Bcomm '97, MBS '98
Combining his experience and learnings from the family business, Cooley Distillery, and borrowing from a US trend for urban craft beer and premium spirits manufacturing, Jack Teeling opened Teeling Whiskey Company, Dublin’s first distillery in 125 years back in 2012. Five years later and the focus is on developing into a proper brand.
About Jack Teeling
Tell us a bit about your education and career to date
I started my third level education with a BComm in UCD, specialising in management in the last year because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Then I decided I wanted to get into finance and did the MBS in finance out in Smurfit. After that I spent a couple of years in the investment banking world here in Dublin, before going off to Australia, where I worked in financial services.
When I came back to Ireland, I must have been in a very good place because after saying I’d never work with my father in Cooley Distillery, I joined the business in 2002.
A couple of companies were looking to buy us at the time and I came in with a view to helping out with any potential transaction.
I soon found myself more involved and saw the opportunity to bring different insight and value, particularly on the sales and marketing side of things. Around that time, I got on Enterprise Ireland’s very first executive education course, which was done in partnership with IMD and Trinity. That gave me an MBS in international business.
Within Cooley, I worked my way up from being jack of all trades to commercial manager, to sales and marketing director in 2007 and managing director in 2010. And I was there when it was sold to Beam Inc at the beginning of 2012. Four months later, I left and set up Teeling Whiskey Company.
What is the background to setting up the company?
I wanted to take all the learnings from my 10 or so years with Cooley Distillery and apply them to a new venture. As part of my role in Cooley I travelled around the world promoting our different brands. I spent a lot of time in the US and at the time there was an explosion of craft premium spirits there and also a trend towards urban manufacturing for beer and spirits. People were going back into parts of the cities that were traditionally industrial and reviving practices and developing a close connection with the demographic they were trying to sell to.
There’s nowhere in the world with more provenance and heritage around whiskey distillation than Dublin. Unfortunately, the last distillery in Dublin shut its doors in 1976 and ever since then all the history and stories around distillation in the city has slowly been slipping away.
That planted a seed in my head. I thought if I was ever building a new distillery, it would be back in the city centre where all the famous old distilleries used to be, but done in a more modern way and relevant to a younger demographic that’s interested in premium spirits but wants something it can connect to.
That was around 2010 and we had a lot on our plate in Cooley. I was in a leadership position there so it wasn’t going to happen unless there was a major change.
When it was decided the company was to be sold I wouldn’t say I was happy – our business was growing very fast, I’d only recently taken over the reins and had a relatively small equity position so it wasn’t going to be a massive game changer for me personally – but it did give me the opportunity to do what I thought was right in the category without having the legacy business or having to answer to anyone else.
There was a bit of mourning after the sale but a few months later I was freed up to go and set up the new company. It was perfect timing: I had the idea, I was the right age for it and I had the resources so it was an easy decision for me.
Where is the company at now?
We are five years into our journey and have luckily achieved some significant milestones. We opened the doors of our new distillery in June 2015 and over the last two years we have welcomed over 185,000 visitors through our doors, produced over 1 million litres of whiskey, won over 100 international awards for quality of our whiskeys, employ over 85 staff and are now exported to over 50 countries.
In saying that there is still a lot of heavy lifting to do and we are re-calibrating ourselves to build on this very solid foundation and build hopefully a true global brand driving the premiumisation and segmentation of the Irish whiskey category over the next five years.
What motivates you?
I’m a very competitive person, be it educationally, in sports or business. I put a lot of pressure on myself in terms of what I deem success to be. If I ever set myself targets I don’t necessarily feel I’ve done my job if I achieve them. I’m always looking forward to the next opportunity and challenge, which has its downside in that I’m not great at celebrating success.
My intrinsic motivation is to continue to prove myself. I went to St Paul’s in Raheny and we were always the underdogs playing rugby and educationally. Going to UCD I was probably the only one from my whole school there. But I flourish in environments where I have to continually prove myself and it’s a key driver.
What is your leadership style?
I’m quite decisive. I can be demanding but I’m also inclusive. I’m definitely not authoritarian. I believe in building a team and empowering the team to get on and do it because I understand you’re limited in what you can actually do yourself. I try to foster an entrepreneurial culture and encourage people to make decisions with the best information they have to hand. I don’t have a textbook style – it is who I am as a person and I try to stimulate that kind of culture throughout the organisation.
