On the Trail with John-Paul Dejoria

The rags to riches story of John-Paul Dejoria is at this point common knowledge in our industry. The son of immigrant parents began his entrepreneurial career by selling Christmas cards and encyclopedias door-to-door to help support his family, before eventually being sent to a foster home when his mother and father divorced. After trying his hand at various employment including a position as a janitor, he eventually took out a small loan to start his own brand of hair care products with hairstylist Paul Mitchell. The rest as we know is history. As if founding one of the most successful beauty lines of all time wasn't enough, Dejoria took a giant step into the drinks business in 1989, co-founding the Patron Spirits Company which launched premium tequila into the hearts and minds of serious drinkers everywhere. Again—the rest is history. So when John-Paul asked me to come share a beer with him at his Malibu home overlooking the sea, I knew there had be another new idea kicking around in that brilliant head of his. Never one to turn down an invitation to drink (as well as the chance to pick the brain of a hugely-successful multi-billionaire), I flew down to Southern California for the occasion. I went into the meeting merely planning to talk business strategy and philosophy with the industry legend, but it turns out my instincts were correct: there was indeed a new venture on the horizon. Check out our conversation below:

David: You’re somewhat legendary in the spirits industry, not just because you helped create Patron tequila—an iconic brand—but also for your philosophy and your work ethic in terms of marketing and building the brand. Can you talk a little bit about your ethos when it comes to business?

JP: You bet. Let’s take Patron Spirits as an example. We introduced the U.S. and much of the world to premium tequila. The branding goal was to be able to offer people something special, unlike a lot of tequilas they’d experienced in the past where they would shoot it, get a buzz, and then the next day feel just terrible. We wanted something consumers could sit back and enjoy—a premium tequila that they could sip without having to mix it with something else in order to disguise the taste. We introduced that tequila to the market and it was better than anything out there—a quality product that was the best of the best of the best. Instead of going into the order business we actually went into the reorder business. 

David: It’s funny to hear you say this almost thirty years since the original inception of Patron because that “sip it don’t shoot it” mindset when it comes to tequila is still permeating its way through the agave spirits drinking culture and it really started with your brand. What were some of the other expectations at that time?

JP: We were also excited to create a project that would help the environment simultaneously. Every bottle of Patron when we started out was made from recycled glass and we’re now approaching thirty million bottles sold per year which are still made from recycled glass. So when we were branding we looked at taking the best there is and combining it with a philosophy that was sustainable, so that the ecology of our planet is better off as a result of our company being here. Those were a few of the important factors for me when we got started. 

David: As it pertains to your work ethic in getting that mission started, you were known as a guy who would pound the pavement, actually showing up at bars to order your own booze and talk with other people there who were drinking it, rather than delegating that responsibility off to a sales rep or brand ambassador. That requires serious dedication and I think people admire you for that.

JP: When we started the company it was just like when I started Paul Mitchell hair care or like selling encyclopedias door-to-door in my younger days. When you physically go out there and do the work, whether it’s knocking on doors and showing them Paul Mitchell products—them saying “No, go try the next salon”—or selling encyclopedias where the customer is never expecting you, a lot of doors get closed in your face. But if you’re just as enthusiastic at the next door and the one after that, and you’re personally involved—when the customer can see in your face that you’re personally excited—that’s what branding is. Even today whether it’s with Paul Mitchell, Patron, or my new venture Rok Drinks, when I show up to an event it lets people know that I’m excited about my investment in the company and that I think it’s cool enough to be there in person. 

David: Rok Drinks is actually involved with beer, too, right?

JP: Yes, we have an incredible new line called ABK with various types of beers, but the philosophy there is the same: the highest quality you can find—so good that the customer wants to reorder it again and again—coupled with the intent of giving back to society once the company becomes successful. I love showing up at special events and saying: “I invested because…” With our new ABK beer it’s an easy explanation: I invested because I think it’s the best of its type, when I drink it I want to have it again, and we’re the purest German water to make it. It’s exciting and I’m excited to tell people about it.

David: How did you even find ABK? We’re now in 2016, you’ve already started two of the most successful brands in history, but yet you’ve decided to jump back into the game. Why beer and why ABK specifically?

JP: A dear friend of mine approached me with the idea of buying an old craft brewery in Germany that needed a little helping hand, but actually dated back to the 1300s. I thought: “Wow! That sounds pretty exciting,” and I’m not really even a beer guy. So I said, “Let me taste this beer,” and I flew out to Germany. When I tasted ABK I said: “Wow, I’m not a beer drinker, but if I was this is the beer I would drink.” And the rose beer really surprised me—is that a breakthrough or what? I got excited about ABK because it had a great quality and it was international, which I think fits into the dynamic we’re looking to bring to the spirits business. 

