Career profile: Gary Brewer, global head of OD & reward, William Grant & Sons

Written by
Changeboard Team

04 Sep 2015

04 Sep 2015 • by Changeboard Team

Basic details

Name: Gary Brewer

Job: Head of reward and organisational development (and HR head for Asia region and marketing/global travel retail)

Current employer: William Grant and Sons Limited, 2009 to date

CV in brief

  • Reward projects, BSkyB, 2009
  • Head of reward and OD, Lloyds Banking (Scottish Widows), 2006 – 2009
  • Global vice-president – HR, Aptuit, 2004 – 2006
  • Senior director – HR / head of clinical services, Quintiles Transnational Corporation, 1997 – 2004

A day in your life

Tell us about your job and organisation.  

A very timely question! I joined WG&S as head of reward. Within a year, I had added learning and development to my remit. Over the next couple of years, I picked up HR responsibility for Latin America, Australia, India, Mexico and Singapore, largely on the basis that I was involved in the acquisition process or in setting up new entities. Since then we’ve found a more suitable organisational home for such geographies. However, over the past few months, I have continued as global head of reward and OD but I have also assumed HR responsibility for marketing and global travel retail.

From this week, and for the time being at least, I am heading up HR for the Asia region. People talk about change and flexibility but we’ve moved along at a brisk pace and if there is a willingness to accept challenge and responsibility, we don’t tend to allow conventional job descriptions and structures to get in the way of progress.

Who do you report into?

Rosemary McGinness, group HR director. She is the epitome of what a leader should be in the HR and business world today. The word ‘transformational’ can be over-used but that is what she is and has been within William Grant & Sons.

Tell us about your team.

I consider myself to be very fortunate. I work with three archetypal reward professionals who are very pragmatic, professional and have an excellent work ethic. The two members of our OD team have made tremendous strides in advancing leadership development – especially in e-learning, brand and whisky education. Our policy and projects manager is about to move into a new role in internal communications and we have a new HRBP for marketing and travel retail. I’ll be getting to know the HR teams in Shanghai and Korea over the next few weeks as I am scheduled to visit there at the end of April.

What is the most rewarding part of your role?

In this and in all the roles I’ve held, it is witnessing (and contributing in a very modest way) to the development of the respective teams and team members. I take great pride in noting how former colleagues have developed and are now populating senior HR roles across the country.

What is the most challenging part of the role?

The obvious challenge in a global operation is being able to offer a culturally appropriate solution to issues and challenges across the globe and to deliver that in a timely fashion. It is necessary to balance history and legacy and be respectful of that. However, we must ensure the support and partnering offered is commercially attuned to the environment and makes a positive difference to the business and the people who work with us.

What does a typical day look like for you?

It’s an early start, getting up at 4.15am to commute from rural Perthshire to the office outside Glasgow by 6.30am. There is always overnight e-mail traffic and early morning calls, balancing various demands across reward, OD and general HR activity. I generally leave the office by 4.30pm and dabble with emails in the evening.

Why did you choose your current organisation to work for?

I was delighted to be approached at the end of 2009, just as I was settling into a new role with BSkyB, which I was genuinely enjoying. At the time, I wasn’t very aware of WG&S. It is steeped in history and achievement, constantly evolving and progressing and yet still strongly driven by values. The professionalism, passion for the brands and commitment to premiumisation never fails to leave me engaged, energised and impressed.

Perks and downsides of your role?

While the novelty has passed somewhat, I do still enjoy international travel. In the past couple of years with WG&S, I have visited Colombia, Mexico, Australia, India and Singapore, and I am about to go on a trip to China and Taiwan.

On the downside, I work long hours but it is my choice to do so.

What skills are essential for the role you’re in?

Strong technical skills, a combination of specialisms and general HR exposure. You also need an awareness of the global employment environment, a willingness to keep an open mind, a sense of pragmatism and commercial awareness. There is a strong need to be able to join up different strands of activity in a cost-effective and coherent way.

Career path

How did you get to where you are now?

