Willie Cameron has done more than most to build the international reputation of the Highlands. The man that locals call ‘Mr Loch Ness’ is now helping other businesses to export through the Made in Scotland collaboration while still fulfilling his ‘day job’ as business development director at café, bakery and hotel operator Cobbs Group, as Peter Ranscombe finds out.
The Clansman Hotel on the banks of Loch Ness is buzzing. Outside, tourists are piling off the coaches in the car park, ready to wander into the café for tea and scones, while visitors are milling about inside the souvenir shop.
Striding across the shop floor comes Willie Cameron, decked out in his kilt and a fleece, looking every inch the international ambassador that locals often refer to as “Mr Loch Ness”. As he leads the way upstairs to the restaurant to get away from the hustle and bustle of the hotel’s busy lobby, he shares stories of his recent adventures in China.
Cameron is best-known as the business development director at Cobbs, the group of companies that runs the Clansman, Drumnadrochit and Loch Ness Country House hotels, along with 21 cafés stretching from Inverness in the north and Aberdeen in the east to Edinburgh and Glasgow in the south, and a bakery that produces cakes for distribution throughout Scotland and the North of England.
Cobbs began life as the Loch Ness Coffee Company, which was launched in 2000 by managing director Fraser Campbell and Jackie, his wife, with Cameron as one of the founding directors. Cameron later stepped away from the day-to-day running of the business and passed his shares onto his nephew, Rory Cameron, before returning in 2008 to his current role.
The business has continued to grow and now employs 350 people and will turn over around £16m this year. It works with distributors Fife Creamery and Bidfood – formerly Bidvest Foodservices – extending its reach south of the Border.
The group is named after John Cobb, who died while trying to break the world water speed record on Loch Ness in 1952 in his boat, Crusader. The remains of his boat were found in the loch in 2001.
Yet Cobbs Group is only the tip of the Cameron iceberg. Since 1994, he’s run one-man-band Loch Ness Marketing, which provides services to the film, television and media industries. His current projects include helping Love Productions, the company behind The Great British Bake Off, to film a new series in the Great Glen, and consulting with Disney on its cruise line’s magic tours of the Highlands, which are based round the 2012 animated film Brave.
Throw in his work as an after-dinner speaker, a world authority on the Loch Ness monster and his voiceover recordings for the cruises run by Loch Ness By Jacobite and a picture begins to emerge of the portfolio career enjoyed by Cameron. To call him a serial entrepreneur feels like an understatement – and that’s before considering his new line of work with the Made in Scotland export collaboration.
His father had one of the longest recorded sightings of the Loch Ness monster, while Cameron himself is no stranger to unusual goings-on in the loch. Reaching into his bag, he produces a folder containing photographs of an unusual-shaped wave on the water’s surface, defying the wind direction.
While a sceptical journalist may not be prepared to put his hand on his heart and say he’s seen a photo of Nessie, Cameron reports that experts at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) institute in Oban agree it’s not the wake of a duck like a red-breasted merganser or goosander as some locals had suggested. The jury’s still out.
Born in Grantown-on-Spey and brought up in Inverness, Cameron enjoyed a career in financial services with Northern Rock before returning home to the Highlands in the 1990s. But what made him settle in Drumnadrochit?
“It was a woman,” smiles Cameron, referring to Alison, his second wife; they both worked in the hotel in Drumnadrochit. They’ve been together ever since and now spend time in Italy, where Alison used to live. Cameron’s connections to Loch Ness go back even further though. His grandfather’s family came from Abriachan, a village up the hillside on the western shores of the loch, while parts of his mother’s family came from Glen Urquhart.
All those factors clearly mean Cameron has a deep-rooted love for the loch and the surrounding area. Yet his outlook is far from parochial. Back in 2012, when London hosted the Olympics, Cobbs won a contract to supply cupcakes to one of the games’ major sponsors, which gave 12,000 cakes to members of staff in its 30 offices. Fulfilling such an important order gave the bakery a taste for major sporting events.
