Business Irish

Saturday 18 November 2017

Whiskey a go go ... meet the man opening Dublin's first distillery in over a century

As the finishing touches are put to Dublin's first new whiskey distillery in 125 years, its co-founder Jack Teeling tells Paul O'Donoghue why he chose to follow in his father's footsteps

Teeling Whiskey Company announces plans for new Dublin whiskey distillery
Teeling Whiskey Company announces plans for new Dublin whiskey distillery
Teeling boss Jack Teeling, above, with brother Stephen, the company’s managing and sales director

The first thing that Jack Teeling's father did when his son presented him with his new marketing thesis was to toss it on the floor. The thesis was the end result of a two year course in international marketing that Jack had taken with a view to increasing his education and contributing to the family business, Cooley Distillery, that had been founded by his father, John, in 1987.

"[During the course] we came up with a strategy for moving Cooley forward and building on what was a good quality product and production line, but we had to build brands and a route to market. I remember I gave my thesis to my dad and the directors when I finished.

"My dad looked at it, said 'Oh, that's great', and threw it in the corner." Jack gives a wry smile. "It wasn't until I became managing director that I got a chance to translate some of that vision that I had come up with."

Distilling has been in the Teeling line for centuries, dating back to 1782 when a Walter Teeling ran an Irish whiskey distillery in Dublin. Jack's father John, a serial entrepreneur who has founded a string of resources firms, followed in his ancestor's footsteps when he converted an old potato factory in Co Louth into the Cooley Distillery almost 30 years ago.

Jack is now to follow in his father's footsteps as he prepares to formally open the first new whiskey distillery in the capital for 125 years next week.

Founded with his brother Stephen, the venture has required more than three years, €10m and a significant investment of energy to get within sight of the finish line. However, when he finished college going into the family business was one of the last things on Jack's agenda.

He had initially been very reluctant to work with his father and instead decided to go into banking after completing a business course in UCD, taking up a position in Anglo Irish Bank.

"It was a great place to work at the time, they were very good for young people in the company, it was great learning for me but I knew I didn't really have a future in banking. At that stage it hadn't gone crazy," he notes.

After working in Australia and getting some travelling out of his system, Jack says that his father then asked him to come and work for him in 2001. Despite being reluctant, Jack says that he saw how he could "add value" to the company.

"I had always said I would never work for my dad because the two of us are kind of similar. It's father-son dynamics. He's a strong personality, I would consider myself a strong personality as well and you would expect that dynamic of family life to transfer [into work] but in fairness to my dad he gave me room to do my own thing and the family dynamic didn't come into it."

Despite his initial misgivings Jack worked his way up the company ladder and became head of sales and marketing in 2006, although he admits that being the son of the boss was a factor that was impossible to ignore.

"[My father] probably trusted me more than other people so I probably did get more responsibility sooner compared to what I would have if I had been in a different company," he concedes. "[But] I saw the opportunity and I saw how I could add value to the company."

Jack became managing director of Cooley in 2010 while his father served as executive chairman. He says that his father gave him the freedom to run the business as he wanted, and he began making changes to the structure of the firm, including hiring more managers and altering the production line.

However, he added that he always viewed Cooley very much as his father's company, even when he finally took up the position of managing director. "He set up the company, it was his company in my eyes. He put in all the sweat, blood and tears and got it through tough years in the '90s. I would have ideas and he would, but at the end of the day it was his company."

Before he had much time to make his mark on Cooley several larger corporations began sniffing around the distillery, looking for a buyout.

Jack notes that having several multinational companies knocking on his door distracted from the day to day running of the business, although he adds that he attempted to insulate the rest of the distillery from what was happening at board level.

"We were trying to continue to grow just in case things didn't happen," he said. However the firm did receive a concrete offer from US spirits manufacturer Beam just over three years ago. After Cooley was sold for €71m, Jack was charged with helping the business transition through the buyout.

This included parting ways with many of the distillery's previous distributors and customers as Beam was eager to shed those who did not have permanent contracts. "It wasn't nice, but I had to do it to enable me to get out the other side," he says grimly.

Although he stayed on for several months after the sale, Jack says that he felt no desire to permanently work in Beam. "I was going to be a tiny cog in a massive machine and I didn't want to do that, I wanted to do my own thing and be my own boss," he said.

While he was unsure of what exactly he would do, in his own words, all Jack knew was the whiskey business. "It was what I had invested my time and energy into so it made sense to me to try and make something of it."

As an equity shareholder in Cooley Jack picked up about €3m from the sale of the company and, seeing a gap in the market for a strong, medium-sized, Irish-owned independent whiskey player, decided to establish an operation in Dublin alongside his brother Stephen. The pair identified a suitable site in Dublin's Liberties area and got to work.

Finance was secured through a mixture of Jack and Stephen's own money, banks loans and equity from a number of private backers, including their father, mother and sister.

A more challenging task was re-establishing links with many of the distributors who Jack had so recently had a hand in letting go. "What I did for the first year was I went and sat down with them and said: 'Look, this wasn't my decision' and most people were understanding because we wouldn't have been the first company to have been bought out by a bigger firm."

He admits that "there was a bit of cynicism", but he added that he hoped that putting his family name on the new venture proved that he was not building it up to flip it at a later date. "Also, a lot of them did push for contracts this time, which made sense, and which we were happy to do" he adds somewhat sheepishly. "There were one or two markets where they said no, but it allowed us time to go out and upgrade who we worked with and mend bridges. We told them that we were in this for the long haul."

With distributors and a site secured the brothers have worked steadily over the past three years to make the distillery and visitors centre a reality. However getting through all the rules and regulations around building a new distillery proved to be one of Jack's toughest jobs as he had to wade through a sea of red tape.

"It was frustrating. I'm not a property developer and to have to deal with the complexities of going into an urban location and trying to revive it, and dealing with all the stakeholders from Dublin City Council, the traffic, the noise... it was a lot more complicated than I thought," he says. He adds that it opened his eyes to the need for consultants, while noting that he was amazed at how many people were required to get the project off the ground. "At one stage I came into our meeting room and there were 12 people around the desk and I just thought 'I can't believe I'm paying all of your wages.'"

Planning permission was eventually approved and the distillery is now less than a week away from opening. Now so close to the finish line, Jack says that while the process has not been a straight line, from inception to completion, he is glad that his name is on the bottle and that his family is still able to share in his dream.

"They wanted to stay involved in the industry, because it's a family and the name is on it, they want to be a part of it," he says. He adds that while there are potential downsides to working with family, the flesh and blood connection is one that he views as being invaluable in business.

"There is something that you can't get from hiring other people and that is a huge amount of trust. [You know] that you're all on the same page and pushing the same way and there are no other agendas there apart from trying to better the company. You set higher standards because they expect more from you."

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