Irish Whiskey, Entrepreneurship and Empowerment: Spectra Meets Louise McGuane, Founder of Chapel Gate Irish Whiskey Co.
Louise MGuane and I talk about her successful corporate career, why she decided to become an entrepreneur, and why exposure is so important when figuring out what you want to do.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
*This interview was originally published in September 2016*
ASTA: Let’s start with your career journey. How did it start? What’s your story?
LOUISE: I’ve had a good almost 20 years career in the global drink industry. After university I managed to get an internship in the US, working for a dot-com where I did communication work for about a year. That kind of translated into hard-core PR and I was snapped up by a PR agency that specialised in the digital space.
I made the transition over to the drinks industry around the time when the dot-com bubble burst back in the 90s. I worked for LVMH, the big luxury group conglomerate, in their drinks sector, doing international marketing communications for a champagne brand that they had. They then transferred me from New York to Paris to join the global marketing team of another champagne brand. After a few years I moved back to the US for a while, then worked on the relaunch of a global vodka brand for Pernod Ricard. I relaunched that brand globally to 50+ countries.
My corporate career ended at the multinational company DIAGEO across their luxury drinks portfolio. I managed one of their biggest marketing drive programs globally for 5 to 6 years. I was in Singapore most of the time but I was in London some of the time.
I left that job about 2 years ago because I got married. My husband was living in London and couldn’t follow me around.
I had also become quite jaded with the corporate life – you know it really takes it out of you. It’s very politically minded and it becomes less about what you do and more about who know within the organisation. I needed to make a decision – whether I was going to stay on that track or use the skillset that I have in the global drinks industry, and do something for myself.I decided on the latter, came back to Ireland and started an Irish Whiskey Company. Irish Whiskey is really booming at the moment so I figured it was a good time to start and I had the resources – some property in Ireland and good access to capital. So that’s where I am at the moment. We started about a year ago and we’re looking to launch our first product January/February of 2017.
ASTA: If you had to describe your brand in 3 words, which would they be and why?
LOUISE: The brand is called JJ Corry. The three words are Provenance, Heritage and Modernity.
Provenance because we are squarely rooted in a real place. It’s not a made up place. The provenance is my family farm on the West coast of Ireland, which is right along the wild atlantic way. It’s a beautiful place and got the microclimate and it’s perfect for aging whiskey.
Heritage. Our heritage is real. I went out and I found an old whiskey brand from the 1890s that was run by a guy called JJ Corry who was my father’s great second cousin 5 or 6 times removed. He was a real guy, he made his whiskey exactly how we’re going to make our whiskey. He blended it and aged it on his family farm and sold it in his little pub. I’m bringing that brand back to life. We’re going to take the original packaging that he used and give it a bit of a modern twist.
The Modernity element. Yes, I’m making an Irish Whiskey but the Whiskey market has really evolved. People who are drinking Whiskey are younger, they are really into authenticity and they’re adventurous in what they drink.
So the modern element to our brand story is that we’re taking inspiration from JJ Carry and we’re using really new and innovative aging techniques with the whiskey. For example, instead of charring the inside of a barrel with fire, we’re going to use infrared light.
I’ve built a really advanced whiskey aging facility on the family farm that is unlike anything on the whole Island of Ireland. It has a number of unique features that will keep humidity high and encourage extraction of flavour from the barrels, and we’re also working on a line of much much younger non-traditional whiskeys underneath the JJ Corry label that haven’t been tried before. That’s our modern element.
We’re appealing to the up and coming whiskey consumer who is demanding these kinds of things.
ASTA: Where do you see your business going?
LOUISE: I left a global brand to create a global brand. Irish Whisky is huge, particularly in the United States. It’s Growing in South Africa, it’s big in France and it’s growing in Russia. My goal is to launch a small portion of Irish whiskies initially into the US and then build that brand until I have a 250K brand – and I want to do this within a year. It’s a hard and fast commercial goal.
ASTA: How many people are you working with at the moment?
LOUISE: At the moment I’m the only full time person on the job. I have a number of exterior consultants that I work with.
I have just completed an Angel round. We had a Crowd funding round in November to test the concept. Then I raised a round of Angel investment to get us going in terms of procuring products, beginning branding and etc. And now I’m closing out on a seed round of funding and as soon as that is closed, I’m looking to hire some people in sales and marketing.
When we launch in January/February in the US, I’m looking to deploy at least 2 brand ambassadors. Right now it’s just me, but we’re looking to scale up quite quickly.
ASTA: I’ve been hearing this a lot lately: if you can do it yourself, you should – you don’t need to add people to the team unless you have to.
LOUISE: I’ll be honest with you: I’m feeling it now. When I started I did everything. I learnt how to make a website.I did all of the social media – I opened up an Instagram, planned tweets and Facebook posts. I did the Kickstarter campaign, I took care of fundraising.
That’s the thing about entrepreneurship – you find out that you can do a lot of things, whereas in the corporate world you’re boxed in.
But the next round of investment will be hard because of the team. You need to know when to take someone on board.
ASTA: Do you need a cofounder?
LOUISE: Not a cofounder per se, but someone at my level with specific commercial skills. I already have some dilution in the business because some investment are seed investments. I will either pay for someone else or bring them in with some equity incentive.
ASTA: I hope to have a career that’s just as international as yours. Did you have a plan or did it just happen?
LOUISE: I grew up in a tiny village in rural Ireland. I went to university in the UK and as soon as I had the opportunity for international travel I had to go. The ironic thing is that after all these years I’ve gone back.
