Thursday 14 December 2017

Ireland's top whiskey magnate is looking for diamonds in the rough

John Teeling – an academic who made it big in business and at 68 still plays rugby – has a life-long passion for mining. He tells Donal Lynch why he has no intention of retiring to the good life

John Teeling illustration by Don Berkeley.
John Teeling illustration by Don Berkeley.
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

FOR a man who allegedly doesn't care for property or the vulgar trappings of wealth, John Teeling's boardroom has a bloody good view – his silver Jag gleaming in the foreground, Dublin Bay shimmering in the background.

Had you passed out and come to slumped on this table – as one imagines the buyers of Cooley Whiskey, who negotiated night and day for weeks in this very room, once did – you could still hazard a fair guess where you were.

On a side table sit enormous hunks of mineral studded rock – lead zinc from Tara mines and Fool's Gold. For a more simplex clue the cabinet that lines the far wall is well stocked with bottles of whiskey although their owner, when he bustles in, tuts over the relatively recent vintage.

In person he is ruddy cheeked, animated and looks like Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross. But whereas Lemmon's character was a frustrated beta male, Teeling is a shark, a winner, 24-carat alpha.

An academic who made it big in business he famously has had more companies listed on the London Stock exchange than any other Irish person. Tall and broad shouldered he still plays rugby. At 68 he's the youngest on the team – the second row are 70 and 74. All of which gives you some idea of what his answer might be when retirement is mentioned.

Quitting is not in his vocabulary and the €73m he made from the sale of Cooley never had a chance of being spent on a quiet life of luxury.

"I love what I do," he says. "And what I do is sell mystery, not history."

This oft-quoted aphorism refers to his changing priorities in the mining business, which was, contrary to popular belief, a bigger success than whiskey ever was for Teeling. But nothing comes easy in business.

For decades he tried to find riches in potentially mineral- rich countries with dodgy governments – Zimbabwe, Iran, Bolivia – none of them the ideal setting for a red-blooded capitalist like Teeling. And so now he has decided to "prioritise political risk over geological risk" by moving into the anomalously stable African state of Botswana where, along with a Russian partner, he hopes to find enough diamonds for every girl in China.

The trouble is that "nobody, not even me" knows what they will find beneath several miles of rock and diamonds are a tricky proposition, even in Botswana which has a decent track record.

To Teeling, who has already made all the money he needs, this uncertainty is "romantic" and "mysterious", however. He even goes down to the mine just to "bless" the whole operation.

He's told me that he sometimes swears to himself that he'll never make the same mistakes again only to find himself coming up with new mistakes to make. I wonder aloud if that piece of self-knowledge crossed his mind when he signed up to work with a company – Alrosa – which is 90 per cent state-owned by Russia and has a representative of Vladimir Putin on its board. What if someone presses the nuke button?

"Well, if there was an escalation (of the situation in Ukraine) there could be limitations placed on the transfer of money in and out of Russia", he tells me. "But we're transferring money to Botswana, not Russia. The people we're dealing with are consummate professionals. They're technical guys. They weren't allowed to go to conferences in the West for 30 years so they developed their own geochemical techniques. They adapted and refined these techniques to see through the tundra, which is 200 metres thick.

"I've met Putin's nominee on the board of Alrosa – I thought he was going to be a gobshite but he was actually a very impressive man."

So he trusts them entirely?

"People have asked me: if they find diamonds, will they tell you? But that has nothing to do with them being Russian; it's to do with big companies screwing little companies, which happens. But we'd still make a fortune out of it anyway."

Making fortunes has been a lifelong Teeling speciality. He was born with the entrepreneurial gene, he says, but it probably helped that his father, James, ran a (legal) money-lending business.

Teeling went to St Joseph's in Fairview and his family were "neither filthy rich nor dog poor", he tells me, but they were the first family on the road to get a car and the first to get a television – so they were certainly well off by the standards of the time. However, when he was 15 an event happened that would later make him wonder, "why was my childhood taken away?"

One Sunday his father, who had always been unwell – he had suffered from rheumatic fever – passed away in front of the family as they ate their tea. "It was a really tough time," he remembers. "But there was also a sense of 'well if you can handle this, you can handle anything'".

His mother Emma took over the business and over the years the kids – two brothers and a sister – divvied up responsibilities between them.

Teeling's mother placed a huge emphasis on education, however, and after his Leaving Cert he went to UCD – though more for the status and contacts than the actual education, he hastens to add.

"The professions were only opening up in the 1960s," he says, "and it was still very much school connections and church connections. Very good people went into the civil service and the semi-states because they couldn't get into stockbroking and banking at an executive level. Those were closed off to people with the wrong connections."

He completed his BComm, which was followed by a Masters in Economics in 1967. After that he went to Wharton, the prestigious business school in Pennsylvania, and then rushed his way through an MBA, which he finished in 1968. He already had a reputation as one of the finest minds of his generation and was headhunted to teach at UCD, where he earned £19 a week, a paltry sum by his standards, even then.

Soon after his return from this first stint in the US he was offered a job by accountant David Boyd Barrett – adoptive father of the politician Richard Boyd Barrett – at Tara Mines. He would go on to complete a doctorate in industrial development policy at Harvard, making a small fortune in shares while he was gone, but remained connected to Tara Mines. He returned to Ireland in 1973 and was never again to move from Boyd Barrett's old offices (today they are rented by Teeling's 162 Group) though he remained connected with UCD until 1988.

