Talking with Scotch Whisky Association’s Karen Betts | Wine Enthusiast
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Talking with Scotch Whisky Association’s Karen Betts

Karen Betts, the daughter of a British Army officer, grew up around the world. She earned an MA in history from St Andrews University in Scotland, and also practiced as a lawyer in London and Hong Kong before entering the diplomatic service. Working for the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Brussels, Washington and Baghdad, she eventually became Great Britain’s ambassador to Morocco.

It was Bett’s desire for her two school-age children to have a period of stability that lead her and her husband to return to Scotland.

Betts, 46, has been chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association for just over a year, and finds her previous career was excellent preparation for this global role.

“Everybody says to me ‘Wow, what a big change that must be.’ But I think, ‘Really?’ Yes, I am learning a new industry from scratch, which is a steep learning curve, but that’s what you do as a diplomat,” she explains.

“You are posted to a new country, and you have to learn about that country. Picking up something completely new is not an alien concept in my career,” says Betts.

Based in Edinburgh, she represents the Scotch whisky industry, a body of about 70 members and comprising 128 distilleries across Scotland, which exported £4.4 billion ($5.81 billion) worth of Scotch to approximately 180 markets around the world in 2017.

“I still represent something. In my last job, I represented the UK; in this job, I represent Scottish whisky. The job is quite global.”

It’s also a job that requires her to be a strong defender of the industry. “I travel between Edinburgh and London because we have a lot of work to do with the Scottish and the English governments. We also represent the industry overseas and do the legal protection for Scotch around the world,” she says.

“We are zero tolerance about [counterfeits]. We scour markets overseas for anything going on shelves that’s calling itself Scotch and might not be,” Betts says. Scotch whisky labs will test any suspicious liquids. “At any one time, we are running around 70 litigious cases around the world.”

Both abroad and at home, lobbying is also part of her job.

“It’s mostly about talking to the government about the things that impact us and how we and government get the best results out of that, whether it’s regulatory change, trade policy, trading relationships with other countries, discriminatory taxes or free trade agreements. A lot of it is nuts-and-bolts work around trade policy.”

The distilleries also get their fair share of attention.

“We have 32 people in Edinburgh and eight in London. Plus of course, there is quite a lot of reaching out to members, understanding what concerns them about any particular issue. As any trade organization, we have various mechanisms that draw our members in, but it’s important for me and my senior team to regularly go out to members to have one-to-one conversations, ” according to Betts.

Betts relishes change. “I wouldn’t rule out going and working on the other side of the world again. But right now, for us as a family, it is good to be at home in a single place for a while. As you grow older, your concept and your idea of what your career is changes,” she says.

“Who knows what the opportunities are? All of us have to be quite creative now, and that is a good thing.”

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