Talking Trade

Boann for it

As the Cooney family set about getting their Boann Distillery, Craft Brewery and Visitor Centre up-and-running in Drogheda, Pat Nolan speaks to Pat Cooney about his 40 years’ experience in the wholesale distribution business, a business he left behind when he sold The Gleeson Group to C&C three years ago.

Ever the salesman, Pat Cooney, Managing Director of the forthcoming Boann Distillery, Craft Brewery and Visitor Centre, reminds me, “Don’t forget to mention the Cask Offer” as we part company after showing me round the impressive €20 million Boann plant, attractively housed in a wooden-framed 50,000 square feet former car showroom just outside Drogheda.

Boann begins production next Spring.

Said Cask Offer provides investors in Boann Distillery’s Cask Society the chance to own one of the first 500 casks to be produced which are currently on offer for between €5,800 and €6,250 and which can be personalised through choosing Irish pot still or malt whiskey and then selecting the wood in which to store it: Bourbon, Sherry or Port casks. This runs into the fairly ‘unique’ spectrum.


Unique Selling Point

And when Boann Distillery’s whiskey matures, the company will already have an established distribution network already in place in over 40 global markets – a key part of Boann’s ‘Unique Selling Point’ – thanks to the Cooney family’s international distribution networks for their Merry’s Irish Cream Liqueur, so this runs into the fairly unique spectrum too, “… and we’re growing that distribution base as quickly as we can,” says Pat.

We’re sitting in his new office, chatting about his wholesaling days as we lord it over the vastness of the distillation room, looking out over what will soon be filled with whiskey stills. A cup of tea fills our hands. It’s too early for whiskey. About four years too early.


Four pillars

“When we sold Gleesons we decided that we had to have an international focus,” he explains of the move into production from wholesaling, “Irish cream liqueurs, ciders, craft beers, white spirits and whiskey have that strong focus on export markets.

“Bord Bia had conducted research that identified the Irish drinks industry as one with significant growth potential for the future in these areas so we wanted to tick all the boxes and put them into our Merry’s distribution setup to our international distributors.

“Now, we now have something to offer in each of the four pillars of the drinks industry.”

Thus he achieves a form of synergy in being able to internationally market these four pillars – craft beer and cider, whiskey, white spirits and Irish cream liqueurs – rather than just the one, thanks to his work in the Gleeson Group over four decades.


Gleesons – a beginning

It all began in 1974 as a very small company employing 12 and with a turnover of just £200,000. By 2012 it had become a company employing 750 with a turnover of €300 million through six factories and 12 depots around the country.

A qualified accountant, Pat studied Ecomonics in London, working in investigatory accountancy in the mergers and acquisitions field before returning home to work as a management consultant.

He wasn’t happy working for others so, at 27 years-of-age, he and his late brother Nicky bought M&J Gleeson, a little company in Borrisoleigh, Co Tipp, growing it from there with the help of a bottling contract from Guinness.

“I’d been in Borrisoleigh for about three weeks when the local Guinness Agent called in,” he says, “He welcomed me to the trade and wished me the best of luck but felt it incumbent to point out that it was important I should know that there were 105 wholesalers in Ireland and Gleesons was the 105th! So we’d only one way to go!


Distribution history

“Every town back then had its own wholesaler – sometimes two or three!” he remembers, “Back then most pubs used to buy a half-cask of stout or ale. That’s how the wholesaler came into being in the 50s and 60s as pubs used buy Guinness from them. The pubs would bottle it themselves using a four-tube siphon in a shed out the back before conditioning it in the kitchen for a few weeks. Pubs bottled their own whiskey back then too.

“But as hygiene standards for beer rose, pubs could no longer meet them and so bottling was taken back in-house by Guinness.

“However it was still undertaken by 100 or so wholesalers in the late 50s and 60s but this was eventually taken back from them by the late 70s, mostly due to rising hygiene standards, the rationalisation of the brewing industry itself and Guinness’s need to give some of their own employees alternative employment in Dublin.”

Gleesons itself went on to become the biggest consolidator of the wholesale trade, he says.

“There were 27 companies in the Gleeson Group. We were the country’s largest wine importer and the country’s only polymer converter. There were lots of trials and tribulations in the process of getting to that, so over the years my skin has been considerably thickened for the challenges ahead – of which I think there will be quite a few.”


Wholesale lessons

Indeed his time in wholesale distribution taught Pat a number of lessons.

* Wholesaling is based in the domestic economy and so the market will always be very limited

* The domestic scene is changing rapidly. “When I began in business we supplied the multiples,” he says, “It’s now done directly by the brand-owners themselves.”

* Most bottlers manufactured their own soft drinks but rationalisation and the capital investment required became so important that the increasing demand to label the product and market it meant that this was concentrated into a very few manufacturers until there were only three remaining from the 100 or so soft drinks manufacturers around the country: Britvic, Coca-Cola and Gleesons

* Distribution is expensive and without economies of scale there comes a time where it’s not practical. The advent of central warehousing by the multiples has made it more difficult and less profitable for wholesalers

* Wholesaling is a business of the past rather than the future for these reasons, he believes. It’s hard to make money now due to the built-in destructive factor inherent in wholesaling. There will be an increasing tendency for brand-owners to control their own distribution as well now.


The on-trade too is having such a difficult time. Where once there were 10,000 pubs there’s only around 7,000 now and fast heading towards 5,000 with an increasing tendency towards pub groups here, he notes.

And as for the off-trade it’s also in serious difficulties because of the multiples.

Had things been different, he’d probably have stayed on in the wholesaling/distribution business.

“It was a very marginal decision for me to decide to sell but once I’d made that decision I’ve had no qualms about moving on,” he tells me, “I could see the potential for international expandability. That’s why I kept the liqueur and cider company to expand into the export market.”

Does he miss the whole wholesaling and distribution thing, I wonder?

“Miss it?” he queries, “I haven’t got time to miss it!”

“It was a very marginal decision for me to decide to sell but once I’d made that decision I’ve had no qualms about moving on” - Pat Cooney.

“It was a very marginal decision for me to decide to sell but once I’d made that decision I’ve had no qualms about moving on” – Pat Cooney.


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