Irn-Bru: a story of secrets and succession

It’s one of the most closely guarded secrets in the drinks industry. Only two people in the whole world know it, and they never, ever travel on the same aircraft. It is locked in a bank vault in a top-secret location somewhere in the depths of Scotland. Its 32 ingredients are mixed in a sealed room by just one man, once a month – and he’s been guarding the recipe for years.

The Irn-Bru recipe is hotter property than the Bank of England’s alarm code. (Well, almost.) And now its mysteries are being revealed to just one more person. As Irn-Bru’s 71-year-old chairman retires, he passes on the 108-year-old secret combination of flavours onto his daughter Julie, the company secretary.

The fizzy orange spectacle of a soft-drink (more Scottish than a Terrier feasting on a Haggis on Burns Night with his old friend Nessie the Loch Ness Monster who, incidentally, is clad in a kilt) is Scotland’s top-selling beverage (on the non-alcoholic side of things, obviously). As such, it makes Scotland one of the very few countries in the world where Coca-Cola doesn’t hold the top spot.

And for a local-brand drink, that’s about as rare as a secret that remains secret for five generations.

Irn-Bru has always kept it in the family – chairman Robin Barr is the great-grandson of the drink’s inventor. But for the first time in the company’s history, leadership will move out of the Barr family’s hands – non-executive director Ronnie Hanna will step up as chairman.

It’s an interesting twist. The family keeps hold of the secret recipe, but management passes to external hands. And that’s worth noting. If you’re succession planning, who are you going to pass the reigns to? The person either most capable or most keen to do the job? Or your next of kin?

For the purpose of this argument, let’s assume Julie Barr isn’t becoming chairman either because she doesn’t want to, or because her management experience falls short. You don’t want a four-generation family company to suddenly pass to someone else. So you allow an outsider who already knows the business to run it, but keep the most important asset (in this case the recipe) safely in the hands of blood relatives.

That way, you can be sure the company won’t fold and it’ll be run commercially, but you don’t give the new chairman power enough to fully own the brand - and you leave your next of kin with a nice inheritance, too.

It’s a deft move, although one probably borne as much out of sentimentalism as commercialism.

But succession planning isn’t always so easy. Here’s a few things to think about if you’re facing that decision:

Don’t force the business onto your next of kin. Talk about it with them openly, yes, but don’t be at all pushy. They’re unlikely to put the real effort and passion needed to run the business if they don’t truly want to.

Do encourage senior members of staff to express their interest in taking over. Hearing their thoughts on why it should be them and what direction they’d take the business in is going to be a vital step.

Don’t pick the person who’s most like you. Businesses need a fresh lease of life. If you’ve reached the point where you’re ready to retire or move on, the business will benefit from a jump-start and a fresh pair of eyes that can bring new ideas and rejuvenate staff stuck in their ways.

Do think very carefully about bringing in anyone from outside the company. Not only does it risk offending existing senior management, you risk handing your pride and joy over to someone who doesn’t fully understand the workings of your business and the full history behind it – plus, they’ll be unfamiliar to clients and risk damaging relationships.

Don’t be afraid of asking tough questions of whoever you have in mind. This is your only opportunity. Make sure you trust them entirely with what they want to do with your company.

Do take a step back once the next person has taken over. Interfering will only agitate the situation. You’ve made your decision – now let them get on with it.

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