HOW do you keep pushing forward a business model that has been delivering success for 122 years? This is one of the challenges that keeps Stephen Rankin motivated 18 years after joining the family business, whisky firm Gordon & MacPhail.

The Elgin-based company - a maturation expert, retailer, UK wholesaler and, since 1993, distiller - began trading as a grocer in Elgin in 1895 and is still one of the most respected names in the whisky trade.

Mr Rankin is the fourth generation to work in the business his great grandfather John Urquhart joined a year after its formation. Gordon & MacPhail now bottles and distributes 300 whisky expressions, distils its own Benromach spirit and sells a full range of artisan and local produce in its shop in Elgin, which is still known as the “Harrods of the north”. It is also a key employer in the north east, providing work for 158 people.

The 47-year-old highlander worked as a charted surveyor before joining the family firm in 2000. Since then, Scotland’s national drink has enjoyed a huge increase in popularity both at home and around the world, and the company’s sales director has been instrumental in ensuring Gordon & MacPhail are in a position to exploit the opportunities provided by this.

“My grandfather always talked about how ‘the wood makes the whisky’ and it’s that acute knowledge and experience that sets us apart, I think,” explains Mr Rankin. “It was wonderful that he was there to see the distillery opened by the Prince of Wales. For us to distil as well as mature, bottle and distribute whisky meant the circle was complete.”

With the whisky marketplace growing ever more crowded, another challenge for the management team is to ensure Gordon and MacPhail products stand out.

“We distribute to 60 markets around the world,” says Mr Rankin, whose mother and uncle also worked for the firm. “It’s important to think carefully about the direction of travel, the trends and taste profiles within markets.

“At the moment people are drinking less, but what they are choosing is better quality. Authenticity is important and customers are looking for products with a really strong provenance. We were ahead of the curve on this one and gave been talking about it for 20 years, building up the story, getting the family history across.

“It would be easy to keep selling an old whisky now, but there might be nothing left in the cupboard for five or 10 years’ time. You have to think about the long-term vision – we’re looking ahead not just 20 years, but 50 to 70.”

Mr Rankin adds that having the right partners in place is a key part of the success of any business and points out that Wright, Johnston & Mackenzie LLP have been working alongside his family for many years.

“It’s crucial that your partners are on the same page so they can drive the business forward,” he says. “We align ourselves to businesses that have the same values as ourselves and are all about quality service.”

And, with 122 years on the books to look back on, what advice would he offer growing businesses in terms of achieving long-term success?

“The most important thing is to be really clear about your brand values and vision, and to keep reinforcing them in everything you do,” says the businessman.

“Trust is crucial because it builds relationships. I remember my grandfather saying to me: ‘Treat your customers and suppliers with equal respect - without one, you can’t have the other.’ That’s still true today.

“Also, make sure you’re exceeding their expectations in terms of value. It’s a demanding world out there, people can research products so quickly these days and they have a huge range of choice. The entrepreneurship comes in how to attract those customers in innovative and imaginative ways, and keep them with you.”

As for what Mr Rankin enjoys most about his job, it comes down to the fundamentals.

“I just love whisky,” he laughs. “I’m really proud to work not just for my family business, but one that’s been at the forefront of an industry for so long and is so highly respected. I work with a phenomenal product and great people.

“I can look at a cask in the warehouse that my great grandfather wrote the note for, one that my children might open and bottle in the future.”