A potent blend of acumen and charm
INTERVIEW:Having offloaded Cooley Distillery into the capable hands of US drinks firm Beam, 65-year-old Willie McCarter might be expected to slip quitely into well-earned retirement after a long and far-ranging career. Not a chance – the best, apparently, is yet to come, writes SIOBHAN CREATON
WILLIE McCARTER returned last week to the Plough and Stars bar in Boston, the place where, in 1970, he and John Teeling first talked about distilling Irish whiskey. A plaque to commemorate the birthplace of Cooley Distillery – which was sold to the American Beam drinks group for €71 million a few months ago – still hangs there. It was a trip he felt he had to make.
“It seemed fitting after everything that has happened,” he says.
He and Teeling had a great emotional attachment to Cooley, the business they restored and built over that span of 40 years, but knew it needed a partner with deep pockets to bring it to the next phase. The sale to Beam has already proved to be a good deal for Cooley, he says.
Thanks to Beam’s position in the drinks industry, Cooley this year sent its biggest order ever of Irish whiskey to the United States for St Patrick’s Day.
“We shipped 15,000 cases for the festival which is a multiple many times over of what Cooley would normally sell in the US at this time of the year. From now on, Kilbeggan whiskey will be sold wherever Jim Beam or its other top brands are available in the US,” McCarter says. “And where Kilbeggan goes, Tyrconnell, Connemara and other Cooley whiskeys will follow.”
Beam, the world’s fourth biggest spirits group, has an enormous presence in the US and also in places such as Australia and Germany.
“In fact, Beam perhaps packs a bigger punch than people realised it would,” McCarter says of the deal. “It should create a lot more exports for Cooley and take the business forward in leaps and bounds.”
He was delighted to see Cooley’s award-winning whiskeys served at many of the prestigious St Patrick’s Day receptions in Washington and New York.
McCarter is set to take on a type of goodwill ambassador’s role for Beam to help it to connect with the Irish diaspora. Some 40 million people who claim Irish descent are in the US, and it will remain a crucial market for Cooley’s brands.
McCarter says the next biggest challenge for this Irish whiskey producer is to educate Americans about its products. He likens international knowledge of Irish whiskey to what consumers knew about wine 50 and 60 years ago.
“Now everybody is a wine expert, but they don’t tend to differentiate between whiskeys. This education process will be a long one but once you tell people what Irish whiskey is all about, they tend to remember it.”
The sale of Cooley was estimated to be worth about €3 million to McCarter. The “few shillings” he has made will “plug a few holes”, he says. “Fortunately, I didn’t get into property.”
It is the second time in his career that McCarter has played a pivotal role in bringing US investment into Ireland. Just as Beam
has secured Cooley’s future, in 1987, he successfully wooed another multinational that, in its heyday, would become one of Ireland’s biggest employers.
His family’s clothing manufacturing company, established in 1932 and employing 450 people in Buncrana, Co Donegal, was finding the going tough in the bleak 1980s.
“I know things are very tough now but the 1980s recession was a lot worse than this one,” he says. “Life as a clothing manufacturer in Ireland at that time was very difficult.”
McCarter and his brother Andy worked closely with IDA Ireland to clinch a deal with the big US clothing manufacturer Fruit of the Loom and, in 1987, it began to roll out a $200 million investment in manufacturing plants in Donegal and Derry that would employ 3,000 people making T-shirts and leisure wear.
There was virtually no American involvement in the Irish operations; it was run by the McCarter family.
“We created the largest T-shirt complex in the world, and the most efficient,” McCarter says. “It gave the business another 20 good years.”
Sadly, that company folded its tent in Ireland and the 3,000 jobs were subsequently lost as Fruit of the Loom gradually moved its manufacturing to Morocco before finally shutting in 2007.
It was a devastating blow. The decision to leave Ireland came months after the McCarters had exited the business following a court battle with the parent company and its mercurial boss Bill Farley. Their departure certainly made it easier for Fruit of the Loom to close its Irish operations, McCarter says, but he is proud of what was achieved over two decades in the northwest.
Local infrastructure – the roads, water and electricity supply – was improved, he says. “It was exactly the right industry to bring at that time. It was a high-tech industry in its own way that allowed a lot of people to upskill. Many staff went on to study at local colleges and universities.”
When it closed, McCarter says this meant people were in a position to take advantage of opportunities created during the Celtic Tiger years.
“Fruit of the Loom gave a lot of people confidence,” he says. “It was hard to see it going to Morocco. We were out of it by then and had tried to do a management buyout, but that failed. We had a development plan that probably would have worked but it wasn’t to be.”
AMERICAN INVESTORS ARE still well disposed towards Ireland, he says, and during the St Patrick’s Day gatherings in Washington and New York, there was a sense the State has turned a corner and is recovering. “There was very good sentiment towards investment in the North and the Republic of Ireland, and the Taoiseach did an excellent job in selling Ireland. He had a powerful message that Ireland is a very competitive place for investment and that a sustained recovery is under way,” McCarter says.
“These comments were well received, and it should also be remembered there is a two-way relationship between Ireland and the US when it comes to investment and jobs. While there are 100,000 people employed in Ireland by US multinationals, there are another 80,000 to 90,000 Irish people working in Irish companies in the US,” he says.
These are the likes of Kerry, Glanbia and technology companies. “This tends to be forgotten when arguments surface in the US about taking jobs home.”
Fruit of the Loom’s cross-Border investment came as the Troubles in Northern Ireland were still raging and as politicians in Ireland, Britain and the US grappled with finding a permanent solution, McCarter played a role in creating economic stability in the Border region. In 1989, he became a director of the International Fund for Ireland (IFI), established by the Anglo-Irish Agreement three years earlier to support economic development and reconciliation between communities on both sides of the border.
He would serve as its chairman for 12 years, and last week in Washington, he received a Distinguished Service Award from the American Ireland Fund for his efforts.
McCarter says the IFI’s role was to try to get people from both communities to come together and build relationships where they have a vested interest. To date, it has invested €850 million that has come from the US Congress, the European Union, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. These funds were matched by private investors and have created 50,000 jobs in some of Ireland’s most disadvantaged areas, he says. “It brought a lot of people together.”
Now, as he turns 65, McCarter has no intentions of retiring. A friend, who is in his late 70s, recently told him the last 10 years are the best, he says.
Position:Businessman who is a director of Norish plc and is set to become a goodwill ambassador for Cooley Distillery’s whiskeys purchased by the giant Beam drinks group last year. He is the former chief executive of Fruit of the Loom in Ireland and a past chairman of the International Fund for Ireland.
Lives: Between Dublin and his native Donegal.
Something that might surprise you: The man who is on a mission to convince more people to drink Irish whiskey is teetotal.
Something that won’t surprise you: He thinks everyone should visit the Kilbeggan Distillery and Locke’s Museum in Co Westmeath.
Favourite saying:“Sure you know yourself” – a phrase that says so much to Irish people but can be hard to explain abroad, he finds.