Nothing by half-measures for one of the nation's brightest sparks
'Golden Oldie' rugby player is still more than a match for the current generation
Published 11/02/2010 | 05:00
'I DON'T do overheads," mutters John Teeling as he picks his way through one of the messiest, smallest and productive corporate headquarters in Ireland.
While the casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that Mr Teeling was in the middle of moving into the spartan building in the Dublin suburb of Clontarf, the reality is that the headquarters has been home to his varied business interests for 41 years, longer than most of the companies on the stock exchange despite their faux grandeur, marble floors, plate glass windows and bland art.
In corporate Ireland, Mr Teeling is a throwback to another age; a swashbuckling intellectual who has set up and listed 10 mining and exploration companies as well as the Cooley Distillery whose Kilbeggan 15 Years Old was voted World's Best Irish Blended Whiskey just last year and which is giving the French-owned Irish Distillers a run for its money.
THE tall and broad-shouldered 64-year-old looks like the rugby player he still is (he heads to Sydney later this year to compete in a golden oldie challenge) but he has fitted at least three careers into his life so far; that of an academic, explorer and whiskey distiller.
Just back from a two-week tour of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, Mr Teeling looked as fresh as a man half his age earlier this week as he discussed the Government's plans for the National Asset Management Agency, the Irish stock exchange's failures, whether gold would rise further and why he never invested in property.
Like so many successful businessmen before him, Teeling began working while still a teenager but his start was unusually tough and followed the death of his insurance salesman father when Teeling was just 14.
The young Teeling took over his father's sideline, a small money-lending operation, to keep the family afloat. "It was 1960. What could you do?" He still remembers cycling up Griffith Avenue in north Dublin after school to collect a debt of a little more than two shillings as "the hardest thing I ever had to do".
The family business didn't stop Teeling from winning a Dublin Corporation scholarship when he left school to study business at University College Dublin and a further scholarship to study in Pennsylvania and Harvard.
TEELING puts down his success at college to focus. "I have a great ability to concentrate and a very good memory," he says. His studies were followed by a lengthy stint at UCD which he only left at the age of 41 when his various businesses began to take off.
His teaching salary was augmented by punts on the stock exchange, where he still buys shares using the guidelines of legendary value investor Ben Graham, an American whose life story superficially resembles some parts of Teeling's own life and who inspired a generation of great investors including Warren Buffet and Irving Kahn.
While he continues to buy shares, Teeling is scathing about the Irish stock exchange and the high legal and broking fees charged for companies listed there.
"I don't see what function it is performing at the moment," says the man who has created more listed companies than any Irishman alive but has never sold shares in his native country.
Teeling recommends those who want to float to look outside the country for funds or to use the Business Expansion Scheme which he used to great effect when setting up Cooley Distillery back in 1987. Looking at the next generation of entrepreneurs, Teeling has more simple advice for those now leaving education and considering what to do.
"Go abroad and then come back with your eyes open," he urges. "The worst thing that can happen is waiting for things to happen."
The young must also get used to rejections, a skill one suspects he learned as a fledgling lender. "When you get 10 rejections, get another 10," he urges.
The Dubliner is not optimistic about the immediate future. The veteran of several recessions believes inflation and higher taxes are now inevitable as these blunt tools offer governments the only solution to the mountains of debts which bedevil most countries at present. He predicts the Government here will be forced once again to "screw the middle class" while leaving tax loopholes to ensure that business survives.
Like many successful businessmen, he is a firm opponent of the National Asset Management Agency which he appears to see as a betrayal of capitalism's basic rules.
"I don't see the numbers working. I'm not a believer in NAMA. The bondholders and shareholders should have lost everything," he says.
"The Government should have nationalised the banks and sold them off," he adds.
Sitting in the frugal boardroom surrounded by rock samples and whiskey bottles, it is hard to not imagine what the country's major banks would look like if Teeling were to take control and start cutting the taxpayer-subsidised fat.
One thing seems sure, a Teeling-led bank would not have lost its shirt lending to property speculators.
The businessman has been a notorious bear on property since the boom began in the late-1990s.
He is so wary of property that the only land he owns is his house -- although he was once the chairman of London developer CountyGlen.
Despite his scepticism about property and belief that we are likely to suffer a major bout of inflation, the chairman of half- a-dozen mining companies does not appear to believe that gold and diamond prices are likely to post any major gains.
Diamond prices have risen sharply in recent years, maybe coming close to bubble territory, he says.
The only area he lists as being close to a sure thing seems to be base metals such as zinc which his company Connemara Mining is looking to extract from land in Limerick in the near future. Demand for base metals is rising steadily as the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries boost their output.
As chairman of companies with interests in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Iran, Botswana and Jordan, Teeling could be forgiven for being blase about exotic locations but he remains enchanted by Africa and, ever the contrarian, extols the virtues of Zimbabwe, a country which he believes is now more optimistic than Ireland about its economy and the future.
While the results from some of Teeling's companies have been mixed over the decades, most have made their investors significant amounts of money as well as adding a dash of colour to the often insular world of Irish business.
It is impossible not to come away from meeting Teeling without believing the country would be in a better state today if there were more real risk takers, travellers and romantics such as Teeling and fewer technocrats who rose through dull corporate hierarchies without doing anything more creative than a little accounting.