The Moodie Davitt Report brings you the latest instalment in our popular series Ten Easy Pieces*, in which we get up close and personal with leading travel retail personalities via ten snapshot questions.

In this edition, we chat to Tito’s Handmade Vodka International Managing Director John McDonnell, a man who turned his back on politics to become a main player in the wine and spirits category.

1. Where were you born and raised?

I was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts to two very hard-working parents. My mother was an Irish Catholic from County Mayo and I spent 12 years at Catholic school. Life revolved around the church; I still go every week and am a Eucharistic minister.

Outside of church I enjoyed sport and played baseball, football and street hockey.

Five years old and full of smiles; today he burns the candle at both ends

My mother and father worked incredibly hard to provide for the family and taught me the ethos of hard work. 

2. You gained a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration at Suffolk University. As a teenager and young man, did you have any idea of what you wanted to do with your life? 

Originally I wanted to be the Mayor of Boston, but more importantly I needed to eat. Eventually I was fortunate enough to secure a job in New York in market research working with The Seagram Company.

John and his parents: “They taught me the ethos of hard work”

3. You’re a self-confessed ‘political animal’. What steered you away from a career in politics and led you to your involvement with Seagram’s? 

Before joining Seagram’s, I was the campaign manager for a man running for city council in Boston. I was in my early twenties and during the campaign I received a wire with a job offer to move to New York. I asked the candidate what I should do as I was committed to the campaign and didn’t want to leave. His advice to me was that if I wanted to make money then I should move on. That guy turned out to be the longest-serving Mayor in Boston, Thomas Menino.

Smile and enthusiasm: John (right of picture) takes to the streets to support Thomas Menino (front)

4. During  your more than eight years at the helm of The Patrón Spirits Company, sales increased tenfold and the Patrón brand exploded in travel retail. What do you consider your most important contribution to that success? 

When the economy started to tank in 2008-9 virtually all the major suppliers started pulling their billboard advertising to protect their bottom lines. I made the major decision to buy them up and that helped us increase our awareness exponentially.

We were also very fortunate that the big suppliers were not paying attention to the premium tequila category so we persuaded the major travel retail players to introduce Patrón to increase profitability in the category and that was a game changer for the brand.

5. Tito’s Handmade Vodka: What makes it work and what challenges lay ahead for you as Managing Director International? 

What makes Tito’s work is that it’s a simple proposition and it checks all the boxes: high quality, simple packaging, fair pricing and the most important thing of all, the guy behind the brand, Tito himself.

The challenges on the domestic front are that many F&B buyers in major hotels around the world are not aware of the strength of the brand in the USA so it’s a bottle-by-bottle sale. As a single brand it’s very difficult trying to fight the goliaths in the industry.

In travel retail, as a single brand company it’s challenging as we have neither the manpower nor the budgets that major players have.

6. More than three decades in the drinks industry. What do you consider the most positive and most negative changes over those years? 

In terms of positive, I think the expansion of products available to consumers is the biggest change. Versus when I started out, there has been a lot of creativity in the industry, for example different finishes on malts and the introduction of flavoured vodkas. The other exciting positive change is that a single brand company has the opportunity to expand globally through social media.

The men ‘crafting’ Tito’s Handmade Vodka: John (right) with the brand’s Founder Tito Beveridge

On the negative side, there has been too much consolidation at distributor level in the USA, which creates challenges for new brands in the USA specifically. With the proliferation of products comes confusion for the consumer.

Finally, and what in fact is a massive opportunity for the future in global travel retail, is the lack of one online application for consumers to do their duty free shopping. We need an airbnb type app so millennials can make their purchases with the touch of a finger.

7. Have you ever considered yourself a disruptor? And tell us about your relationship with your team.

Yes, looking back on the Patrón days when we decided to focus on ultra-premium, I was a disruptor. Everyone has a bad tequila story to tell you and we spun that story and convinced people to drink ultra-premium tequila.

I am a strong advocate of great relationships. I empower my team and hold them accountable. I believe in working hard during the day and having fun at night.

No dinner ever lasts longer than one and a half hours – I’d much rather chat with you at the bar.

Party time with Tito’s colleagues in Dubai

8. How important is time management? 

When I travel it is 24/7 but when I am back in the office, I manage my board meetings when I am in the USA.

I am the Chairman of Massachusetts Convention Centre Authority and use opportunities to apply the skills I’ve learnt in civic roles. I strongly believe in giving back; I am also very supportive of local politics and am on the board of trustees of Suffolk University. 

Giving back: A proud member of the Suffolk University board

9. If you had the opportunity to host a dinner for four, to include yourself and three of the most influential people in your life, who would you invite and why? 

My father, John McDonnell, who has been the biggest influence on my life in terms of work ethic and the sense of responsibility he instilled in me; Tom Menino, Boston’s longest-serving Mayor; and my best buddy, Jimmy; we enjoyed growing up together, shared successes and failures over the years and he is someone I can lean on. 

10. How does John McDonnell switch off? 

My wife and I dine out every night and have a list of ten restaurants we frequent. We love to sit at the bar and engage the bar staff. Most of them are college students and we learn about them as people. That keeps us young at heart.

I also attend a lot of Boston Celtic Basketball games. My wife and I have been season ticket holders for as long as I can remember. When I was a young lad I used to save my money to go to games. I always used to listen to the games on the radio when I was going to sleep. I love basketball the same way as Europeans love their football!

Marathon man: John has run more that 20 marathons: Here he is competing in the Marine Corps Marathon in November 1988

And running has always been an important part of my life. I have completed 20-plus marathons but gave up last year because of the pounding on my body. I still run six miles a day. I also go boating and skiing and, when I am travelling, I often stay an extra day to have a look around.

*PREVIOUSLY FEATURED TEN EASY PIECES PERSONALITIES INCLUDE:

Meet Travel Blue Executive Director Jonathan Smith

Meet Antony Kime, a travel retail flying Kiwi

Meet Essilor sunglasses specialist Francesco Leccisi 

Meet Blue Chip Group Vice President Flora Lee

Meet ‘Mr Braun’, the ever-effervescent Klaus Mellin

Meet Karelia Tobacco Company ‘voice’ Joanna Kamarinopoulos 

Meet Monzelez WTR marketing specialist Irina Tarabanko

Meet the underwater wine woman Irina Wiedemann