Adimly lit room with wooden flooring, book-lined walls, a leather couch, and a distinguished gentleman in a sharply cut suit smoking a cigar, swirling a glass of cognac in his other hand.
This is the picture I had in mind; this is not what I actually saw, except for the distinguished gentleman in a well-cut business suit.
Bernard Peillon, the chairman and chief executive officer of cognac brand Hennessy, declines a late morning drink (he asks me for tea though) during our meeting at the Sea Lounge of The Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel in Mumbai. The 54-year-old Peillon is warm and speaks generously about encounters with people who shaped his life, though he doesn’t name them.
“My whole career has been a matter of meeting people,” he says in clear English tinged with a French accent.
He starts from “far away”, when he had to choose between two sides of his family—one with the Chateau de Rieussec in Bordeaux and the other in the silk business in Lyon. Peillon swayed towards the vineyard and started working there in 1979, learning about the business till he encountered “a customer” who asked him to move to Harrod’s in London. Still in his early 20s, Peillon worked as a wine salesman for a few months at Harrod’s, which also helped him improve his English. An encounter with “an American” took him to the US in 1981, working in the field of distribution with “one of the finest wine retailers on the East Coast”, till his next encounter brought him back to France in 1983.
He joined the BSN Group, a food and beverage firm, after passing a test to identify three different kinds of bubbly blindfolded, becoming responsible for the group’s champagne brands in export markets. But that was not the end of the journey for the man who kept travelling, learning new facets of the wine business, including marketing, general management and even how to load a truck.
More than three decades later, Peillon remains in the business, although he doesn’t load trucks any more. “Every time, you have to absorb the local culture. You have to dip into it. When I hire people in my company, I say please don’t make judgements right away. You have to perceive those cultural differences, the way people think and behave,” he says.
After spending three years, from 1990, in the US setting up an import and distribution company to handle the BSN Group’s champagne brands, Peillon joined the LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) Group as export manager of Moët and Chandon in 1994, working his way up the company till January 2007, when he became the president of Hennessy Cognac, which is part of the LVMH Group.
He says the perception of an elitist tag associated with cognac has faded over the years, considering younger people now experiment—mixing the smooth spirit that burns slowly down your throat with, unimaginably and among others, Red Bull, a sweet energy drink.
Peillon, clearly not in favour of consuming this particular concoction himself, is not dismissive of it. He says that’s the sort of variation that keeps Hennessy going even today. “If you drink Hennessy XO or Paradis, you probably belong to an older demographic, male, 45 years old and above, a successful businessman, cultured,” he pauses, “good home, good friends. The old tradition is now a cliché—of a snifter, and all of that cigar business. That’s not the way people drink it. Probably 70% of consumers enjoy it as a mixed drink, particularly the younger generation, who would drink it with Coke or green tea, like in China. In India, ginger seems to be important. In the US, it’s cranberry juice. Sometimes, with Red Bull, but that’s an acquired taste, we are not promoting it.”
He pauses before adding: “I tried Red Bull once. Just to say I have done it once. Disgusting. Here, I am maybe too old.”
Having lived in France, the US and England, he says Indians are “probably closer to the French in terms of sophistication, culture. Few people integrate the past because they have no past and few cultural references. India and France share an interesting sense of aesthetics. We don’t do things just because they are functional”.
In October, one of the reasons Peillon visited India, the company organized a Hennessy Artistry (music) series, a mix of different kinds of music, style and people. Bangalore was the chosen destination because that’s where the brand does best. Hennessy’s current enthusiasm for India is also a consequence of the need to expand in newer markets, after the slowdown left the luxury product “flat” over two years.
Peillon, who travels two-thirds of the time in a year, spends the rest at his home close to Versailles, with wife Katinka and six children aged between 12 and 22.
Yes, he loves his Hennessy XO with some ice water in the evening, with strictly no Red Bull.
Hennessy VS is the most favoured product in the Indian market, and the latest fad doing the rounds is to mix it with ginger ale.
THE NEXT BIG THING
Bernard Peillon says the company will dedicate more resources to India in an attempt to change people’s mindsets towards cognac.
BEYOND THE FRINGE
The Hennessy Artistry Club Series will have six shows this year, all in Bangalore, up from three high-energy parties last year. The first of this year’s series was held in February; it had six musical events.