It was not by design. I started off in industrial/employment relations and broadened out into generalist and non-HR roles. I then started to gravitate back towards specialist roles, specifically in reward and through my involvement in employment tribunal activities as a lay member. Now I combine a good range of interesting challenges and I’m never precious about job titles – more about how I can make a contribution to the business.

My career path has been influenced by a rough plan I had at the outset mixed with a hefty and fortunate slice of opportunism and opportunity. One of the key lessons is to understand just how transferrable HR skills and experiences are across sectors. Rather than being constrained by sector-specific requirements, I am a strong advocate of breadth of experience and exposure.

What was your best subject in school and what did you study?

English. Between blogs, magazine articles (including some travel writing for the Sunday Herald some time back), insulting e-mails and the production of business papers, I am very much the frustrated writer and an avid reader.

Have you followed the career path you set out to?

For someone who is so orderly, organised and careful about planning, I never had a set career plan. I started out at British Railways in a junior industrial relations role and decided that personnel and employee relations was for me. However, while I’ve made some very distinctive choices in terms of sector and employer, my core interests in employment law, employment relations, reward and general HR activities have always remained with me. For me, what has always mattered most is the difference the employer makes, its values, how it conducts itself and whether I can respect and appreciate the people I work with.

What challenges have you faced along the way? How did you overcome them?

As a teenager I was academically bright but I had an ‘old head on young shoulders’. Going to university would have placed a financial burden on my parents, so I chose to go straight into employment and spent the next two decades studying part-time. I place a high value on self-reliance, personal responsibility and continuous learning.

Do you have any career regrets?

On reflection, I could have done more with my role as global VP of Aptuit. While it was a great opportunity and experience that worked out well in many ways, I could have made a greater and more positive impact. Secondly, I came too late to WG&S. I’m not a whisky drinker and I’m genuinely sorry I wasn’t here for longer when my father was alive. As a whisky lover, he never got the benefit of me working for a distiller!

What advice would you offer others who are looking to get to where you are now? What advice would you give to your 22-year-old self?

Be clearer about what is truly important and demands or merits time and effort. I’d also strongly reinforce the importance of a healthy work ethic in all aspects of life.


  • Coffee or tea?: Tea
  • Jam or marmalade?: Jam
  • The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?: Neither
  • Mac or PC?: PC
  • The Guardian or The Times?: The Times
  • BBC or ITV?: Neither
  • M&S or Waitrose?: M&S
  • Morning or night?: Morning. It’s the best time of the day to gather your thoughts and prepare for what lies ahead.
  • Rain on snow?: Snow. I got married in Finnish Lapland in a completely white landscape, complete with a reindeer-drawn sleigh. Rain in Scotland, on the other hand, is all too commonplace.
  • Sweet or savoury?: Savoury, I just don’t have a sweet tooth


  • TV show: Brideshead Revisited. It’s still the most stylish, beautifully written and acted production to emerge out of Britain. This would be closely followed by The Avengers. I still regard Patrick MacNee as a true style icon.
  • Band: The Clash. My formative years included a healthy exposure to punk
  • Song: ‘I Wish I Were Blind’ by Bruce Springsteen. However, my choice of song would probably change on a daily basis.
  • Book: At the moment, Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth series is at the top of my list
  • Sports team: I have a season ticket for one of Glasgow’s two football teams
  • Thing to do on a Friday night: Serious inactivity. Eating Chinese food with my wife and children, parked in front of an episode of ‘Elementary’ on TV
  • Place to eat: The Grouse & Claret in Kinross-shire. It serves wonderful food – especially the  Glenfarg beef – in a very peaceful setting
  • Holiday spot: Sorrento, Italy. I haven’t been back in many years but the colour of the sky at sunset will remain with me always
  • Piece of advice you’ve been given: My late father, who built trains, always maintained that I should have undertaken an apprenticeship or learned a trade. On the basis that I had neither the technical ability nor the personal inclination, we often had a quiet smile together as my career developed positively in what we regarded as ‘office work’. I’m sure in some ways he was right but matters seemed to progress reasonably well without me being in possession of a true ‘trade’