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From a booth at the Empire Diner in New York, Bertha Gonzalez Nieves, the chief executive officer of tequila brand Casa Dragones, recently recounted a pivotal chance meeting in 2007.
“I met Bob at a house party in Williamsburg,” she said. “Here I am on a terrace in Brooklyn and I meet Bob Pittman.”
That’s the same Pittman who founded MTV and held the ceo title there and at AOL, Six Flags Theme Parks, Quantum Media, Century 21 Real Estate, Time Warner Enterprises, and most recently Clear Channel Media Holdings.
Pittman asked Gonzalez Nieves what she did for a living. A former executive at heritage tequila brand Jose Cuervo with more than 10 years at the company under her belt, she told him of her plans to start a tequila brand of her own.
“‘Really?’” she said Pittman told her. “‘I’ve always wanted to launch a tequila brand.’” “‘Really?’” she retorted. “‘I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur.’”
Looking back on the meeting, she said, “He was very serious, but I was more serious than he was.”
The next day, Pittman e-mailed Gonzalez Nieves and the two began to put together the foundation of the business for their high-end tequila.
What would set the brand apart is the fact that it’s a sipping tequila meant to pair with food and retail for $275 — a notion that would be a hard sell in the U.S., especially since the launch came during the recession.
“I think people looked at us like a dinosaur with two heads,” she said.
But with an infusion of cash from Pittman’s investment group, the young ceo found a high-end distillery in Mexico, built a laboratory for testing and recruited top talent for its production.
As the brand built up steam, Pittman brought in strategic investors, including Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Frédéric Fekkai, MTV and VH1 cofounder John Sykes, former ceo of Viacom Tom Freston, and, for good measure, Ryan Seacrest.
In the “process” of becoming profitable, Casa Dragones last month launched a lower-priced line called Blanco, which retails for $75, Gonzalez Nieves said.
The ceo, who at 44 was crowned by Forbes last year as one of the top 50 most powerful women in Mexico, is also eyeing new markets for growth, such as China, as well as partnerships with other brands. Despite such plans, Gonzalez Nieves plays it close to the vest when asked if the bigger goal is to sell the company one day.
“We want to succeed,” she said. “We want to succeed in what we are doing and we will see what options come. Hopefully, this will be a brand that has longevity.”