Up Close and Personal with Bernard Peillon, president of Hennessy Cognac

pdated: Saturday January 18, 2014 MYT 11:23:40 AM

Up Close and Personal with Bernard Peillon, president of Hennessy Cognac

BY LIZ LEE

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BERNARD Peillon is an heir of sorts after “inheriting” a famous brand of French wine. While he may not bear the luminous family name of the Hennessy lineage, Peillon has being given an important task, through his role as the president of Hennessy Cognac. Taking the helm of the cognac house is not like joining a company, rather it is like becoming part of a family business, he says. “There is this sense of inheritance, of transmission, that you’re becoming part of the long history of Hennessy.”Peillon realises he has shouldered the heavy responsibility to ensure the company becomes stronger.

The fact that this business has been carefully grown by the family all these generations gives Peillon a reason to run the business as though he owned it, not as just a hired corporate head.

When he first joined, a few of the Hennessy family members were still actively involved in the business. Peillon is like an “adopted scion”.

Peillon likens his regard for the Hennessy predecessors to that of filial piety, “like in the Chinese tradition where the elders have a lot of symbolic value and one has to pay a lot of respect”.

Before the fifth generation direct descendent of the Hennessy lineage, Killian passed on at the age of 103, Peillon would personally visit to update him on the progress of the business.

“He was always aware of what I said to the media. And his advice on managing Hennessy was to not only be the best at my game but also from the perspective of transmission and long-term growth,” he recalls.

Timelessness really is the essence of what Hennessy, as a brand and product, aims to be. It could take centuries to prepare what goes into a bottle of Hennessy cognac, depending on the quality of cognac to be produced.

These cognacs contain blends of various eau de vie, which are drawn from the 25,000ha of vineyards and stored in barrels of Limousin oak for a period of one year to over 200 years.

Sparkling journey

Even before Peillon set foot on the 200-year-old Hennessy headquarters overlooking the Charente River, facing the Atlantic Ocean, his career was already growing fluidly in the universe of wine and winegrowing.

Peillon’s career began in 1979 at Château de Rieussec, Bordeaux.

In his mid-20s, he worked in the United States alternating in specialist distribution, production, oenology and wine and spirit importing. On his return to France he joined Danone, taking responsibility of the group’s champagne brands in a number of export markets.

He returned to the United States from 1990 to 1993, during which time he set up an import and distribution company in California to handle the BSN Group’s champagne brands.

In 1994, he joined the LVMH Group as export manager for Moët & Chandon. Two years after, he rose to become the marketing vice-president of Moët & Chandon USA.

His rise within the group continued, with him taking up the role of general manager of Moët Hennessy Italy in 2000, before becoming the international director of Moët & Chandon from 2001 to the end of 2003.

In January 2004, Peillon was appointed president and general manager at the world’s oldest champagne house Ruinart. Three years later, he assumed the position ofHennessy Cognac president, which he holds until today.

Ruinart was one of his most interesting career experiences before Hennessy, he recalls.

“Ruinart was a sleeping beauty and being able to revive a sleeping beauty, to allow the beauty to wake up was a fantastic feeling for me.” Peillon points out the importance of identifying, structuring and managing opportunities as well as when to sit and blossom, when working for very matured businesses.

Hennessy has been the most challenging thus far, he admits – to have the responsibility of protecting and growing the brand and the family’s work as well as the 800 employees under his leadership.

“There’s a deep sense of duty.”

For Hennessy, central and eastern Europe, Africa (where Nigeria is a key market), Middle East and Russia are booming markets with double-digit growth.

The United States’ economy is making a strong recovery while Asia-Pacific – being Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia – is doing well with long-term growth potential.

Hennessy’s vision is to double its business worldwide within another 15 to 20 years, proving that its “spirit of conquest” instilled by the first generation Hennessy cognac-makers is far from resting.

To paint a picture of how ingrained the ambition for international growth is in Hennessy’s veins, the company tapped the US market in the 1780s and went half a globe to China in the 1870s. It has been exporting to Malaysia for around 100 years.

Hennessy is the second most profitable business within the LMVH Group. “We are one of the most dynamic businesses in the group. In the market, we are bigger than the next three cognac brands put together.”

Peillon says the cognac brand aims to be the No. 1 in terms of quality and perception.

Not too stuffy

The natural question for a brand that has survived seven generations is: How does Hennessy keep up with the rapidly changing world, especially the young people?

Peillon replies: “If you enjoy your Hennessy on the rocks, with water or your cranberry juice, feel free to do that, we are not here to impose (a fixed method to enjoy cognacs).”

Innovation is a key and Peillon doesn’t believe that experimenting with cognacs would cause a dilution of the luxury brand.

“We pay a lot of attention on recruiting new, younger consumers and exposing them to the versatility of Hennessy. Obviously, Hennessy can be enjoyed in so many different ways,” he says, citing the art of mixing as an important feature when it comes to enjoying spirits. Cognac is not the drink of choice for fathers or grandfathers only.

“We want to extend the ‘art of mixing’ concept to the younger consumers, through bars serving Hennessy with mixes. This does not dilute the luxury brand image because everything we do is done at the highest standards.”

Peillon explains: “We are extremely attentive about our points of sales, we choose the trendiest bars which will not be detrimental to the image of Hennessy.”

Peillon says the company takes its brand exposure very seriously.

“We portray ourselves as a luxury brand that one can approach. Not some frozen icon which people know about but do not consume,” he says.

Fine upbringing

Peillon came from a family of silk traders and producers in France’s silk city. “My hometown has long tradition of silk, and both sides of my family were in trading and production of silk.”

He grew up in an environment where the appreciation of beauty, texture, quality was omnipresent – something he says he can apply in his appreciation of luxury spirit brands.

The family businesses, however, lost out as Asian silks took the world market by storm and Peillon never had the chance to dabble in the business.

“My wife, Katinka, was the last person to choose material from our silk factories for her wedding gown,” he says.

The Peillons then ventured into winery, where he started his career in Bordeaux.

“I learned from the vineyard. I have done almost every job in this business – I loaded trucks, was in the bottling line and worked in different countries,” he says, “Never a dull moment in my career.”

“You have to go into work whole-heartedly every day. There is only one position, and that is No. 1,” he says, and adds cheekily, “Maybe that is my American side, having spent so many years in America.”

Among his most valuable lessons was a quote by the late Count Robert Jean De Vogue of the Moet & Chandon house: “The only thing I expect from you is to be always 15 minutes ahead of the time.”

Aside from good work ethics and the ambition to keep the Hennessy Cognac image and operations up to date, Peillon thinks it is important to be a charismatic leader who leaves behind a lasting impression.

Whether he will achieve that at Hennessy, Peillon puts simply: “I’m here to stay, unless the shareholders decide otherwise.”

BORN: Sept 4, 1956 in Lyon, France
PERSONAL: Married with six children
FAVOURITE FOOD: Mediterranean and Italian, simple yet electric varieties
FAVOURITE PLACE: My place in the mountains, where I have a 360 view in the alps
HOBBY: Marathons
VALUES: Moral integrity
INSPIRATION: The people I work with

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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