independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Cooley aims to be global player in Beam empire

Steeped in a tradition of whiskey making, Stephen Teeling relishes the challenge of delivering greater growth to his portfolio of Irish brands, writes Peter Flanagan

STEPHEN Teeling is not a happy camper. His left hand is encased in plaster thanks to an injury playing rugby the week before and what looked like a minor inconvenience is now going to keep him out of action for up to six weeks.

Apart from not being able to play rugby, the injury also means he will have to use his BlackBerry one-handed for the foreseeable future, but it shouldn't limit him in his efforts to grow his stable of Irish whiskey brands.

The son of well-known entrepreneur John Teeling, Stephen was steeped in the whiskey business with the family's Kilbeggan and Cooley Distillery. Since the firm was taken over by the spirits giant Beam a year ago for €78m, his role has only expanded.

Today, as Senior Global Brand Manager for Irish Whiskey at Beam he is effectively in charge of developing not just the Cooley business, but Beam's expanding portfolio of Irish whiskies.

Managing director Jack Teeling has exited, as has chairman John. Stephen is now the only "family" connection to the original company. The obvious question after a big takeover like the one Beam executed with Teeling, is always "what has changed?"

"The big thing is the scale of the new business. Before the takeover Cooley was a strong brand but in terms of distribution we were limited in what we could do.

"It was a question of budget plain and simple and with Beam those issues just aren't there anymore. That might bring its own pressure in the sense that the company expects you to deliver greater growth because of the extra investment, but that's a good problem to have," he claims.

Cooley is seen as just one part of Beam's Irish whiskey play. The company has up to now been best known for its eponymous Jim Beam bourbon as well as the likes of Maker's Mark and Courvoisier cognac. It also has a huge Scotch whisky stable.

Brown spirits

Now, however, it is moving steadily into the Irish whiskey market, one of the fastest growing brown spirits in the world. The Cooley business had such well-known brands as Kilbeggan, Connemara and Tyrconnell Single Malt.

Apart from the Cooley deal, Beam also bought Kieran Folliard's "2 Gingers" Irish Whiskey in Minneapolis last year.

Now it is up to Mr Teeling to grow the business.

"There is huge room for growth, be it in the US, Asia or in particular Australia.

"Irish whiskey currently has a global market share of less than 5pc of the world whiskey market but that is changing.

"Jameson has done fantastic work in the US, but we've seen the market start to move beyond just that brand," he claims.

Jameson has blazed a trail in North America, to the point where it sells close to 4 million cases of its stuff a year and growing at close to 30pc annually. It is a run rate that Mr Teeling feels his brands can match across the board.

"The US is interesting because the whiskey market there is a bit more mature than it was even a few years ago.

"The demographics of whiskey drinkers are a bit younger but the drink is a bit like wine in that people like to talk about it. They like to know about the drink, why it tastes the way it does and so on, and our brands can play key role in that."

"In Ireland a lot of people like to have a particular brand of whiskey. They're more likely to go into a bar and ask for a 'Kilbeggan' rather than just a whiskey and that is what we are trying to tap into."

The other change that is expected to happen in the Irish whiskey market as it grows is the advent of more smaller independent businesses, much like Cooley was before the takeover. At the moment the vast majority of the industry is controlled by the likes of Diageo, Pernod Ricard, and Beam. Compare that to the Scotch whisky industry where the multinationals have a substantial foothold for sure, but that is supplemented by dozens of independents scattered across Scotland.

Growing brands

"That will only serve to grow the sector overall, so it would be a good thing for us," claims Mr Teeling.

The transformation that a company of the size of Beam can bring to a business like Cooley is plain when Mr Teeling talks about plans for growing the brands.

For example, Jim Beam bourbon, while relatively low key in Ireland, is one of the biggest whiskies in Australia. That popularity and reach gives Teeling routes to market that he could only have dreamed about before Beam came in.

From the outside, Stephen Teeling is in a difficult position. As the son of one of the best-known figures in Irish business, he could be in a lose-lose position.

Current role

At 31, even if he is in his current role on merit, there will always be naysayers who point to his family name. If it bothers him though he doesn't show it.

"Not at all, quite the opposite in fact. If anything, being my father's son opens doors for the business. He lectured a lot of the current crop of executives so there is often a comfort level there that couldn't be achieved as quickly without that connection," he says.

To make these export plans work, the company is now heavily involved with IBEC's Export Orientation Programme, which sees a number of graduates from Ireland sent on an intensive training course at the Kilbeggan distillery before being dispatched to various stations around the world to learn the Beam business.

Barely into his 30s, Teeling is a very young man still. Clearly he is ambitious, but for now he is focused entirely on growing the company, its brands, and making Beam's investment in Irish whiskey pay off.

"We are looking at a major marketing campaign that will feature a seven-figure investment by Beam this year so I am concentrating entirely on that.

"We've done well so far, but there is lot more to be done and I want to be a part of that".

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