Campbell. It may seem a quixotic thing to have done: indeed, to a degree, it was. The Speyside baronet was a keen piper, and had pursued a number of punently Burnsian careers before reading law at Glasgow University: by turns, gamekeeping in the Highlands and inshore fishing off the Western Isles. "There had actually been something of a boom in the American and Canadian pipe markets during the '50s," says Grant, "and I had hoped to catch it."
As it was, what Grant caught was a corporate cold. Whatever bizarre impulse had led North Americans to serenade each other with bagpipes in the first place coincidentally deserted them more or less as Grant entered the market. "I did manage to take our manufacturing methods from the 18th century into, oh, the 19th, as well as upping our turnover by 500%", says Grant sadly, "and we did land some pretty plum jobs - the Papua New Guinea prison Service, the Brazilian navy - but it just wasn't enough." In 1986, an ailing Granger and Campbell branched out, in despair, into piping accessories: the first - a slimline, highly polished steel whisky flask designed, over a sedative dram in a Glasgow bar, to fit into a sporran - caught the imagination of buyers in Germany (still Sir Patrick's biggest market) who didn't know a bonny bank and brae from a BMW. Grants of Dalvey was born, and Grant's top bass drone was entombed in his desk drawer.
Its talismanic presence there has clearly stood him in good stead. Winces Grant, "The first thing I see when I look at it is expensive raw materials. Our bagpipe chanters were made of African blackwood, which is incredibly rare and incredibly costly. In the end," he says, in faintly disbelieving tones, "I actually found myself having to set up my own little sawmill in Zimbabwe." One of Grant's prime ambitions was to find a material for his new product that was relatively cheap and easy to find. Stainless steel had a greater tensile strength than pewter and was more durable than silver plate. It was also available in infinite quantities from British Steel, and has the additional appeal to Teutonic sauber-obsession of being perceived by the market as a being "clean". Equally importantly or Grant, making his product in stainless steel removed it from what he calls, with a slight shudder, the "craft market".
"Bagpipe manufacture is highly skilled and vastly labour intensive," says Sir Patrick, "which meant that our entire production capacity could easily be given over to a single order of, says, silver and ebony pipes for Abu Dhabi. That's all very well, but then you'd find your other markets being stolen by nasty plastic imports from Pakistan - another thing about the bagpipe market was that it had very low barriers to entry - whereas now we can simply run 24-hour shifts, seven days a week during the big months from August to December." The Grants of Dalvey product thus has precisely the opposite manufacturing profile from that of Granger and Campbell. Start-up costs for flask production were sufficiently high to deter imitators.
Despite (or perhaps because of) his own previous incarnation as a sort of entrepreneurial Rob Roy MacGregor, Grant also seems to have developed something of an avesion to perceived peatsmoke Scottishness: another plus for non-traditional stainless steel. "We are not in the Scottish ethnic market," he says, firmly. "Ours is a classic product, not a traditional one necessarily. If we're going to be seen as Scottish, then I want it to be in the same way as, say, smoked salmon or tweed, where 'Scottish' is simply a synonym for 'best'".
If the heirs of Bannockburn scent treachery in this, let it be said that Grant's self-appraisal does seem a drap disingenuous. The idea of a sporran flask is not, after all, entirely devoid of Caledonian association, while promotional material for the "Golf" range stresses the status of that most pedestrian of pursuits as the national game of Scotland. The business cards case - a handsome and recent addition to the Grants of Dalvey range - is clearly aimed at the contemporary plutocrat, but its accompanying booklet is similarly embellished with rubicund gents clad in what look suspiciously like kilts. This might be claimed as visual coincidence of an extraordinary sort - but one can not help smelling the faintest whiff of heather. One piece of Scots inconography notably absent from the Grants range is, however, the humble bagpipe. Re-entombing his bass drone memento mori in its drawer with obvious relief, Grant expands on his parable of Good and Bad Business practice. "Another thing about pipes," he points out, "was where their price points lay. When we send a shipment of these" - unfolding a telescopic pocket cup, ingenious winner of a 1989 British gift design award - "to Germany or Japan, we know we're going to want more, soon. If you sell, say, pianos, ten buyers can pay you when they feel like it because they aren't going to want another one for 200 years. That was another problem with the pipe business that we were determined not to repeat."
That Grant's graduation from his very own bag-piperly Harvard Business School has left him with a lucid commercial philosophy may be seen as proof of the beneficial power of ill winds. The publicity on winning the Queens' Award can have done prospects no harm at all, and the firm's products have, in any case, proved recession-proof thanks to the breadth of their market spread: 47% of sales are exported, and to 28 countries. Last year, turnover rose by 15% (from 1.3 million to just over £1.5 million).
Among other cautious additions to the product range have been a vacuum-flask and a combined hip-flask-and-cup, both of which have apparently been well received by buyers. "It may sound complacent," says Grant complacently, "but we develop products that pay for themselves ... "It's a big myth that entrepreneurs are addicted to risk. I see business like George Washington saw victory: it comes from fighting what he called "a war of little battles". My plan is to take Grants from being a small company that has done well to being a middle-sized company: no more than that." He envisages recruiting a small dedicated sales force, present orders coming largely from trade fairs.
The only problem could be that of finding new products with which to arm this putative team. If there is truth in the truism that companies have to grow to survive, Grant may well find his stainless steel medium a touch limiting: the material has not lent itself quite so successfully to the firm's recent range of tie clips, for example. Grant's insistent anti-ethnicity precludes branching into skean-dhus, while dialysis machines (even if a handy horizontal leap from hip-flasks) would probably be beyond the firm's competence. Whether the Delphic topjoint bass drone contains the answer to this question remains to be seen.