Thursday 8 December 2016

Raising a glass to true love

Drinks industry couple, focused Sally-Anne and laidback Stephen, tell Andrea Smith how opposites can attract

Published 21/11/2011 | 06:00

Everyone knows that fine wines get even better with age, a bit like the relationship between Dubliner Stephen Dillon and Sally-Anne Cooney from Meath. With their first baby due in six weeks, combined with two very busy and demanding careers in the drinks industry, life has never been better for the warm and sociable pair.

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When they first met in 2000, Sally-Anne and Stephen were instantly attracted to one another, but there was a slight deterrent. He was the newly appointed export manager for the well-known drinks company Gleeson Group, while she was the boss's daughter. And, she was also going away to South Africa and Kenya for a year within two weeks of their first meeting, to work with horses and as a safari guide.

"I remember feeling devastated that I was hopping over to the other side of the world just as this very hot, young export manager was starting," she laughs. "I studied accountancy and had worked all the way through it, so I wanted to run away and do something interesting for a while."

When Sally-Anne returned to Ireland after her year away, Stephen was leaving the company to go out on his own, and she attended his farewell drinks party. He says that he realised it was now or never, so he made a move and they got together. Their first date was in a park. He had brought his dog Sparky along with him, and as both are huge animal-lovers, it was a good tactic as Sally-Anne was immediately sold. They were married in 2008, holding the reception at her parents' house.

They now live in a 120-year-old-house in Co Meath, which, ironically, used to be a shebeen. They love living there as it is completely removed from the demands of their working lives, and the fact there is a pub next door is a bonus for their friends, they say.

"We have a clear division between home and work there, which is great as we're both in high-pressure, high-stress jobs," says Stephen. "There is no mobile reception there, and we can go for walks, and I love fishing on the Boyne."

Stephen's love for the industry began when he started working part-time in an off-licence in his hometown of Castleknock. He was sent on a wine-training course and was bitten by the bug for learning

to appreciate wine. And tasting it too, he assures us.

He did further courses in Ireland and Paris, and worked for Bord Bia, marketing Irish brands to the French market. He went to work in the Gleeson Group after that, and also spent time with Aldi and Dunnes Stores, before setting up his own businesses.

Stephen has three off-licences, called Next Door, in Sundrive Road, Kimmage, Harold's Cross and Santry, and has three online businesses: thebeerclub.ie, simplygifts.ie and a wedding wines one, called corkage.ie. A fourth website, thewineclub.ie, will shortly be launched.

The idea for The Beer Club came about because Stephen noticed the demand for craft beers in his stores, and set about establishing a business providing them nationwide. He stocks more than 300 brands, which can be delivered anywhere in the country. Stephen also runs masterclasses in beer-tasting and appreciation at the Kimmage store, which are very popular.

"Life is hectic but we love it," he says. "Sally-Anne and I are both lucky enough to work in the drinks industry, which is a fantastic industry. We get to go on trips together sometimes, which is great.

"I think opposites attract, as we're both quite different. Sally-Anne is the eldest in her family, so she'd definitely be a lot more responsible and organised, while I'd be more chilled out and easygoing. What I like about her is the openness, and there is no agenda with her. She's one of the most genuine people I've ever met. Also, I had one business that didn't work out before, which was very difficult, and Sally-Anne was a fantastic support to me then."

As the oldest of five children, Sally-Anne grew up in a family steeped in the drinks manufacturing industry.

Her dad Pat is the managing director of Gleeson, which manufactures the likes of Tipperary Water, Finches and Cadet, while also being a beer wholesaler and wine importer. It acquired Gilbeys Wines in 2010, which makes life even busier, and while Sally-Anne's three brothers also work in the company, she is general manager of the company's wine division. She jokes that her sister Celestine escaped to work as a fashion stylist in London and New York.

Sally-Anne and Stephen are shortly to participate in Taste of Christmas, where he will exhibit his craft beers and hampers, which should prove very popular. Sally-Anne's business is also involved as they will have the Santa Rita wines stand, and again this year, they will be looking for people to nominate their local heroes (details are to be found on their Facebook page).

They say that while life is busy, and it will get even busier when the baby arrives at Christmas, the fact that they have so much in common means that they never run short of conversation.

"Stephen is very kind and great fun, and yes, he's definitely more chilled out than me," says Sally-Anne. "He's very good at enjoying life to the full, which is great as I try to do everything at 20 million miles per hour. He slows me down and makes sure that I'm enjoying life. He is full of ideas and, as my dad is an entrepreneur, I've always been attracted to people with an entrepreneurial spirit, who are brave enough to have an idea and go for it."

However, as Sally-Anne is so organised and Stephen is so laidback, it can be challenging when it comes to getting things done, she laments. Meanwhile, he says that as she does not like clutter, things get put into piles and are quickly dumped if they are not rescued speedily enough.

"I'm always telling our cat Smudge that he needs to keep moving or he'll be bundled out the door too," he concludes, with a laugh.

Taste of Christmas, the food, drink and shopping festival, returns to the Convention Centre, Dublin, from next Friday to Sunday. It will feature the first MasterChef Ireland Live Theatre Show, Dublin's best restaurants, interactive masterclasses, live entertainment and more than 100 exhibitors. Tickets are on sale from €15 at www.tasteofchristmas.ie. Prices exclude booking fees

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