A blend of business and academia

John Teeling – Teeling Whiskey

ALMOST uniquely amongst successful Irish business figures John Teeling spans the worlds of education and industry. He spent some 30 years in education as both a student and teacher, and 40 years in business, with a lot of overlap.

While the mythical figure of the self-made man who left school at 15 and then conquered the world has won hearts, John Teeling believes that a good education is plays a big part in entrepreneurial success.
Indeed, he says that a lot of the business failure associated with the property collapse in Ireland is associated with the people in charge not having the academic background to see where they were going.

“Many of the property developers came from a craft background, which is fine, but they didn’t have the expertise to analyse their own business models and markets.

And also, they hadn’t the breadth of knowledge to see that boom and bust has happened time and again.”


Famously associated with Cooley Distillery and now generally with the whiskey business through Teeling Whiskey, even his entry to that market came through his academic work. He wrote a thesis on investment in Irish industry and as part of that examined the decline of the Irish whiskey industry over the past three centuries. He learned that Irish whiskey had 60 per cent of the market in earlier times (Queen Elizabeth I was a fan, he says) and that it was supplanted by Scotch until sales of Irish whiskey had dwindled to some 2 per cent of Scotch sales.

But Irish whiskey had retained its reputation as a smoother, some would say higher quality product and it was this that John saw as an opportunity.

“Irish whiskey is a totally Irish product,” he says. “Irish malt, Irish water, Irish air, Irish time. That’s it. I can take €400 of Irish barley and sell it as whiskey in Germany for €6,000. That’s fantastic added value for Ireland.”

His work with Cooley included the intro-duction and promotion of Irish whiskey brands such as Kilbeggan, Greenore, Connemara and The Tyrconnell whiskeys. The distillery was sold to the American giant Jim Beam in 2011 for a reputed €70m.

John says that it was fortunate that the deal to sell Cooley didn’t include a non-compete clause because his, and his family’s, next project was to set up Teeling Whiskey. His two sons Stephen and Jack Teeling are in charge of the concept which will include a visitor centre, shop and cafe, and promotes their product as a Dublin whiskey.

The new Teeling Whiskey Distillery will open its doors to the public in May 2015. It will be the first new distillery in Dublin in over 125 years. Included will be a local artist exhibition space, a tour of the distillery and whiskey tasting.

The new company will be part of the resurgence of Irish whiskey. Sales of ‘Irish’ worldwide are increasing by around 10 per cent per year. According to Board Bia global consumption of Irish whiskey increased by to the whole whiskey global growth of 2.8 per cent.

So the potential is enormous, as John Teeling had noted. Even now Irish whiskey is only 2 per cent of global whiskey sales compared to 26 per cent for Scotch.


Dr Teeling originally made some money in the stock markets in the 70s and this pursuit had an academic side too, as he employed the Benjamin Graham Method of investing which he learned about during his studies. This method, in short, centres around finding stocks that are undervalued in the market and can be bought cheaply thus minimizing potential losses.

From there he turned to natural resources and the companies that he has been involved with have searched for natural resources, oil, diamonds and gold around the world. He laughs as says he doesn’t know if all the work in natural resources produced any money and he defines it as a high-risk business, with high gains and high losses.


John Teeling has never lost touch with his roots in education and visits universities and college to give talks and advice to students. He describes Ireland’s primary and secondary education systems as ‘superb’ and commends the curriculum for being broad in keeping with his belief in a comprehensive education in the widest sense of the word. Asked about problems with rote learning and points chasing, he says that he believes that the basics, the three Rs, really should be well ingrained so that they can be summoned when needed.

His view on Ireland’s third level is similar and, if anything, he criticizes a tendency for specialisation. He thinks Irish graduates compare with any in the world and that Ireland’s education system is one of its natural advantages.

He gives a somewhat unusual take on the vexed topic of student and university funding. He favours student loans (not debilitating loans, he cautions) but enough to make students appreciate the system, enough to fund the colleges and universities, and enough to ensure that Ireland gets its money back rather than giving free education to students who might take their skills abroad and never return.

He notes, with a chuckle, that he funded his own education mainly by winning scholarships and that he might be open to accusations of being hard on today’s students.

He also thinks that Ireland has much to offer international students and that we should be making more of our attractions in this area.


On the broader economic view he’s enthusiastic for Ireland to embrace the opportunities for which we have a natural advantage and to take the country up the value chain. Food is always going to be a huge industry for Ireland and with product and market innovation the opportunities are endless he believes.
Tourism, particularly cultural tourism, is another home-grown industry that can reap dividends for Ireland.

Despite his own interest in fossil fuels, he believes that renewable energy is a big opportunity here especially ocean based tidal, wave and wind.

Asked about global warming he says: “I’ve read quite a bit about global warming and I’m not sure about the impact it’s going to have. I think that much of the problem will be solved by technology.” John cites the example of London where In 1894, the Times of London estimated that by 1950 every street in the city would be buried nine feet deep in horse manure. Of course, technology intervened to ensure that this didn’t happen.


Asked about the modern belief that success is built on failure, he’s somewhat sceptical.
“I think there’s been a bit of an overkill on the idea that failure is good. You should always set out with the aim of success. For sure, you learn from your mistakes but I think that some of the commentary from Silicon Valley about the value of failure is overblown.”

And success for John Teeling is what he thinks entrepreneurs aim for, personal and business success and that entrepreneurs are a special breed of people who win through perseverance.