The big interview: Ian Harris on 20 years at the WSET

Thursday, 24 March, 2022
The Drinks Business
Ian Harris is leaving WSET in a strong position, as he hands over to Michelle Brampton.

A REAL optimist. That’s how Ian Harris describes himself after discussing the most challenging moments of his 20-year stint as CEO of the largest wine and spirits education provider in the world – the WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust). We are sitting at the trust’s relatively new headquarters in London just two months before Harris steps down for good, He leaves on 15 April, which is “20 years to the day” since he joined the organisation. “It closes it off with a nice, neat bow,” he tells me, admitting that he’ll be “very nearly 67 when I leave”.

It’s his good-humoured, unflappable nature that will be much missed at the WSET, as well as his personable approach to management. “I’ve always loved going to trade shows,” he states, smiling, “I love meeting people… and I wish ProWein had been in March, rather than May,” he adds, as he could have attended the event for one last time as WSET CEO, had the fair not been postponed.

He assures me he will go to the London Wine Fair in June. But, of course, by that time he will be free from the daily demands of leading an organisation with offices in the UK, US, Shanghai and Hong Kong, as well as over 800 centres in 73 countries that provide courses in 15 languages to more than 100,000 students.

As for that seemingly endless positive outlook, Harris has had his temperament tested at the WSET. The most recent troubling period related to Covid-19 – a challenge he could have avoided altogether had he kept to an initial plan to leave the establishment when he was 65.

Indeed, had he not chosen to extend his time at the WSET by a further two years – a decision taken “well before Covid” – then, he jokes, “I would have retired as the pandemic hit, and said, ‘over to you’”, referring to his successor, Michelle Brampton, the former European managing director at Treasury Wine Estates.

However, later in our conversation, it’s clear that in this case, there’s no truth in such jest, as he says: “Even if I’d known two years ago the damage that Covid was going to do, I would have stayed; I wouldn’t want to leave the WSET in the lurch.”

As it was, he was on hand to deal with the rapid shift to digital education and examinations that the pandemic necessitated. He recalls: “At the graduation ceremony in [January] 2020, I made reference to a flu-like disease in China in my speech… and in the second week of March, we had closed our office, our school, everything, which meant we couldn’t process any exams for weeks – most of them are on paper. With exams stacking up, and lead times slipping, we fast-tracked our digital assessments, employing remote invigilation, which we launched in a hurry in May. I would have liked more time to test it, but we made sure that the exam process was carried out in a robust and fair way, and it was launched six weeks after the pandemic hit. Now 20-25% of our candidates do the exams remotely.”

Then in January 2021, Harris faced another major, if more localised, setback, when the WSET had to stop to its activities in China, including all courses and examinations. It was a blow because this was the WSET’s largest market, with almost 20 000 students. Harris explains: “We had to suspend our business in China because the Chinese authorities said we had violated a law that governed NGOs. We didn’t know, and about 5 000 UK charities were caught up in this, but we had not adhered to regulations that said you have to have an authorised NGO office in China.”

The WSET has since met the Chinese requirements by setting up a base in Shanghai (as well as its office in Hong Kong), which means the education provider can resume its courses in the country “any minute now”, according to Harris.

High levels of growth

Despite losing this substantial business, Harris is leaving the WSET having achieved the highest number of students in its history, although he admits that the number was inflated by the near 6 000 “charity places” given by the trust last year, primarily to those in the hospitality trade – which has been so damaged by Covid-related restrictions. But the Chinese financial shortfall has been compensated for by high levels of growth in “lots of other markets”, with Harris adding: “Online has really helped.”

In terms of the leading nations for WSET candidate numbers, the US is in first place, followed by the UK and then France – which is now in the top three following China’s drop down the charts.

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