He met his wife Deirdre at a party. They were married in 1971 and they had three children: sons Stephen and Jack who work with him, and a daughter, Emma, who is a noted expert in bat genetics.

Throughout the 1970s Teeling made "good money" on the stock exchange and went through seven "awful" textile companies.

The background to his move into whiskey came from the sting of a lost opportunity. He had owned shares in Glen Abbey, a listed company, as a student but over the years the share price dramatically fell. He bought and sold stakes in the company several times and eventually got options on about 29 per cent of the shares.

"I was going to have to raise about £200m, which I think we could have done at the time," he tells me, "but I would have had to asset strip Irish distillers. I got a study done on it at Wharton – I couldn't have it done in Dublin because Dublin's a sieve – and they said 'you'll lose your ass'. They didn't see that you could break into an oligopoly.

"Jack Lynch – the former Taoiseach – was on the board and would have got me investigated if we'd fired 800 workers. The venture capitalists would have lost their nerve. But it was a big mistake because it was sold for £500m two years later. So when I saw Cooley was for sale I pounced."

That was in 1987. It would be 11 years before the business would turn a profit.

"It's a long haul", he says. "You see these companies like Twitter that are worth millions in six months – that's by far the exception. Most businesses go into a valley of death that lasts from year three to year eight. We were in that latter category."

Fast-forward another decade-and-a-half. Ireland is reeling from recession and companies are closing left and right. Cooley's sale price of $95m (€70m), negotiated long and hard by Teeling and his two sons made people sit up and take notice of the potential in the Irish whiskey market.

Teeling remains both involved in the industry – he is an 8 per cent shareholder in the Teeling Whiskey Company and has transformed Great Northern Brewery in Dundalk into a distilling success under the Irish Whiskey Company name – and an evangelist for the industry.

He can rattle off statistics about percentages in the Indian whiskey market and compares the romance of whiskey for young Americans as being equivalent to "their first kiss."

So how did he feel when Beam, the eventual buyer of Cooley, set about dismantling the company he once called "my firstborn" within eight weeks of acquiring it?

"I very rarely have regrets", Teeling says. "We got a fair price for it. We had old, loyal shareholders and I felt in my heart that I owed them something. We had to have our AGMs on the ground floor because many of the shareholders couldn't even get up the stairs. The sad part was that the money went to grandchildren – even the kids were too old to really enjoy it. So all of that was a big factor."

The sale, of course, made him more fabulously wealthy than ever – he is a stalwart of the rich list – but he says that money is not his driving force.

"Money is a counter," he says. "It's nice to make money and I can blow it. But money is not a particular motivator – it's the hunt, not the kill. It's the idea of taking a concept and going to the desert and making money out of it – that's satisfaction.

"Or taking a thesis at Harvard and translating that into seeing your bottles on sale all over the world. That's what I find exciting."

Part of the reason he never invested in property – although he owns fabulous adjoining homes on Seafield Road, Clontarf (he bought the one next door to prevent anyone else buying it and building on the land) – is that it would have been "too boring".

"Collecting rent and all that – can you imagine? Tedious."

Teeling has long been a critic of austerity and though he remains hopeful that recovery can continue he is sceptical.

"Things have improved. In the last 18 months you can see it – the amount of cars on the road, the amount of people eating out. But the people who are going be screwed are the middle class. The poor do all the shouting, the rich avoid the worst of it, and the middle class get screwed.

"They've bin taxes, water charges, they'll have bloody dog taxes next.

"It has been appallingly handled and there is more suffering to go."

Teeling's suffering is almost over, however. He has grandchildren to collect and an art exhibition opening to go to later that night in Dundalk. The spirit of spirits evangelism continues all the way to the front door, however.

On the way out of his offices he shows me the enormous brass drum of a poitin stil, which will, he assures me, soon contain actual poitin.

I'm wondering, from a marketing perspective, how we could keep the all-important romance for Americans – call it 'moonshine' perhaps? Either way, if whiskey is the first kiss then this has to be the leg over. Teeling laughs heartily.

"It's good stuff," he tells me, a broad smile playing over his face. "Don't knock it 'til you've tried it."

Sometimes you've got to carry cash in your underpants

The last meal I really enjoyed was ... "I'm afraid food is just fuel to me. I'm very happy with home cooking. My wife does a mean chilli con carne, so I'll say that."

My favourite websites are... "ADVFN – the share network. I would check that several times a day."

The best gift I've received recently was... "a new granddaughter. She's four months old and her name is Rebecca."

My favourite share is... "other than my own, you mean? Lucara – the company that took over African Diamonds from us. It's a Canadian listed company, and it has been good for me and a number of Irish investors."

The most unforgettable place I've ever travelled to is... "I drove across Lake Uyuni in the Bolivian Andes in 1988 in a Land Rover. It's a salt flat – a dried out lake. There were dormant vocanos rising up on the far side – it was spectacular."

My worst travel experience was... "the most difficult place to travel to, or to work in has to be Guinea or Sierra Leone in West Africa. Guinea in particular you have guys looking for money, even at the airport. My colleague had to carry cash in his underwear! We had a good reason to be there – diamonds of course!"

The books on my bedside table are... "almost exclusively thrillers, lot of different kinds – Ian Rankin Michael Connolly or John Connolly. Lee Child is another good one."

Sunday Indo Business

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