How to be a maverick
In an industry largely run by giant corporations, Glenfiddich founder, William Grant & Sons, has remained as a fiercely independent, family-owned firm since its inception in 1887. This inspired the brand’s Mavericks programme, made up of ambassadors who embody the brand’s creative spirit. Esquire travelled to London, and also to Dufftown, Scotland, the birth-place of the world’s most-awarded single malt, to meet these mavericks and find out what universal lessons we can all learn from them.
LIL BUCK, DANCER
“You don’t have to see the whole stairway to know that you’re going up the stairs; you just have to take the first step”
Charles ‘Lil Buck’ Riley is known for his unique dance style. The 28-yearold incorporates his hometown “Memphis jookin” street style, with hip hop and even ballet into his routines. He has performed with Cirque Du Soleil, toured with his good friend Madonna, and even designed a signature line of shoes with Versace.
Esquire: Where did your self-belief come from?
Lil Buck: You have to believe in something and want it badly enough to actually make it happen. I was so inspired to dance when I was young that I would walk on my toes until they bled.
Esq: How do you turn a passion into a reality?
LB: A lot of people have passion, but that passion has to come with belief and drive. All of these things coincide. With me, I was passionate about jookin’ and I wanted to make it a dance style that was globally recognised. I didn’t know where to go with it, but the thing is you don’t have to see the whole stairway to know that you’re going up the stairs; you just have to take the first step.
Esq: Are you still trying to learn new things?
LB: Yeah, absolutely! When I was younger all of the dancers in Memphis wanted to be in a music video – that was the dream! But if you asked a dancer in LA they would say: ‘Are you kidding me? The pay’s bad, the hours are long – that’s the last thing I’d do!’ But in Memphis, that’s all we saw on TV, we didn’t know there was anything bigger than that. That’s when you realise that your dreams are too small. All I wanted was to be in a music video. Now look at me. Don’t be afraid to dream big.
JONNY BURT AND JOE KENNEDY, THE UNIT LONDON
“We don’t want to be just another a flash-in-the-pan”
Fresh out of university, childhood friends Johnny Burt and Joe Kennedy spurned the paths that most of their peers followed, by founding The Unit London, a cutting-edge independent art gallery. In a closed industry often governed by conservative thinking and nepotism, Burt and Kennedy stand by their commitment to engage with a much wider audience and only showcase work that they genuinely believe in. They’ve built a dynamic business using this fresh approach, along with a big emphasis on social media, to make a genuine impact on how art is made, viewed, bought and sold.
Esquire: We're talking about mavericks. Did this mind-set come naturally to you?
Johnny Burt: We’ve known each other for a very long time and we’ve always been very passionate about going into business together. We didn’t know it would become a gallery per se, but we’ve always been passionate about the same sort of artists. Then a space in West London had just opened up and seemed like an opportunity we couldn’t miss. We only had four weeks to renovate the interior and create a brand from nothing to put on our first show. But we did it. And that led on to this gallery in Soho.
Esq: Did your peers try and knock you back?
Joe Kennedy: We’re lucky that our friends and family have always been very supportive. But it’s ultimately been our own belief and ambition that led to our success. We didn’t get paid for a very long time, and the money we did earn was all going back into the business. We were living off sandwiches and working round the clock. Even now that we’re making money we still only take the tiniest amount out of it, because this isn’t a short-term thing; it’s about investing in the business. We want to make sure we’re creating a change in the industry. We don’t want to be just another a flashin-the-pan.
Esq: If you were to offer advice to anyone with a vision what would your advice be?
JB: Follow your instincts. Don’t do something just because you’re supposed to do it. Find an idea, commit to it, and be consistent. Also, it can sound like a cliché but there really isn’t any substitute for hard work, coupled with passion and ambition. It’s is a very powerful recipe for success.
BRANDY WRIGHT, THE ROBIN COLLECTIVE
“I knew I’d be a creative but I never thought I’d be floating cakes in hot air balloons or making whisky clouds”
The Robin Collective is a UK-based company, known for its molecular mixology, wild food creations and experiential events. Started six years ago by Brandy Wright and Robin Fegen, the duo have created a huge buzz thanks to their creative innovations. Brandy Wright talks about the inspiration behind her work.
Esquire: What was the first outlandish idea you came up with?