Who or what has inspired or influenced you?
I suppose the person I’ve worked closely with and been influenced by throughout my life is my father [John Teeling, entrepreneur and former lecturer in business and finance at UCD]. I probably learnt more than I even would give him credit for simply because it probably happened by osmosis. Working at Cooley probably gave me the skillsets I needed to set up my own company. And I think my passion for the industry has come about because of the opportunity he gave me.
What’s been your biggest achievement to date?
Definitely it would be building and opening our new distillery here in Dublin, particularly in the location we are in. We were very lucky in 2012 that the commercial property market was on its knees and I could afford to find a site that was suitable to do what we’re doing. The challenge of seeing through all the potential pitfalls – such as lack of interest in bringing manufacturing into the city centre and getting around the hurdles of planning – was a lot more difficult than I envisioned. And we paved the way for others to do it because we were the very first distillery in Dublin city to go through a planning process. Another challenge was getting the funding because it was self finance.
So, that’s my short-term achievement. The next biggest achievement will hopefully be getting our whiskey up to a certain number of case sales – 100,000 – where it will be classed as an actual brand rather than a product trying to be a brand. That’s what we’re battling our way through now. The next five years for us is probably going to be the biggest challenge.
Any failures you’d like to share?
I wouldn’t say failures. We always make mistakes. If you’re not making mistakes you’re not really doing much. But there have been no extreme failures that come to mind as of yet.
What are your tips and advice for success?
This is something that was drummed into me at the early stages – as a manager or a leader of a business you have to be able to make decisions and to make them with whatever information you have to hand. People come to you in that leadership position to make decisions. Also, I’m a big believer in action in the early days of business, so not it’s important not to over-think business plans. Business plans are essential to help frame where you’re going, but it will never happen like that.
I do believe you have to move. You can’t just wait because the opportunity will disappear or someone else will take it.
Also, never underestimate the power or intrinsic value to a company of building a brand. Branding is something that in Irish manufacturing is not as exploited as well as it should be.
Any plans for the future you want to share?
This industry is like a marathon rather than a sprint. You’ve got to do the right things over and over and over again. It’s not like a tech company where you crack some piece of code or develop an app and suddenly you’re everywhere. This is a very slow, mature industry and you have to build the foundations right from the start and then you have to lay down a lot of new inventory that will take a minimum of three years before being mature enough to sell. So there’s a large requirement for working capital and building warehouses.
We’ve built our distillery. Our plan now is to build out our sales and marketing team and our routes to market. Also, at the back end we have to continue to expand our production and also build lots of warehouses to house that. So it’s a never ending spiral of challenges and projects but at the core of it to make it a success it’s having a whiskey that people want to drink, and having that brand that will hopefully insulate us from new competition coming down the way.
Tell us about your interests outside work
I have a young family – three-, five- and seven-year-old daughters – who take up a lot of spare time and focus, which is great.
Traditionally, my other big interest was rugby. I played all my life until last year when I turned 40 and decided to take up a different challenge and to do running and marathon running. For the last year I’ve put all my energy into running. I have my first marathon under my belt and am planning to try to beat my time at the end of October. I do miss the team aspect and the camaraderie but this fits around my stage of life with work and the family.
How has your degree benefited your career?
My UCD education provided me with a perfect springboard in terms of network and qualifications that have stood with me to this day.
What is your fondest memory from your time in UCD Smurfit/Quinn School?
A Galway trip with my whole MBS class during my Smurfit School days.
What piece of technology can you not live without?
Definitely my IPhone, unfortunately.
What would you bring with you to a desert island?
Bottle of Teeling single malt with a chest of books.
What are your pet hates?
Dublin traffic and tardiness.
Who’s your favourite writer and/or what’s your favourite book?
Crime novels for escapism.
And what is your favourite band or musician?
I am stuck in the 90s and my favourite band is The Pixies.
What’s the last gig you went to that you loved?
Cranberries acoustic gig in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre for my wife's birthday (she is a huge fan).
What is your favourite dish to cook?
Tuna sandwich or tuna salad!
What teams do you support?
Ireland, Leinster and Clontarf rugby teams.
What is your favourite place in the world to visit and why?
New York for the pace and variety of experiences.
What charities or causes are closest to your heart?
Local charities in Dublin’s Liberties.