Neil Grosscup of Tanteo Tequila: “Always have a plan B”

You are not the CEO because you are the best — you are the CEO because you know who the best is. My old boss used to be proud that he knew enough about a lot to be dangerous. He could ask good questions to understand who was competent and once he trusted someone, he deferred to them. […]

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You are not the CEO because you are the best — you are the CEO because you know who the best is.

My old boss used to be proud that he knew enough about a lot to be dangerous. He could ask good questions to understand who was competent and once he trusted someone, he deferred to them. If I am doing my job right, I am not doing a lot, but building a team of great people that do their jobs well.

As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Neil Grosscup, CEO and Master Blender of Tanteo Tequila, which offers an innovative line of all-natural, 100% agave tequilas made in partnership with the local farmer cooperative in the small town of Juanacatlán, Jalisco.

In 2010, Grosscup began working with Tanteo Tequila, spending long hours with former CEO Jonathan Rojewski to help grow the brand. By 2011, he began to manage Tanteo’s production, and by 2012, he was distilling and blending tequila. When Jonathan tragically lost his life in an accident in 2013, Grosscup vowed to continue to bottle perfectly balanced infused tequilas, to both mourn and honor Jonathan’s legacy.

Today, as the CEO and Master Blender, Grosscup makes and sells Tanteo Tequila, honoring his mentor’s meticulous attention to detail and fervent devotion to the brand. With Tanteo Tequila, Grosscup seeks to share his passion not only for good spirits, but also good food, good friends and adventure.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I actually started on a very different path. In high school and college, I was a devout Catholic and competitive runner and was planning on becoming a catholic priest after graduation. During my senior year of college, I had a change of heart and decided neither the priesthood nor post-collegiate running was for me. I had a side-hustle in college making custom bars for friends for extra spending money. I noticed myself gravitating behind the bar when we had parties to make drinks for guests. Seeing how much time I devoted to the bar, I thought I might enjoy making a career out of it.

My college roommate was from Long Island and convinced me to move up to New York City after graduation. I got a job as a beer salesman in the East Village of Manhattan by day and as a bartender by night. I left the beer sales job when I was offered a job for a vodka company that never materialized (rookie mistake), then the nightclub where I was bartending went under. I was working part-time for an events marketing company when I applied for an unpaid marketing internship at Tanteo, a start-up tequila company.

I was an intern for two weeks before the founders promoted me to Director of Operations. I grew with the company, started taking over the production process in 2012 and became the CEO in March of 2014.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

I became the CEO of Tanteo in 2014 after the death of my late business partner, the brand’s founder Jonathan Rojewski. When I came on as CEO the company was in a dire financial position, burning through cash without a clear path to profitability.

At the time, a lot of our distributor partners lacked confidence in us, and the investors were pessimistic about the company’s future. I knew there were no silver bullets to meet all of these challenges, so we tightened the belt, limited our focus both on product and market priorities and got to work doing what we did best: making the best spicy tequila for bartenders.

It took a lot of patience and hard work to see the results of these changes, but over time we were able to grow our team, motivate our distributors, excite our investors and start to see the brand flourish.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I always knew we had a great product that had a reason to exist. I never doubted that, and even when the times were hard, I know that if the company could stay afloat long enough, we could find success.

It also helps that I just have a lot of fun in this business. From my days considering the priesthood, I borrowed this Jesuit phrase “ad majorem dei gloriam” meaning for the greater glory of God (I have it tattooed on my shoulder as well). While I am not religious anymore, I take this to mean do what you are best at in life, and where you can make the greatest impact on the world. I enjoy the spirits industry so much and that love of work makes it easy to get through the hard parts. I really think I was born to do this.

So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

All in all, things are going pretty well. COVID-19 has been a hurdle for us this year, as bars and restaurants are the bread and butter of our business. However, our history with adversity has made us resilient to this challenge. We approach each obstacle seriously, ensuring that we are resilient to meet it head-on, but also look for opportunities to grow because of it.

