David Whittaker

Co-Founder, Director and Head Distiller, Manly Spirits Co Distillery Creative Entrepreneurial Engineer, AGSM Master of Business & Technology 2011

David Whittaker, Manly Spirits Co-Founder and Director

How would you describe what you do (what you 'make')? What is your specialist skill?

I'm a chemical engineer by trade and spent many years ensuring refined products were made to exacting specifications for Caltex. All those years spent working in industry and studying helped me develop a diverse set of skills and it became apparent to me that perhaps a good use of those skills was to start-up our own business. At the end of 2015 my wife, Vanessa, and I saw the demand for craft beers explode, and the rise of craft spirits globally, and decided that more Aussie spirits should grace the back bars of venues rather than the standard imported offerings. Eighteen months later we opened Manly Spirits Co Distillery on Sydney's northern beaches. I was very hands-on in the development of the distillery, from the experience to the gin still designs themselves. Running a dynamic, growing business is challenging, but it's something I discovered I love doing. I guess you could say my specialist skill is being a creative entrepreneurial engineer. Its served me well so far and with Manly Spirits 3rd birthday this year, it's something we want to keep exploring.

How have you responded, adapted or innovated as a result of this new world reality?

Normally we make spirits for our customers.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, three quarters of our customer base (bars and restaurants) were asked to close down, export markets were drying up and I thought "Well, what are we going to do?".

After assessing the market, we saw an opportunity to help the community, other businesses and our staff. Pivoting into manufacturing hand sanitiser was something we never would have thought about three years ago! It's a market that's sprung up from nowhere and we don't know how long it will last, but for now we know we are able to support the likes of doctor's surgeries, hospitals, the NSW Rural Fire Service and also keep our staff employed.

The rate of scaling has been incredible, and the phone hasn't stopped ringing. We started with something as simple as 'free 50 mL hand sanitiser with purchase' and now we are manufacturing and shipping out 60,000 litres in a single month. To pivot really fast we've learned a lot logistics on scale, website traffic causing the site to crash due to the number of orders, and turning around 30,000 litres of orders (from production to shipping) in one week.

How has your leadership style changed or pivoted in the midst of the unprecedented uncertainty we are now facing?

We knew we needed to adapt and act fast in the face of COVID-19. The old frameworks and processes went out the window. Strategy development, management meetings and operations all melded into a single continuum of fast pack decision making. Formality dropped away with our close-knit team working together to develop our path of execution. The team would bring all their gathered information together which we would share and refine to form a picture of the emerging environment.

Armed with as much information as possible, we could make informed decisions, very quickly. Without a sales forecast we had no idea what raw materials to purchase but we knew that to hesitate and not buy them would result in us missing the emerging market shortage. We also took risks and bought large amounts of raw materials - we definitely had a bias for action. This was the time to move quickly to provide support to the community in this uncertain time.

What was the catalyst for your response?

I follow a lot of overseas distilleries online and through their social media accounts. I noticed that they were starting to make hand sanitiser. Hand sanitiser? The team didn't know how to make it, but we quickly did our research and found it was similar to making a liqueur. Having the equipment and skills in house meant that through some careful planning we were able to pivot and change the Manly Spirits offering to the market.

We saw some places selling hand sanitiser for $45 per bottle and thought, this is totally un-Australian! We have the people and the resources to help and we wanted to. So, the team stopped making spirits and started making the sanitiser. We pivoted to the need.

Hand sanitiser is in such demand now and Manly Spirits can make a real difference to the community with just a small adjustment on our part. It keeps businesses running and employees safe, and if we can support other small businesses in keeping their doors open then I feel really good about that.

What were you able to tap into from your AGSM qualification in this new world reality that's been most useful / impactful?

Completing my MBAX at AGSM was one of the smartest decisions I've made. It gave me the tools to respond quickly to our changing market landscape, to understand the market trends, our risk management strategy and supply chain management. The art is being sure to minimise knowledge gaps in what you don't know, and have enough knowledge to recognise a looming issue or work required and then gather and engage competent resources to deliver. In this fast-paced decision-making risk management frameworks are imperative. The ability to rapidly and nimbly introduce new products with all the necessary supply chain, accounting and back office design elements was crucial.

I knew my studies were preparing me for something - I just didn't know what. I wanted to create options for myself, ensure I had the education and skills to support that, and the MBAX did just that. The MBAX permanently opened my eyes in areas that I had not been initially trained on - marketing, law, economics - among the other subjects, which are all vital to having a working knowledge of how to run your own business, or if you are in a senior management role in any business.

What are you most optimistic about over the next few months?

We're keeping people employed. Even though some aren't making cocktails in our bar, they are quite happy to be packing boxes and filling up sanitiser bottles. We can now supply the Australian Federal Police with hand sanitiser as well as other services such as the Australian Defence Force, who need hand sanitiser urgently and we can help fill the market shortfall. It is a wonderful feeling that we at Manly Spirits are able to supply a product that is helping Australians stay safe while we all try and get back to work.


Completing my MBAX at AGSM was one of the smartest decisions I’ve made. It gave me the tools to respond quickly to our changing market landscape, to understand the market trends, our risk management strategy and supply chain management.


David Whittaker
Co-Founder, Director and Head Distiller, Manly Spirits Co Distillery
Creative Entrepreneurial Engineer
AGSM Master of Business & Technology 2011

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