The 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow marked a turning point for Cobbs, which won a contract to supply its traybakes to catering giant Sodexo for use in the venues and the athletes’ village. Along the way, the company has also baked cakes for golf tournaments including the Scottish Open and Ryder Cup.
Cameron’s international outlook is being extended even further now thanks to his work as the international sales director at Made in Scotland, a consortium cooperative being set up to help Scottish companies to export their products. The members of the consortium are Aldomak, Braehead Foods, Bute Island Foods, Cairngorm Brewery, Cobbs, R&B Distillers, the Scottish Salmon Company, Shetland Reel, Summer Harvest and A Taste of Arran.
“After the first year of the consortium operating, it was decided that it would be good for me to give it a go with my enthusiasm for Highland food and drink and Scottish food and drink,” says Cameron, who was nominated as Highlands & Islands Tourism Ambassador in 2005 and Highlands & Islands Food & Drink Ambassador in 2016. “We’re now at the stage where we’ve become a limited company and we’re going to be account managed by Highlands & Islands Enterprise.
“We’ve been out in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Singapore, and are beginning to get some traction. When I was out in China – signing a deal with Nanhu Travel to bring 12,000 Chinese people to Scotland over the next year – I also took food and drink meetings.
“Although bringing tourists to Scotland isn’t strictly speaking about food and drink, unless the visitors get to try Scottish products while they’re here then they’re not going to ask for them back home. That was probably the biggest export deal I did.
“I’m a great believer in narrative – it’s so, so important. I’m not so good with spreadsheets – as Fraser Campbell, my business partner, says, ‘Don’t tell Willie what he should and shouldn’t be doing – just let him get on with it’.”
Back in March, Made in Scotland was one of the winners of the Collaboration Prize, delivered by Co-operative Development Scotland on behalf of Scottish Enterprise and Highlands & Islands Enterprise in partnership with Business Gateway and the Scottish Chambers of Commerce. The prize was presented at the HSBC Scottish Export Awards in association with Scottish Enterprise, run by BQ at the Glasgow Hilton Hotel.
“I’m more convinced now than ever that Made in Scotland could be something enormous,” nods Cameron. “We’re making good progress.”
Working on international projects has also brought benefits closer to home too. Last year, Cobbs Group teamed up with Cairngorm Brewery to buy the recipes and intellectual property of the Loch Ness Brewery from its administrators at accountancy firm Johnston Carmichael. Beers produced by the company included Dark Ness, Hoppy Ness and Light Ness.
The rescue deal brought Cobbs together with fellow Made in Scotland consortium member Cairngorm Brewery. Samantha Faircliff, the Aviemore-based brewery’s managing director, was one of the interviewees in issue 26 of BQ Scotland magazine, which focused on scale-up companies.
“That deal wouldn’t have happened without the Made in Scotland initiative,” says Cameron. “Having worked that closely with Sam meant we were able to come together to rescue the Loch Ness Brewery brand.”
The beers are now being produced by Cairngorm and are on sale in both the bar and the shop at the Clansman Hotel, along with other Cobbs outlets. Faircliff had previously been bottling the Loch Ness beers under contract and so knew about their popularity.
Looking ahead, Cameron has his eye on the new £650,000 collaborative innovation fund from Scotland’s Food & Drink Partnership, which is funded by Scottish Enterprise and Highlands & Islands Enterprise. “We’re always trying to reduce the amount of sugar in our cakes and we have a contract with Aldi and they’d like to see us reduce the amount of sugar in our chocolate brownies by 20% by 2020,” he explains.
“That pot of money will best be used by collaborations – like Aldomak, Taste of Arran and Cobbs, which are all Made in Scotland members – so I’m sure we’ll be applying to it. It’s another example of how collaborations are a great way for companies to work together for mutual benefit.”