I think at the beginning [of my career] it just sort of happened because I had no exposure to anything really – from the tiny rural place that I was from there weren’t a lot of role models for me actually coming up. All I had was ambition and drive and I enjoyed working.
The more I got exposed to things, the more I saw the opportunities that were out there – I sort of planned pretty quickly and kept track of what my end goal was. I always had a 5 years plan but I was also aware that a 5 year plan can change and I would review it every couple of years to see how I was doing. But I had a direction and the direction was thought.
As long as you have a concept of where you want to be, then the details will work themselves out because you know where you’re headed. You can’t plan the details.
ASTA: How would you compare the challenges in your corporate career to the ones you face as an entrepreneur?
LOUISE: The corporate world is like Game of Thrones. 40% is about how good you are. And the other 60% is about your connections. Very often, that didn’t translate well for me. I was very head down. I was very produce, produce, produce. I should have realised that it’s not what you do, but rather it’s how you do things.
I’ve realised that the skills I have are much more suited to being an entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur I have had to unlearn a lot. Corporates have time. I now have to go on my guts – act 40 times faster than a multinational.
ASTA: The conventional advice given to women is to make sure you learn how to play the rules of the corporate game. Do you think that advice holds? Or is the main challenge for women not to learn how to play the game but to be in a leading position to change the game?
LOUISE: You can’t change the game. You have to be good and you have to produce. Women are very results driven in the corporate world. But there is a balance. In order to get into boardroom positions, you need to find yourself a mentor. You will survive on merit, you will get a really good country management job. But to get to the upper echelons – the board level, you’re going to need a crew, a squad to get you there.
But it’s not solely political. It means that you can consult people for advice. People will be able to help you along the way.
ASTA: Do you think that’s going to change (the whole who you know game) with startups as they become organisations?
LOUISE: When a company reaches a certain scale, they keep their spirit and their ethos. But they’re going to have to have an HR department. Companies have to become like big machines. The difference between start-ups and the old companies I worked for is the company culture and ethos e.g. Google, Uber.
Those older companies – the way that they function is so slow. One of the companies I used to work for – they can’t really adapt their internal culture. But they’ve set up an internal business unit that goes around and invests in small start ups in San Fran. So they can learn from those brands and in the future they could acquire them.
ASTA: Are entrepreneurs made or are they born?
LOUISE: I had this conversation with somebody yesterday. I think entrepreneurs are definitely made. I know people who spring out of the womb and have all of these businesses.
Where I come from, no one knew what an entrepreneur was but I was still one myself.
So some are made, some are born.
ASTA: See It, Be It. What inspired it? Where do you see it going?
LOUISE: The thinking behind it was inspired by Sheryl Sandberg: If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. You can’t aspire to be anything unless you have exposure to it.
I came back to Ireland – the rural part after many years – , but there isn’t much change. There is a booming tech scene in Ireland but it’s focused in Dublin. I did a talk in my school. They had just as much potential as any kid in any school but they wouldn’t have had exposure.
We get a few young women. I am very interested in giving young women the potential for change. I am currently working with two young women. We’re giving them a 5 day immersion in working life in London. They spent yesterday speaking to entrepreneurs.They spent today at a PR Agency. Tomorrow we’re going to look at the fashion world. Then we’ll go to an ad agency. Thursday it’s time for a luxury goods company. And finally a retail trend project. It’s pretty intense. The goal is to get [these young women] in front of as many experts and as many inspiring women as possible and to expose them to career paths they wouldn’t have even been aware of.
ASTA: I wish there were more programmes like this! They would really make a difference for people who live in places where there is little exposure.
LOUISE: As I said earlier, I lucked into what I did. I hadn’t planned. That’s something that I’d like to pass on. I can only do my little part. I want it [See it, Be it] to be a very long-standing programme. So the girls from this year will be able to give a heads up to the people ten years down the line. The idea is to create a network of young women.
We can’t do everything for everybody but if we can make a difference for a few girls then I will be happy.
ASTA: [Do you see it going national?] Nationally?
LOUISE: Second day of the first programme haha. But if this was emulated across the country it would be fantastic. We might make a charitable organisation out of it. I’ve seen the girls blossom while they’re here. Every time they talk to someone new, they want to work there.
ASTA: I can really see it being emulated elsewhere. The same problem exists everywhere.
Do you have any advice for anyone starting out?
LOUISE: Grades are important but they are not the be all end all. Try to find something that you enjoy doing. Find two hobbies that you love: the first creative and makes you happy, the second that also makes you money. If you can combine those two, even better.
Pursue something that you want to do and that makes you happy, rather than doing what you believe society, your friends or family want you to do.
People’s careers develop and change and evolve over time. What you’re choosing to do today in ten years time could be very different. As long as you have drive and ambition to do anything you will succeed.
ASTA: OK so finally, what are three words that you live by?
LOUISE: Aspiration is one. Aspiring for something is really important. You need to aspire to be something. To get yourself going in that direction.As an entrepreneur I struggle every day with thinking whether or not I’m capable of being an entrepreneur. But you have to realise that yesterday may suck and today sucks but tomorrow will be a good day. Aspiration is important.
Determination. As an entrepreneur I need to get things done.
Empowerment. Being an entrepreneur – being a female entrepreneur in a man’s world can be hard. You need to be able to walk into a room, even if the room is full of 10 male investors, you need to have confidence that you know more about your industry and your company than anyone in the room.