Pierre Pringuet joined Pernod Ricard in 1987

Pierre Pringuet joined Pernod Ricard in 1987

This week sees Pernod Ricard switch its CEO, with Alexandre Ricard replacing Pierre Pringuet in the hot seat. With Pringuet retiring, just-drinks met up with him one last time to look back at his near 30-year career with the French wine and spirits group.

Like most senior executives that I have met, Pierre Pringuet maintains that he isn't the biggest fan of talking about himself. But then, like most senior executives, once he gets over his modest moment, Pringuet is more than comfortable to spill some beans. It's not without a struggle, though, believe me: "I'm keen to talk about the situation for the company in 20 years," he laughs, before eventually conceding that we're going to talk about "legacy and not strategy".

What helps him relax into our conversation is the fact that he is now on the home straight. Having joined Pernod Ricard in April, 1987, this week sees time being called on his tenure, almost 30 years - and a handful of high-profile transactions – later.

Before the M&A juice, though, let's jump back to Pringuet's first day at Pernod. "My predecessor had organised a meeting of the heads of the 'non-leading product commissions'," he says. "That meeting looked at organisational efficiencies – that was my first meeting at Pernod Ricard!

"I also noticed that this was a meeting of people who are in charge of areas that didn't matter, it wasn't very motivating. We renamed it the export commission." And, so began Pernod's first serious manoeuvres outside France. "What started as a joke," notes Pringuet, "was the starting point for great development."

In Asia, particularly, Pernod had gone from having just two representative offices to a strong distribution network within five years. In that period, the company's great leap forward came in 2001, when it acquired 38% of Seagram, a transaction that, while he did not have direct involvement with it, Pringuet remembers clearly what he was taking on board.

"The morale in Seagram was poor," he says. "In China, for example, where Seagram was much bigger than we were, we undertook a reverse integration. Within three months, almost the whole senior team had left. What my first few days at Pernod taught me was that there was real potential in Asia."

The company's success in the region, driven mainly by Seagram's Martell Cognac brand, has been put down in part to Pernod's first-entry status. Pringuet remembers those days fondly. "I have a strong link with Asia because basically I started it up for Pernod," he says. "I know all the people that were involved in the development of our presence in Asia particularly well."

In 2000, Pringuet was appointed - along with the Irish Distillers unit's CEO, Richard Burrows - to be joint MD of Pernod. His direct line manager was Patrick Ricard, one of the more colourful personalities to have graced the global spirits industry in recent years. My clearest memory of Patrick, who passed away in 2012, is his pummeling of the desk as I pressed him on Pernod's legal row with Bacardi over the Havana Club trademark. Of course, Pringuet had far closer knowledge of Patrick. "He was not so much interested in the financial details," says Pringuet, smiling. "He was interested in people, in brands - he always had a good feeling for brands. As long as things were going nicely, he was happy. When they weren't, then you had to explain!"

What does Pringuet recall of his co-appointment with Burrows? "It was very much in Patrick's style. We were travelling to Amsterdam, to visit our subsidiary there. While we were waiting in the airport lounge, Patrick said to me: "By the way, I have to tell you something: (Incumbent) Thierry Jacquillat is retiring, so we have to replace him. You and Richard Burrows will be appointed." And, that's it.

"It was a good surprise."

Five years later, Burrows retired from his role at Pernod, leaving the way open for Pringuet to assume the mantle of CEO when Patrick Ricard also retired, in 2008. "This time," notes Pringuet, "it didn't come as a surprise. That happened in an orderly manner."

Looking to the future, Pernod's new CEO is Alex Ricard, Patrick's nephew. Much as Pringuet has worked closely with him, not only while he headed up the Irish Distillers division between 2008 and 2011, but more recently while he assumed the role of global MD for distribution, I'm curious to know what advice Pringuet has for him. "It's not a question of what I think he should do," he counters, "I already know what he thinks.

"He'll look to continue the company's strategy, including the Allegro (cost-saving) project. In essence, it's a return to the company's roots. When it comes to decision-making, we may be well-known as being not very sophisticated, but we are known for being very quick. With Allegro, it's a question of speed."

Alex will also focus on the digital side of Pernod's activities. "This is a complete transformation," Pringuet explains, "which changes the way we work, internally. There's still a lot of progress to be made in this area. We have to complete this transformation and it's on the way. It's a very important thing for us to achieve.

"Then," he continues, "there is the extension of the territories where we sell our brands - you can expect to see further developments in Africa, because that's where the potential is. Finally, you'll see a diversification of our talent in the coming years, such as by gender - there is room for improvement, for sure, - by background and by nationality."

The second part of this interview, which looks back at Pringuet's memories of Pernod's M&A activity, can be found here.