June 24, 2022

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Stoli’s Damien McKinney: ‘I have one more special forces mission in me’

2 min read

Immediately after the invasion of Ukraine was launched, videos started to appear on social media of people, including state governors and bar owners in the US, pouring Stolichnaya vodka down the drain in protest against all things Russian.

The brand was caught in the popular swell of opinion against Soviet-linked products, from vodka to caviar, despite the fact that the spirit is made in Latvia and owned by a Russian-born critic of Vladimir Putin.

“I get it. It’s emotional,” says Damian McKinney, chief executive of Stoli Group, a British former Royal Marine who served in Northern Ireland, Central America, Bosnia and the Gulf war. He also ran a refugee camp in Kurdistan.

McKinney knows what a crisis looks like — even if the war this time for him at least has meant a corporate one rather than getting involved on the front line in Europe.

McKinney talks like the job at Stoli is a military mission, stressing the need to help his teams “on the ground” in Russia and the Ukraine, as well as the need for strong leadership and decisive action to prevent the brand being sucked into an inadvertent boycott.

Even when he took the job almost two years ago, having moved into management consultancy after his career in the military, he remembers thinking about the work needed to turn round the fortunes of the company: “I have one more special forces mission in me.” 

Now he says the job is to turn round people’s perception of a brand that has been a symbol of Russian drinking culture. “I have a lot of experience in crisis management. Knowing about an ambush is quite useful in this case.”

The rights to the Stolichnaya brand were acquired in 1999 by SPI Group, a Luxembourg company founded and owned by Russian businessman Yuri Shefler. McKinney says Shefler is an outspoken critic of Putin, who left Russia under pressure to sell the brand two decades ago.

McKinney made sure that he carried out extensive due diligence on…

2022-04-03 00:00:31

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