Pernod Ricard will have a new CEO from January 2015

Pernod Ricard will have a new CEO from January 2015

Earlier this week, just-drinks editor Olly Wehring visited Beijing to cover Pernod Ricard's latest Capital Market Day. While there, Olly spoke to Alexandre Ricard, the company's deputy CEO & COO, in his first interview since it was announced he would become CEO of Pernod in 2015.

I've met Alexandre Ricard three or four times before today. Alex, as he prefers to be called, reminds me of our first meeting in Dublin. It was 2008, and he was heading up Irish Distillers, the owner of the Jameson Irish whiskey brand. We clicked immediately, probably because we are almost exactly the same age (we're both 41 now) – it galls me today to find out that I'm actually eight months older than him.

It galls me, because, while I'm in Beijing today reporting on the company's plans for the Asian markets, in about 18 months, Ricard will become the CEO of Pernod Ricard.

To repeat: He's younger than me.

But, then, I'm not part of the dynasty of a French institution, so there you go.

It wouldn't be fair, however, to suggest that Ricard got where he is today – or rather, will be in January 2015 - on his surname alone.

“When I was 24,” he says, “I sent my resume, and had my first interview with the HR director of Pernod Ricard. I'd just come out of school and I'd had a few interviews with some banks and consulting firms; I'd even already got some job offers.

“But, the meeting didn't go well at all. It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. The HR director said that, with my name, they'd probably be able to find a position for me within the group. So, it wasn't like any of the other interviews I'd had.

“It ended with me saying that we shouldn't waste each other's time, and I left.”

Alexandre Ricard - deputy chief executive & chief operating officer

Ricard first spent eight years in consulting and banking – during his time with Morgan Stanley, he consulted on M&A: might he be keen on waving the chequebook in the coming years?

In 2003, he says, “I rewrote my motivational letter and updated my resume, then sent it to the HR director who, coincidentally, was the same person”.

“It was the best interview I've ever had.”

Ricard started in Pernod's audit & development department. “The audit side meant that I went around a lot of the companies,” he says. “The first one for me was Orlando Wyndham in Australia.” Ricard also put his M&A experience to use by working on Pernod's purchase of Allied Domecq in 2005.

At the end of 2004, Ricard moved to Ireland for his first stint with Irish Distillers, as CFO. Two years later, and the first of several calls from group CEO Pierre Pringuet came through. “Pierre called me and said: “What about Asia?”,” he explains. “I said: “I'm going to think about it.” I counted to three and said yes.” So, it was off to Hong Kong to head up the company's Asia duty free operations. “That was an exciting challenge that I really loved.”

The next call, again two years later, saw Pringuet offer Ricard the reins back in Ireland. “My dream job! I counted to three and said yes.” It was during his three years as Irish Distillers' CEO that I first met him, and I could tell that he was having a terrific time in Dublin. “I had a blast in Ireland,” he confesses. The initial omens, however, had not been good. “I started the job on the same day that the Taoiseach [Prime Minister] of Ireland announced that the country was in recession,” he says. “I was in the taxi, arriving from Asia.”

Despite the domestic gloom, however, the Jameson brand was booming in its export markets, particularly in the US. In the company's fiscal 2009-10, for example, the brand saw sales leap by 12% in value terms.

Ricard fielded his next big call from Pringuet in June, 2011. On the table: MD of Pernod's distribution network. Surely the count was longer than three this time? “No, I immediately said yes,” he counters. “But, when I hung up, I thought: “But, the culture at Irish Distillers is amazing.””

Then, in August last year, Patrick Ricard, Pernod's chairman and former CEO – and Alex's uncle – passed away suddenly. Later that same month, the company confirmed that Alex would become deputy CEO & COO, ahead of his promotion to the top job when Pringuet retires, in January 2015.

Alex was clearly very fond of his uncle – the pair share the same birthday – and he took plenty of Patrick's advice on board. “If there's one lesson (from Patrick) that will always be part of me,” he says, “it's the French words 'Le bonne sense'. Fundamentally, it's about being down-to-earth and making the right decisions based on very simple things. That's one of the key points that I'll remember from him.

“Another lesson is that you should admit to having made mistakes and be ready to make more mistakes. If you never make mistakes, it's probably because you haven't taken risks and, if you don't take risks, then you'll never get anywhere.”

As for Pernod's current CEO, Pringuet has also had a profound effect on Ricard's Pernod career to-date – and we're not just talking about his seismic 'phone calls.

“I've known Pierre for the last ten years,” says Ricard. “I started working pretty closely with him in 2008, when I joined the group's executive committee. Then, I started working even more closely with him when I joined the executive board in 2011. Today, we work in tandem – it's pretty fun. The whole board executive meets every Monday morning, and Pierre and I talk on a daily basis – our offices are on the same floor.”

Pringuet has also helped Ricard fill in the gaps in his knowledge of the executive world. “The key missing element to date has been the more corporate type of work,” he says. “I'm more involved with that now with Pierre. What I like most is when we have our one-on-one discussions on specific topics, such as strategic planning, budget, etc.”

It's a bit strange talking to someone about their plans, when they won't be in a position to carry out those plans for another 18 months.

I give it a go anyway.

“The strategy is very clear and it's been stressed by Pierre time and again: Premiumisation, innovation and expansion into new territories,” says Ricard. "There won't be any overnight change.

“The key challenges are to motivate people to take risks,” he continues. “In today's corporate world – and I don't mean in Pernod Ricard - taking risks is difficult for people. This is the key challenge: To keep that entreprenuerial spirit, foster it, and make sure that people willingly want to take risks.

"I think our industry has undergone a wonderful revolution in the last 20 years, and I strongly believe that we (Pernod) have pioneered revolutions. We went from selling products to selling brands, to selling brands with experiences, to selling brands with experiences and services. How fantastic is that? This is probably the most exciting industry in the world.”

And so, with a year-and-a-half to go before he takes the hot seat, Ricard has the luxury of time to gen up on the wine and spirits group that was created by his grandfather. Is he looking forward to it?

“I am,” he smiles. “Absolutely.”

Factfile – Alex Ricard
  • Born: 12 May, 1972
  • Studied: Graduate of ESCP (Ecole Supérieure de Commerce de Paris), of the Wharton School of Business (MBA with majors in Finance and Entrepreneurship) and of the University of Pennsylvania (MA in International Studies)
  • Marital status: Single. “I've just been so focused and dedicated! One thing at a time.”
  • Lives: Paris
  • Drives: Audi
  • Languages: French, English, Spanish, Italian
  • Favourite Sport: Rugby. “I don't have a favourite team, but I follow the teams from the south of France.”
  • Favourite Music: Any kind. “I can talk about the Rhiannas and Lady Gagas of the world, but I like classical music as much as I like R'n'B.”
  • Favourite Drink: In the south of France at the end of a bright, sunny day, I will enjoy my Ricard. Or, if I'm in a bar with friends, we'll go for the odd Jameson. Or, if I'm having a cigar in Paris, we'll have a Havana Club seven-year-old or a Glenlivet 18.