Thursday 17 October 2019

Maeve Dineen: Teeling's simple recipe for business success a lesson to all

IT'S been a bad year for business and business deals, so it was impossible not to raise a cheer for John Teeling, who will sell Cooley Distillery to US drinks giant Beam for €71m.

While the sale of a really good family-owned company to a corporation is always tinged with sadness, this is how capitalism is meant to work.

People come up with feisty ideas, take on the establishment, slowly build up a world-beating company and then retire with a nice wad of cash.

It is worth reminding ourselves that the system can work because that script has been discredited lately as people took shortcuts, ignored exports, ploughed money into property, got caught out and retired with almost nothing.

Cooley Distillery is a very European company. The Continent is dotted with specialist companies that do one thing really well and then export that product to every corner of the globe. In Germany, the companies do precision engineering. In Italy, they do clothes and fabrics. In France, they do everything from champagne to aerospace.

In Ireland we can, and should, do food. The sale of Boyne Valley's four Irish brands last week for €41.4m was another reminder that food can be really lucrative if done right. One day, somebody might even look at Greencore.

Food and agriculture struggled to attract the interest of investors during the Celtic Tiger decade to 2007 as construction and banks drove GDP growth of up to 7pc per year.

What is interesting about Cooley is that founder John Teeling comes from north Dublin, does not drink whiskey and had no background in food and drink. He is a serial entrepreneur and an academic who spotted a gap in the market. In his words, Cooley takes a tonne of maize, turns it into 1,200 bottles of whiskey and then sells it for €6,000.

We need to encourage more people like Mr Teeling, who were not born into farming families, to get involved in food production.

Farmers are an essential part of the sector, but they often fail to see what consumers really want. Many get too wrapped up in the emotional side of owning the land and fail to run the farm as a profitable business.

Another person who made a serious fortune with food is another non-farmer, Senator Feargal Quinn. Men like Teeling and Quinn got into the sector because they followed the consumer rather than looking around them and trying to shape consumer tastes to whatever type of product they already happened to produce.

Great fortunes have been made and lost from cattle and grain, but many more fortunes have been made from more unusual products.

The Irish palate is coming along in leaps and bounds, but there is still some way to go before we catch up with other European countries.

European tastes are so diverse. When most of the western world sits down to Christmas dinner next weekend that variety will once again be there for all to see.

The Austrians and Germans will be eating fried carp, the Czechs will add on some potato salad while the Danes will be eating pork, goose or duck.

Up in Greenland, they will be tucking into seabirds wrapped in seal while Italians will be chewing on fried eel. I could go on and on, but you get the picture: we all eat differently.

Our agricultural output should reflect this. We are still far too insular when it comes to food.

Agri-business exports are expected to grow to €12bn by 2020 from €8bn last year, with two-thirds of the increase from food processing and one-third from commodities.

The Government is encouraging farmers to switch to higher value commodities, to invest to boost productivity and to look at high-value artisanal food products.

John Teeling is one of the many food entrepreneurs who has shown the way. We need many more to follow in his footsteps by creating specialist companies, exporting to new markets and making a fortune.

Irish Independent

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