Specifically, with COVID-19, this has required the whole team to make sacrifices so that we could keep everyone employed, but also we pivoted quickly to e-commerce and retail sales when the on-premise shut down. These sacrifices and pivots have allowed us to be resilient and we are very optimistic that we will be successful in 2021.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In 2011, I was visiting one of the pepper farms that we use to make Tanteo Jalapeño. I was relatively new to coming down to Mexico and I wanted to prove that I was a tough guy. I got into a pepper eating contest at lunch with one of the farmers with only beer and Scotch to quench our thirst. It was a very painful evening, and I don’t even remember who won the contest.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We make the best tequila in the world for margaritas, either spicy or traditional. We do this by paying attention to every step from the ground to glass to ensure our tequilas are made the right way. A great example of this is our distillery, which is a cooperative of 85 families of agave growers. We did not start Tanteo at Juanacatlán but partnered with them because we felt there was a lack of transparency at our old distillery. By working with the farmers, we have been able to control the entire process, obsessing over the quality in a way we never could when we started the company. It is this constant tinkering and improvement that really makes us stand out.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Work out. It is very easy in this line of work to live an unhealthy lifestyle (we joke that it is called the T diet: Tequila, Tacos, Tortas, Tostadas, Tamales and Tecate). I balance this out by going for a run every morning which is super grounding for me and lets me let loose when I reach for a margarita while still staying in balance.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I would not be here if the Tanteo founders Jonathan Rojewski and David Campbell did not believe in me. I started at Tanteo as an overqualified intern in January of 2010 and was given a lot of opportunities to prove myself in the first year. I remember showing up for the initial interview in an oversized suit for a company that to this day tries to keep things business casual. If I did not get my foot in the door with that internship, my life would be so incredibly different. I’m incredibly grateful for the mentorship and on-the-job training during my early years at Tanteo.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

With my background in theology, I try to think of my work as my vocation, seeing a higher purpose to what we do. It is rule #1 of the six rules we ask all our team members to aspire to: keep the workplace sacred. We see taking pride in your work as foundational to effecting change in the world. If you take pride in your work and see it as a reflection of yourself, you start crafting a better world each and every day.

I see my number one obligation as CEO to empower our team to let their work define them as men and women of strong character, leveraging all of their abilities to make the company and the world a better place. This initial foundation can have ripple effects on all of our stakeholders, from our customers, community, vendors and investors.

We are also getting to a point where the company is starting to generate profits as well, which makes it exciting as we can be more proactive in our charitable work. Our focus right now is on supporting healthy waterways and we are partnering both with theNewtown Creek Alliancein New York, our US headquarters, as well asun Salto de Vidaat our Mexican home.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Always have a plan B

If 2020 is any indication, things don’t always go according to plan. We started March 2020 with the whole company down in Mexico for a big “ra-ra” meeting talking about how we were going to take over the world this year. Two weeks later, the world had shut down and I was worried about keeping the company lights on. We were OK because we had a plan B and were able to pivot quickly. I did not think this pessimistically when I came on as CEO.

2. Know how to say no

Some of the best decisions I have made as CEO have been things that we did not do. For us, a big part of this is focusing on going deep, not broad. The Total Addressable Market for tequila is huge but you need to start somewhere, so don’t try to be something for everyone, focus on what works.

3. You are not the CEO because you are the best — you are the CEO because you know who the best is.

My old boss used to be proud that he knew enough about a lot to be dangerous. He could ask good questions to understand who was competent and once he trusted someone, he deferred to them. If I am doing my job right, I am not doing a lot, but building a team of great people that do their jobs well.

4. Be confident, but don’t tell everyone

I have spent most of my adult life at Tanteo because I believe this company can be a big deal, but I keep some of our biggest ambitions close to my chest because these ambitions still require some luck. We work to develop plans that don’t require a lot of luck. When you are unlucky you squeak by and when you are lucky you blow things out of the water.

5. Take breaks: you are not your best 24/7 but the job can be non-stop

Make sure to take time to recoup so that you can be at your best when you need to be. This can be easier said than done, but it will make you better, and those that love you will appreciate it.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

From my perspective, the most utilitarian good can be done in investments in equal access to a healthy planet, good education, and good preventative health care, all done with a foundation in liberty and promoting self-actualization. Our focus at Tanteo is currently on environmental sustainability and upward mobility in the diverse communities we operate in. I am equally passionate about expanding access to education and health care and hope to play a bigger role in that as our company sees more success.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Please read our blog at and follow us at @tanteotequila on Instagram. My Instagram handle is @neiltherealdeal but I use that mostly for baby photos.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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