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Society & Success

A chat with Hennessy boss

Hennessy chief executive Bernard Peillon on July 17, 2017. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG
Hennessy chief executive Bernard Peillon on July 17, 2017. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG 

“Hennessy is not a company, it’s a house and like any house you get access by being invited. In our house, all are welcome,” says, Bernard Peillon, President of Hennessy Cognac (LVMH Group). It was his first time in Kenya.

An old hand in the luxury industry, Bernard Peillon has worked in the alcoholic beverages (wines and spirits) for close to 37 years now. He’s worked for for LVMH (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE), the French multinational luxury conglomerate since 1993, moving up the ranks to current position.

For more than two centuries, Hennessy has written new chapters in the story of cognac and with over five million cases in 2013, it’s now the top French brand by value in the world, present on every continent and in more than 130 countries, making it the ambassador for French art de vivre the world over.

JACKSON BIKO met Le président at the Sankara Hotel.

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You know, I read your bio profile that you have six children... one, two….six! I thought whoa!...

(Laughs)

Not to stereotype but I thought, “this is uncharacteristic of what we imagine of a white man”, because if you were an African I would have thought, “Of course he needs more children to go out and hunt.” But I’m curious, how did that happen...OK, I know how it happened, but...are they from one wife?

(Raucous laughter) Yes, from one wife. Maybe the first thing I should tell you to assure you is that it’s not contagious. (Laughter in room). It’s not uncommon to have many children in my society. My sister also has six children, my mother had 12. In rural France, it was common to have many children so that they help in the farms. Personally, we always wanted to have a large family. We felt much more accomplished, having all our children.

What have you learnt, as a father, as a man, raising such a big brood?

That’s a very interesting question. I have learnt that not everything circles around the material things of life. If you’re eight in a family, you can’t travel in the same way. Even though I have a good salary now, it hasn’t always been the case, we made a choice that it was a priority to travel.

For example, I love trekking, and we have taken our children to go trekking and camping rather than go to lodges and expensive hotels.

As a consequence, we’re a very united family. Our children are less than 10 years apart and it’s always been group work. My car used to be called the Ghetto mobile. (Chuckles). I’m a Catholic, and you know I had to have a wagon for something like 20 years and wagons were described in France as the car of the Catholics because they were supposed to have many children.

I’m sorry, but I promise this is going to be the last question about parenting…

(Chuckles) No, it’s fine really.

So when your older children left the house, did you experience a void and how did you fill it?

Another very good question. My wife went back to school and studied nursing, now she is an oncology nurse. She finds a lot of purpose taking care of people suffering from cancer.

Also, we moved from the house in which we raised our children outside Paris to an apartment. We also found time to do things together. For instance, we are going for three weeks trekking, just the two of us. We rediscovered the pleasure of being a couple while being grandparents. We also built this large ski lounge in the mountains — I love skiing—where we can get the family together.

What is Hennessy’s strategy in East Africa?

Hennessy’s focus is on the growing middle class and youth in Kenya. Unlike in Europe and America, in Kenya, Hennessy is a young and vibrant brand despite its over 100 years of age.

You’ve had a very illustrious career working for Hennessy for many decades. Did you ever feel the need or the curiosity to try out a different job?

Now, this is a trade of passion. I spent my entire career in wine, champagne and spirits. My family was in the same business and I love the idea to have vineyards, because it forces you to be conscious of the weather and the relationship with the earth. I love the relationship I have with our 1,600 or so growers, I’m very close to them.

What were your dreams when you were growing up?

(Long pause) I really wanted to go out of France, to travel the world. I had that kind of thirst that I couldn’t stay. I can’t stay in my desk for a couple of hours, I want to leave and meet people and talk to them. I have tonnes of energy. I love travelling the world because if you’re curious, if you’re open minded, if you love the people, everything is of interest. I will remember the way you dress if we meet five years down the road.

What’s the one thing you’ve learnt about alcohol after so many years selling it?

(Long pause) I think it’s in brands. How do you create brands and generate this interest in people? What does it stand for? I like this intellectual idea that there’s a brand truth. How do you capsulate that? How do you express its personality? You have to understand the personality of the brand before you invite people to connect with it.

You run a massive company with many moving parts and culturally diverse staff spread all over the globe, how do you make sure that there is no disconnect?

For me, first people need to get up in the morning with a good reason to come to work. They need a dream which needs to be exciting and inviting. I’m the conductor of all this, but I need to be legitimate. They need to see me as a leader and to accept the idea of being led by me. I spend enormous amounts of time to explain what we should be doing. We spend enormous amounts of time to get them working in groups.

People need to feel like they own a piece of the dream that they understand the sense of what we do and that they are happy to participate. And that’s why we’re very successful.

Surely, you must burn out at some point?

No. I never burn out. I shouldn’t say this in Kenya but I’m a marathon runner. I’m in good health. I’ve great people around me, so I don’t need to exhaust myself. When you have the best around you, you don’t need to do the job. I facilitate, I point in the right direction. I’m a conductor, I harmonise.

If you were not doing this, what would you be doing?

Trekking. I’d be going out in the mountains everyday. I love it.

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