Patrick Piana remembers coming to India 24 years ago as a backpacking college student on a budget—with one crucial difference to his visit in November. This time, he stepped out of his hotel only twice: on the way from the airport and on the way to the airport.
The chief executive officer of Rémy Martin, makers of fine cognac, wants to be able to do more in the future though: see more customers, more bars, hotels and restaurants. Also, he wants to be able to go to other cities besides Mumbai and Delhi. “There’s much more that needs to be seen to better understand the development in the country,” he mumbles.
Fresh into Mumbai from Delhi, off the next day to Vietnam and back in France by the weekend, Piana’s schedule offered no surprises as to why the most amount of walking for him on this trip would be from one conference room to another. Early on a Wednesday morning, he looks bleary eyed, from the travel rather than any discomfort at the Taj Lands End hotel in Bandra, where he meets me. It’s too early even for him to swivel a Rémy XO: “I don’t recommend drinking early in the morning,” he muses.
Travel woes: Patrick Piana travels half the time but does not get to be the tourist that he wants to be sometimes. He says you learn a lot more from people than history books. By Jayachandran/Mint
The 42-year-old does not fit into a stereotype, if there is any, as the head of a 287-year-old company. Standing tall, with a gentle smile and a measured manner of speaking, he does, however, fit the description of the distinguished gentlemen who could be seen in an oak-lined bar, sitting on a leather chair, twirling a cigar in one hand and a Rémy in the other.
“Most cognac is not consumed as an after-dinner drink,” he corrects my archaic ideas. “It’s in parties and nightclubs, as cocktails in the US mainly, with water in China, among other combinations. I had this wonderful mojito in Germany recently with Rémy. It’s important that as the maker, as the guardian of the temple, sometimes we explain how to taste, how to drink to be able to find the aroma, the subtlety. (But) if someone wants to put Red Bull or tomato juice or whatever…” he trails off before recovering. “Success for us is to be part of the social life of people.”
That’s how this nearly three-centuries-old product stays relevant. “If you think about the fact that we stand for quality, craftsmanship, energy…these values go back centuries and these values will express themselves differently now,” he says. “For instance, Rémy has been partnering with hip hop and R&B in the US for 15 years, that’s the way you make yourself relevant while still being true to yourself.
“The major danger for a brand is to try to be somebody you are not. People will see through that. What is different is how you say it—using technology, iPads, you bring the story to life with the tools of the modern age. You don’t have to show them black and white pictures.”
The reason Piana was in India, minus the backpack but loaded with plans for the future, is because he feels the company, with a turnover of €486 million (around Rs3,400 crore), has not been fully committed to India in its two-year association with the country. “It’s time to start seeding; in a business like cognac, time is of the essence. Seeding does not mean getting in and quickly establishing the company, it’s to hire people who will develop the company for generations to come and to better understand the market.”
He says the economic downturn that began in 2008 helped Rémy rebound and refocus on priorities. So when the economy suffered, instead of moping and pulling back, “we said it’s just another crisis. At the worst time, in the middle of 2009, someone asked, ‘Where is India (in your plans)?’ We had to be here because if we are responsible for a 300-year-old company, we have to be in a market that’s going to be a leader for the next 100 years,” says Piana.
India, indeed Asia, also gives him a sense of hope for the future with its positive outlook. The Frenchman, born in England to an Italian father, is truly European in every sense but believes people of the continent aim only for stability instead of growth. “You see people are much more positive about the future here than in France or Spain,” he says. “It’s a key driver for success—to look at the future and try to see the world as something that will improve.”
Piana, who joined as CEO of Rémy Martin in August 2009, started his career with Philip Morris before becoming the senior vice-president of Moët Hennessy USA. Since 2007, the postgraduate in marketing and strategy DEA from the Université de Paris Dauphine was the senior vice-president of Pernod Ricard USA, in charge of the development of Pernod Ricard Group brands in the US market. Piana is now in charge of managing the brand, the communication teams, manufacturing, the development teams, the groups responsible for making the products, as well as the financial control teams of Rémy Martin’s cognac activities.
“When you think about cognac,” he pauses, every bit a person who likes what he does and loves talking about it, “it gives you the opportunity to work with an aromatic palate like a painter. In painting, the colours are the same but talent and vision will make the next one different from the previous one. The high-end spirits industry is not a business—we don’t respond to a functional need but to an emotional, socializing need. At the end of the day, you don’t drink cognac because you are thirsty but because you want to enjoy an aromatic experience in your mouth. That’s where innovation lies.”
Considering that he is constantly on the run, from one meeting to another, from one continent to another, Piana likes to run even when he gets time off work—usually the marathon. Based in Cognac, France, he describes the joy of being able to run through vineyards, any which way he feels, sometimes along the river, 5km each way.
When at home with wife Anne, children Ines (12), Baptiste (10) and Oscar (4), his attention is completely on the family, and not on a computer or the BlackBerry. “My children are young but you cannot allow only half of yourself with them. They deserve, and know how to get, your full attention.”
I encourage him to drop his practicality for a moment and get philosophical: As a young leader of an old, successful company, what does he make of his future? “As the leader of a company with products that are at the same time the fruit of tradition, know-how and conveyors of emotion, it brings me to meet lots of people that makes my life interesting. I didn’t know it would be like this five years ago. Life is about choices—some choices you generate, others you just have to make them because things happen to you. I am an optimist. I know good things will happen.”