Marco Ferrari, Montenegro Groups CEO

Marco Ferrari, Montenegro Group's CEO

Last year, Marco Ferrari left his post as CMO of SPI Group to lead Italian spirits and aperitif maker Montenegro Group. just-drinks spoke to him at the TFWA exhibition in Cannes in October to find out what it is like to go from managing a global brand such as Stolichnaya to a company with strong domestic brands and a global outlook. Ferrari also spoke about his ambitions for Amaro Montenegro, a herbal liqueur that is finding traction in the US.

just-drinks: What is the set up at Montenegro Group?

Marco Ferrari, Montenegro Group's CEO: It is a big company, with both a food and spirits division and about 300 employees. We own two of the top five spirits brands in Italy and the No. 1 amaro brand, Amaro Montengro. Our brandy, Montenegro Vecchia Romagna is the No. 1 brandy in Italy. Both of these are priced in the premium category and Amaro Montengro is 25% above the average amaro and 20% above its main rival. 

Two years ago, however, we started a focus on international markets and that is now our top priority. We belong to a category [amaro] that is happening, is quite exciting. Bartenders have realised Amaro Montengro is quite versatile and we have an advantage in that we are lower in abv, 23% instead of about 30 for the typical amaro. That helps us. We don't overpower the drink. 

In the US we have seen triple-digit growth, from a relatively small base, but we will be reaching close to 10,000 nine-litre cases. 

j-d: Has the growth in cocktail culture helped you at all?

MF: We've been brought into it because the [amaro] category has been brought in by bartenders. There has been a time of complexity - wonderful cocktails but impossible to replicate at home. At the same time, for us normal people, if you bring the bottle home, what do you do with it? We are inbetween complex cocktails and simple mixed drinks, but we are tapping into cocktails that are quite well known. So we're trying to bring a little simplicity to the extreme complexity we have seen over the past few years but at the same time we're not going mainstream.

j-d: How have you made yourself heard to bartenders?

MF: On one side we have luck. We were getting traction without pushing as there was a lot of interest in the category. But being the No. 1 amaro in Italy also helps. It might not mean much to the consumer but for bartenders who see excitement in the category, knowing that there is a brand out there that is No.1 in the country where it was born is a really helpful element. And that we're No.1 in premium is also a good element for us to drive.

We cannot take too much credit, as we're fuelling something that is already lit.

j-d: What is it like to go from being one of the big boys to going up against them?

MF: It's exciting. As an industry we like to talk about being entrepreneurial but the reality is there are very few environments that are entrepreneurial. This is one of them. I think we have all the elements we need to have long-term success. We're not here to look at monthly or quarterly reports. We have the ability and desire to invest.

There is an increasing level  of interest in Italian spirits. Our distributors are asking us. We don't have to force them to take our brand.

j-d: Why are you in Cannes?

MF: Travel Retail for us is limited. We have some distribution but there has never been a push from our side. So next year we'll be trying to expand our relationship with Travel Retail. We're trying to grab the opportunity and make the  most of it.

j-d: What did your time at SPI teach you?

MF: They were some of the best years of my professional life. I managed different brands and also used to head up Bacardi's rum portfolio in Europe for a few years. That's a huge brand in a very large company so I shared responsibility and decision making with a lot of people.

And then Stoli was great because it was a very lean team but we had a tremendous run for four years, which is still going. Managing a global brand in 169 countries and having solid business in several markets was a great challenge. But at the same time it was really good to educate everyone to be efficient with every dollar we were spending because ultimately you tend to have someone who will outspend you. There are brands that outspend Stoli because they have bigger budgets. So we tried to be clever with the money that we spent.

j-d: Are you bringing that to Montenegro?

MF: We're very much results orientated but what we're doing now is working on consistency, treating the brand as a global brand instead of an Italian brand that is looking outside.

j-d: What targets have you set?

MF: It's hard to set targets. But do I think Amaro Montenegro can be 100,000 cases in the US? If the trend of the country goes in a certain direction, then yes, we can be at the forefront of that. But it's hard to put numbers on it.

j-d: What's the spirits market in Italy like at the moment?

MF: Spirits in Italy have been declining for some time as the market matures. People go out a little less. Nothing dramatic but it's just a constant erosion. Everything is quite flat.