David: So you’re hoping the basic business principles you applied to Paul Mitchell and Patron will work again with ABK?

JP: When we look at Paul Mitchell and Patron both came originally from plants. Whether it’s the awapuhi plant or tea tree with Paul Mitchell products, or the finest Highland blue agave with Patron, they begin with plants that are the best of their kind. Beer as we know also comes barley—a member of the grass family which is also a plant—and pure water. Like the other two, ABK in my opinion is made from some of the best ingredients. All three products are similar in that each one gives me pride when I talk about them. If I didn’t think it was that good I wouldn’t have invested in the company.

David: What are the strategic goals behind bringing ABK to the market? Who do you see drinking this beer? Who do you want drinking this beer? Besides everyone, of course.

JP: You always look at the marketplace you want to go after. When it comes to ABK we’re looking at discriminating beer drinkers who say: “I want something a little bit better and I want something unique.” How many beers can trace their origins back to 1308? How many beers have won gold medals not only in Germany but throughout Europe? There are plenty of people today who want to treat themselves to the finest and we’re going after that market. 

David: What are your thoughts on modern marketing with social media and using “social” tools that actually keep potential customers at a distance, rather than your more old school philosophy that involves meeting people face-to-face, looking them in the eye, and speaking to them directly just like you and I are doing now?

JP: Today’s form of marketing with social media and the internet—I think they’re great tools, but I’m more old fashioned. I feel the personal touch is something people have been missing for years and ultimately what most people really want. Speaking for myself, I don’t even have email! I’ve never had an email account. I’d be inundated if I did. If someone writes me a letter and it’s something that I think should be answered, I will normally write the answer on the letter right there and send it back. I’ve always felt that doing things personally is very valuable. Most times I’ll just call people back and say, “Hey, how’s it going?” rather than respond via letter. 

David: You don’t think a faceless text message is the best way to get that important personal interaction done? (laughs)

JP: Oh man, I see it too often in restaurants: there’s a couple sitting together having a meal with their kids and they’re all texting together at the dinner table! At a restaurant! Do they do that at home rather than talk to one another? I think people need to communicate with one another vocally. If you think something’s cool then talk to me about it! 

David: Do you think you can get customers to show up at ABK events, have a beer, and talk to one another rather than take pictures of the bottle to show off on their Instagram account?

JP: If people have a lifestyle—and let’s use ABK as an example of that lifestyle—where they shut off the phone, close the laptop, and sit there having a beer with one another—with friends and family—it should be like having a great glass of wine. If you’re drinking a great Bordeaux from 1982 or let alone 1945, you sure as heck wouldn’t be on the telephone while you were drinking it. You’d be savoring every moment, sipping it, and chatting about it with your friends around you. Nothing would distract you from it. That’s how I think people should approach ABK beer. It’s of that high quality where I think it’s worth taking the time away from other distractions. And it’s affordable!

David: Are you willing to go door-to-door with a six pack of ABK and start knocking like you did with encyclopedias in order to sell ABK as well as get families off their phones around the dinner table?

JP: I have a feeling that if I did take a six pack with me door-to-door I’d have a pretty good rate of sales! There’s no real need though. The quality of this beer is so good it’s going to spread word-of-mouth.

David: When you drink today what’s the ideal environment for you? Where do you like to be?

JP: I drink very moderately these days. The perfect scenario for me is to enjoy a cocktail, or a glass of wine—or now even a beer—with friends! Drinking is a special thing. It’s an event. I treat it as such and I give each moment the attention it deserves. 

David: Germany has been giving its beer plenty of attention for centuries and centuries. Did that respect for tradition and craft play a role in your enthusiasm?

JP: Yes, when a beer has been around for more than 700 years and has been a consistent medal winner, that grabs my attention. Germany is one of the biggest brewing centers in the world with, as you said, centuries of experience. It definitely gives it an edge. ABK is not only good, it’s been good for a pretty long time.

David: Have you been practicing your pronunciation? I’m actually a German speaker and it’s still hard for me to say Aktienbrauereikaufbeuren. You definitely don’t want the owner of the company stuttering over the name at the first press conference!

JP: (laughs) ABK stands for a word that is almost as long as the longest word in the English language: antidisestablishmentarianism. I have a very hard time pronouncing it. We put ABK on the bottle to make it easier, but we still keep the original name on the label. Even in Germany where it's from and where they can pronounce it, sales actually went up after we shortened the name! 

K&L is currently selling all three ABK expressions: the delicious Edel lager, the clean and refreshing Hell, and the shockingly-tasty rose beer!

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll