Drinks industry veterans, Pat Rigney and John Dillon, set up Dalcassian Wines & Spirits in 2005. The Dublin-based company, which employs 25 people, had its share of what Rigney describes as "scary moments" during the recession.
However, the business began to grow strongly in 2014 and sales for the year were up by 23 per cent. Dalcassian will have a turnover of close to €10 million in 2015.
Dalcassian’s main focus is the “on trade” which comprises hotels, bars, clubs and restaurants. Roughly 50 per cent of its sales are accounted for by imported brands. The other half comes from wine and spirit products developed by the company and sold under its own labels.
The company also has a small shareholding in Rigney's latest business venture, The Shed distillery. Based in Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim, it will produce newly developed products primarily for export markets. Rigney and Dillon first met when they worked for Gilbeys of Ireland. Rigney was one of the driving forces behind the creation of Sheridan's liqueur and he subsequently left Gilbeys to co-found Boru Vodka. Dillon stayed with Gilbeys but moved to the parent company, Diageo, where his responsibility for the Smirnoff brand put him head-to-head with Rigney in a commercial setting.
A chance meeting on the street in May nine years ago led to the establishment of Dalcassian, which the partners had up and running within four months. “Our timing was good because we established the business just when the Irish drinks market was undergoing significant change,” Dillon says.
“A lot more people were drinking wine, especially women, and they were becoming much more discerning about it. There was an influx of new brands and customers were prepared to pay for quality wines especially when they were out socially and wanted to drink something different to what they could buy in the supermarket.”
Both men had worked for Gilbeys' chief executive, David Dand (the brains behind Baileys Irish Cream) who ran a tight ship and expected employees to adhere to a strict dress and grooming codes.
“There was no room for beards or dirty shoes, you always had to wear a suit and tie and you were taught to treat the customer with the utmost respect,” Dillon says.
“When we set up Dalcassian we used this model to underpin the business. This approach has worked well for us and we are now among the top five distributors to the ‘on trade’ in Ireland and expanding steadily.”
Rigney believes one of the main reasons Dalcassian weathered the storm successfully is compatibility. “In my experience who you go into business with is critical,” he says. “It starts with having a lot of respect for each other and it helps to have complementary skills and experience.
“John is managing director and very much the day-to-day driving force with his finger on the pulse. I’m company chairman and his wingman.
“One of the good things to come out of this recession was that bigger players retrenched, leaving some great talent behind that we picked up. Our senior team has over 200 years’ experience of the drinks industry between us.”
Dillon says the recession actually helped the company to strengthen its customer base as sales reps with more time on their hands spent it consolidating relationships. Having its own brands was also a buffer.
“You are in charge of your own destiny with your own brands,” Dillon says. “In addition to our own wines we have spirit products that challenge well established names.”
The partners also believe that being owner-managers has been a major advantage. “We could make quick decisions and change direction within an hour if needed. With multinationals it can take a week. It’s like turning the Titanic,” Dillon says.
“The recession was very scary and we all took wage cuts and worked harder than ever and avoided lay offs,” Rigney says. “Much of our competition didn’t make it.”
Dalcassian has had its moments with problematic accounts but Rigney says the combined commercial wisdom of the team kept bad debts to a minimum. “We are prudent in how we do business and no one has the power to deal a killer blow,” he says.
“What was challenging, however, was when Bank of Scotland announced it was pulling out of Ireland at a time when there was little or no banking going on here. We were using invoice discounting to support our working capital and were lucky that AIB was prepared to step in.”
Dalcassian numbers two mixologists among its staff. “Their job is to train customers with new products and keep them up to speed on the latest trends,” Rigney says.
“In our experience things have begun picking up. “Prosecco is back on the menu and people have begun spending on premium drinks again.”