Brandy Wright: The first thing we did was the Bizarregarita, which is a colour changing cocktail, and it was the thing that really launched us. We also went to historical homes in Britain and extracted moisture from the walls and put it into alcohol. For example, we made a War Room Martini from the moisture inside Winston Churchill’s wartime bunker, and that got us a lot of press. Things just went a little crazy from there.
Esq: What is the weirdest thing you’ve created?
BW: There have been a few. We made marshmallows from the sweat of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for a Geek Fest in London. They wanted something extremely geeky so we bought one of her dresses from the show and extracted moisture from it, which we used in the marshmallows. The geeks loved it!
Esq: Which project are you most proud of, looking back?
BW: I know it sounds biased, but I honestly think it would have to be our work with Glenfiddich. We’ve really challenged people’s preconceptions about tastes. It was a whisky tasting like nothing ever seen before, and we did it by incorporating both sight and sound. We changed the composition of the whisky into a cloud using glass orbs and worked with a composer to create a soundtrack specifically for Glenfiddich, because music actually changes how things taste. It sounds crazy, and we felt the same when we first heard about it, but trust me, it works.
Esq: When did you realise you didn’t want a nine-to-five job?
BW: I always knew that I was never going to be that kind of person. I was at the cusp of the computer generation and I became obsessed with design stuff. Then in high school I learned to do all sorts of things, such as welding. And I think people should actually do that more. I have a lot of friends who still don’t know what they want to do and I tell them to just do everything, because you will stumble on something eventually that just works for you. I knew I’d be a creative but I never thought I’d be floating cakes in hot air balloons or making whisky clouds.
EDDIE OBENG, EDUCATOR AND AUTHOR
“The most important thing is excelling at what you do. Don’t make it different, make it better”
Eddie Obeng is a theorist, published author, successful business owner and educator, who has also been a part of the TEDx icons and Geniuses series. He teaches management theories through his online business school while managing his own investments.
Esquire: How did you get into this line of work?
Eddie Obeng: I studied engineering at university but I always wanted to run my own business, so I worked for a few different consulting companies, but they just didn’t match my ambition. I did a business degree while I was doing that and eventually got a job as a researcher at a business group, where I worked my way up to the executive board and helped save the company from going bust. That experience made me realise that you don’t need any of what they teach you about business in schools. So I started to focus on teaching clients the sort of ideas that they could apply in real life. And I guess that’s how I got here.
Esq: With the world constantly changing, how do you stay relevant in business?
EO: One of the rules that I came up with is that everything has a shelf life. We have technology today that moves and changes at the speed of light. But the thing we have to remember is that people can only learn at a certain rate, and there comes a point where you can’t learn as fast as the environment around us is changing. So what I do is put all my efforts into teaching people how to be successful and how to deliver ideas when they haven’t got a clue what’s going on [laughs]. That’s something that’s never going to change and that’s how I stay relevant.
Esq: Do you have an essential tool, book or mantra for success?
EO: The most important thing is excelling at what you do. Don’t make it different, make it better. That would be the mantra I would follow.
KIRSTEN GRANT MEIKLE, DIRECTOR OF WILLIAM GRANT & SONS
“We’re all about thinking differently”
Kirsten Grant Meikle is the great-great-granddaughter of Glenfiddich founder William Grant, and the fifth generation of the family to run the business since 1887. She is currently Director of Prestige.
Esquire: Why did Glenfiddich parent company, William Grant & Sons, make the decision to remain a family firm?
Kirsten Grant: I don’t think we ever really had to make that decision. Independence is integral to the way that we think and, to my knowledge, there has never been a time in the family history where we’ve considered selling. We consider ourselves custodians of the brands [the company also produces Grant’s blended whisky, Balvenie single malt whisky, Hendrick’s Gin and Tullamore Dew Irish whisky] for the next generation. It’s in our DNA.
Esq: There are a lot of great Scottish single-malts, so to distinguish yourselves. You’ve got to have that edge, right?
KG: Yes, you’ve got to be different, and we are. We’re a real family running a real business; we’re not just sitting in an office somewhere. We actually roll up our sleeves and get stuck in, and it allows us to have a certain visibility of what goes on in the business. We shape the strategy and everything that we do has the long-term vision of both the family and the business in mind.
Esq: What advice can you give to anyone out there about being a maverick?
KG: Being brave is probably the best advice I can give. We make brave decisions and test ourselves every day in this family. Challenging yourself to think differently is hugely important, and it’s vital that you aren’t afraid to take some risks along the way. If we didn’t take any risks we wouldn’t be where we are today.