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Profile In Leadership: Claire Tolan, Managing Director, Irish Distillers

By Donna Ahern
Profile In Leadership: Claire Tolan, Managing Director, Irish Distillers

In the second of our Profiles in Leadership, where we highlight women who are playing a key leadership role in the grocery retail and associated sectors, Checkout talks to Claire Tolan of Irish Distillers.

Claire Tolan took on the role of managing director of Irish Distillers almost three years ago. She is responsible for the sales and marketing of the Pernod Ricard portfolio of premium spirits and wines across the island of Ireland, managing the Irish Distillers business in the Republic of Ireland and Dillon Bass Ltd (the Irish Distillers and Moet Hennessy JV) in Northern Ireland.

A graduate in International Marketing and Languages from Dublin City University, Claire began her career in Irish whiskey in 1998 when she joined the Jameson Graduate Programme. She spent time as a brand ambassador in San Francisco, and then moved into a field marketing role for Pernod Ricard in the US.

In 2007, she re-joined Irish Distillers’ international brand development team and managed international markets, focusing on the US. Claire then moved into the role of International Brand Director for Jameson.

Prior to her current role, she served as Managing Director Brand Homes, overseeing the €11 million redevelopment of Jameson Distillery Bow Street in 2017, which she project managed on her return from maternity leave.

Role Models

When it comes to the women in the industry that Claire most admires, she cites Anna Malmhake, who became CEO of Irish Distillers while she was working with the company. “She was the first female CEO and the first female executive on our group wide leadership team,” says Claire. “When I was offered the role as brand director for Jameson, Anna was the CEO and she encouraged me to put myself forward for the role.

I was pregnant at the time but she said that didn’t matter. Anna said ‘we believe you are the right person for the job’. She opened my eyes to what was possible for me and gave me the confidence to believe that I could successfully execute the role. I have always respected her and she has always been very supportive of me in my career.”

Claire also admires her female friends who are in senior positions outside of the retail and drinks industries. They include Deirdre Waldron, CEO of TBWA Ireland, Vanessa Hartley, senior director, Central Europe, Google, and Fiona Carney, chief marketing and operations officer, APAC, Microsoft. “We talk about the shared issues that we encounter in our various roles and share tips about how to tackle them,” she says.

“If I was to advise any young person on how to advance in their career I would say that it is important to be your authentic self, as people will empathise with you a lot more.

“Also, people don’t expect you to know everything, so don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand something. It is also important to support other women around you and to be honest with people. Everybody, whether they are male or female, has to try and find a balance between their home and their work life in their own way. We shouldn’t expect to have balance all the time, but you have to try and find it when you can.”

Claire is well aware of the contribution that women have made, and continue to make, to the Irish retail industry. “I work with the retail industry and the contribution of women in retail is huge,” she says.

“However, we have to continue to work to ensure that there is better female representation at a senior level in retail, as we do across all industries. It is lovely to meet those who are at a senior level, like Kari Daniels from Tesco, Sharon Buckley in Musgrave and Fiona Dawson in Mars, but I feel that it is still male dominated at director level. At Irish Distillers, we have many women in prominent leadership roles across the business, including in communications, marketing, legal, finance, HR and production.”

Managing Production

On the production side of the business, Irish Distillers has made significant inroads when it comes to introducing new female talent to the business. “The Jameson Graduate Distiller Programme is a two-year placement working as a Jameson Graduate Distiller, at either the Distillery in Midleton, or at our bottling, supply, and logistics site Fox and Geese in Dublin,” says Claire.

“And most of the participants on the Jameson Graduate Distiller Programme to date have been female. In fact, our most recently appointed new distiller and blender are both female, so we are now seeing talent from this programme in senior roles across production.”

Two out of three head distillers at The Micro Distillery at Midleton have been female. “Irish Distillers opened the Micro Distillery at Midleton in 2015, and since then it has allowed us to explore experimental and innovative new mash bills and distillates, which are currently maturing,”

says Claire. “It is a fully manual operation that requires our young talent to hone and test their skills every day and to understand the fundamentals of how to make the finest whiskeys in the world. It is a space where we can train the up and coming distillers of tomorrow.”

To ensure a high quality, constant, and reliable stream of skilled female professionals, Irish Distillers have partnered with Cork Institute of Technology to create their Certificate in Brewing & Distilling Operations, and with Dublin Institute of Technology to create their BSc in Food Innovation (Brewing & Distilling) degree.

“As part of our support, we provide students from both courses with regular visits to the distillery and internship placements in Midleton,” she says.

© 2021 Checkout – your source for the latest Irish retail news. Article by Maev Martin. Click sign up to subscribe to Checkout.

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