Wild Geese: Folliard follows his own path to adventure
Mayo man has done everything from selling fairy produce in Saudi Arabia to setting up an Irish whiskey brand in the US
When his mother told him to get a job in the civil service, a teenage Kieran Folliard balked at the idea. So he went to Saudi Arabia to market dairy products and ended up in Minnesota where he set up four Irish pubs before launching his own brand of whiskey.
2 Gingers, as the whiskey is known, is expanding across the US having started out as an exclusive brand for Folliard’s pubs. It is a blend of whiskeys from the Cooley distillery in Co Louth that was bought last year by Jim Beam.
From Ballyhaunis in Co Mayo, Folliard caught the travelling bug early. “In 1977, I got a great opportunity to go and work in the Middle East,” he says, “in Saudi Arabia with the McGuckian Brothers.”
The McGuckians wanted to introduce dairy farming and produce to the desert lands of Saudi Arabia. “They selected me because I kept harassing them to hire me. When I first applied for the job, I was turned down but I kept after them and eventually got an interview. I had a vision of how exotic it would be in Saudi Arabia to be launching a dairy product from a marketing position.”
Folliard was inspired by what he saw: grass and crops growing on square patches in the desert, irrigated by water from the Jordanian mountains. “It awoke something inside me that you just didn’t have to do the normal things. My mother always said, get a nice steady job working in the civil service, so this experience was just something else. It opened me up to the possibilities and it set me up for a life of adventure, particularly as it relates to business.”
In the 1980s he moved to Minnesota, where he worked for a company that provided senior management expertise to start-up companies.
Having watched entrepreneurs follow their dreams, it was time to come up with an idea of his own. “I thought, I’m going to start an Irish pub here in the Twin City. I had plenty of experience being in pubs – but that doesn’t qualify you for a whole lot more than drinking and talking.”
He wanted to set up landmark pubs with dedicated staff who would consider working for him to be their career rather than just a job. Therefore the pubs had to be large, with a high turnover, to attract the best in the business.
“Our value system was that our single greatest competitor was always going to be ourselves. Not the pub across the street or down the block. It was about our own level of curiosity and where we set our own bar so that we could lead from the front.”
In 2006, Pernod Ricard told him he was the biggest seller of Jameson in the city.“When I heard that I became curious. So I asked them who is the biggest in America? They came back and said it was us. So I asked them, who is the biggest in the world? It took them 18 months but they came back and said we were number one in the world.”
Folliard had earlier met John Teeling, the man who revived the Cooley Distillery in Louth, so he asked him how much whiskey he would have to buy to set up his own brand.
Teeling said 1,400 cases. Folliard was already selling 1,200 a year so he took the risk.
The whiskey quickly became the pubs’ biggest seller and, in 2011, Folliard decided to sell his stake in the venture and work full-time promoting 2 Gingers around Minnesota. Shortly after he had signed the papers, Cooley Distillery was bought by Jim Beam, a multinational spirits company.
“It was a concern. Cooley was the only distillery which was doing whiskey for people like myself.”
But, having witnessed the rapid growth of 2 Gingers, Beam decided not to pull the plug. Instead, they bought the brand and employed Folliard as their chief operations officer. His task is to expand 2 Gingers beyond Minnesota into other parts of America.
“You have to make your own luck in life. I get annoyed when people talk of the luck of the Irish. You bring your own luck.”
Folliard is impressed with the young Irish people he has employed as brand ambassadors in the US. “All the young people that I have had here have a phenomenal talent. I can’t describe the quality of education, their attitude. They are go-getters. It can’t just be the people I have hired. It must be a reflection of a much broader base of people.”