Sweet Leaf Founder Hires Deep Eddy CEO

In a hotel across the John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, Calif., about 40 miles south of Los Angeles, Clayton Christopher had dinner with Eric Dopkins to discuss consulting. He didn’t expect to make a hire.

Christopher, the co-founder and CEO of Deep Eddy, a craft vodka brand based in Austin, Texas, (the Switzerland of Texas, according to Christopher) and the former CEO of Sweet Leaf Tea Company — which Nestlé Waters acquired in May 2011 — announced that he and co-founder Chad Auler have appointed Dopkins as Deep Eddy’s new CEO.

But don’t imagine that Christopher is leaving the space. Much as his “Grandma” character remains a living presence in the Sweet Leaf marketing scheme, Christopher himself will remain on board as a marketing schemer.

With Dopkins taking his place, Christopher will move from CEO to executive chairman and chief innovation and marketing officer. This will allow him to spend more time telling the story of the brand and its culture, and focus less on organization, which he said isn’t exactly his sweet spot.

“It’s exciting when the brand has become much bigger than ‘you,’ and Deep Eddy is not only at that place now, but also got there much faster than we ever imagined,” Christopher said.

Dopkins most recently served as president of Young’s Market Company, a beverage distributor based in California with a $1.55 billion annual revenue. He has also served as V.P. general manager of the western U.S. for Pernod Ricard USA, a spirits and wine company, where he drew a sales revenue of approximately $300 million, president for Boz Spirits, Inc., Diageo general manager and V.P. of the western region for Diageo North America, and district manager for Canandaigua Wine Company. He received his Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from California State University, Chico.

“The spirits business is dynamic and tomorrow’s category leaders are often not the big brands of today,” Dopkins said. “Consumers are changing, and Deep Eddy Vodka has the potential of becoming a category-leading brand.”

Christopher said that selling Sweet Leaf to Nestle was a necessary move. However, unlike the non-alcoholic space, he said that the margins in the spirits industry allow for a profitable company at a much earlier stage. He has already received attractive buyout offers, but has yet to bite. While he has left his role as CEO at both Sweet Leaf and Deep Eddy, he said that there’s a significant difference between his roles with the two brands.

“This is a lifestyle deal for me. I did really well off Sweet Leaf,” Christopher said. “So this is really more for sport and passion and love of the game than needing to go get money.”

He considered sharing the CEO title with Dopkins, but then thought it was more important for the company to see Dopkins as a new leader. Christopher said that unlike Sweet Leaf, he’ll remain very involved in Deep Eddy’s progress. He thinks it can grow, he said, to eventually be a $100 million brand.

“Titles are cheap at Deep Eddy,” he said. “It’s really about getting the smartest people that we can on the team.”