Thor Richardson, 29, is managing partner and director of international markets at Casamigos Spirits Co., a popular tequila brand founded by George Clooney and friends. He holds a law degree from Cambridge University and a business degree from the Richard Ivey School of Business at University of Western Ontario. He is a member of Winnipeg’s low-key Richardson family who built a $9-billion, 160-year-old Prairie powerhouse in grain, energy, oil and wealth management. Last summer, Casamigos was sold to British beverage giant Diageo PLC for US$700-million (with another US$300-million coming if the company meets 10-year targets).
I knew absolutely nothing about booze. But the guys in the States [Clooney and partners Rande Gerber and Mike Meldman] didn’t know a lot either. Rande came from bars and restaurants, Mike from real estate and you know what George does. So in 2013 when the brand launched, we were all first-timers. But we all knew we had this great product and we believed in it. We learned as we went.
I had a job lined up on Bay Street so the decision to go to Casamigos was not something I took lightly. In the end, I made the decision by weighing the upside versus the downside. I could be part of something big and in on the ground floor early in my career, or I could fall flat on my face and walk away with some valuable lessons to take back with me into law or some other business venture.
Anybody who has an entrepreneurial bent can’t help be intrigued by the challenge and the excitement of the unknown. Before I made the decision I had a lot of conversations with people I value and trust. First and foremost, my dad who was fully supportive. But probably the tipping point was when I talked to Richard Branson [founder of UK Virgin Group] who is a mentor and a friend. He told me, “You don’t get what you don’t reach for.”
They called me “employee zero” and none of our U.S. sales reps came from the liquor business either. My hiring philosophy is pretty simple: Find presentable, passionate people. I would take someone who sold a Xerox machine over someone who sold liquor, or has been in the liquor business, if he or she is the right personality and fit. In our business what matters is how you interact and communicate with people.
Sales is the backbone of our business, and it’s our biggest concern and priority. I love sales because it’s measurable. You’ve got a goal. You’ve got targets. And you’ve got to hit them. I think it’s the purest form of business – being able to sell something and win a life-long customer.
I never imagined we’d be this successful, this quickly, and I don’t think George, Rande or Mike did either. We’ve all still got lots more to accomplish with Casamigos. We’re launching in over 20 countries in Europe and Asia right now.
It’s now a very real business, but George and Rande didn’t go into it to try to make money. It wasn’t like they said, “Hey, you know tequila’s hot, so let’s start a brand and hope something happens.” That couldn’t be further from the truth. They loved tequila and spending time [at their homes] in Mexico, they went through 700 samples before they thought they finally nailed it. It was only when they drank so much with their friends that it turned into a company because they got a call from a distillery saying, with this production volume, they had to get a license.
I’ve always said working for the family firm would be a great honour. [But] I knew it was not something that I wanted to do right away. Having success in a completely different industry, with completely different connections, and on an international scale was what I set out to do before considering a role within the [family] firm.
There is a great amount of privilege that comes with being part of our family, but also a great amount of responsibility. You are not just representing yourself, but you’re representing the family and everyone who came before you, so you never want to do anything to tarnish that.
When I was growing up, there was no real access to, or encouragement of, entrepreneurial resources in the classroom or anywhere else you’d look as a young person. I started a newspaper and garbage route when I was 15 and that became a successful business with a few employees. But I was lucky. I had my dad to run through ideas with at the kitchen table. He walked me through business 101 and basic financial literacy at a young age. I’ve seen the impact of access to entrepreneurship on a young person, and so since we sold [Casamigos] I’ve been working with the WE Organization to create a Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, a $25-million campus located next to the WE Global Learning Centre. It will empower young entrepreneurs to develop, launch and scale their ideas by providing access to expertise, markets and capital. There’s nothing like it in Canada, especially for underprivileged youth.
Having certain connections is helpful, but it’s only ever the first step. People can open a door, but it’s up to you to walk through it and make things happen. Luck never hurts, but I firmly believe you usually make your own.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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