PULSE: How you are doing?
BERNARD PEILLON: I’m great. It’s always a pleasure to come and discover a new market, for me, obviously. We have a team here for a long period of time but for me, I really wanted to signify the people how important Nigeria is to Hennessy and to know more about it.
I’m listening a lot about Nigeria but there’s nothing that beats being here in the market.
PULSE: You’ve been to Africa a few times but interestingly, it’s your first time in Nigeria.
BP: Yes it is. But I have been to South Africa. My parents used to live in Northern Africa, in Morocco and actually my brother was born there. Been to a few other countries but I’m still in the learning stage (laughs).
PULSE: What’s your first impression of Nigeria?
BP: I think two things; the first one is the energy of the people. There is a tremendous amount of energy. I’ve been travelling for 30 years, I think a bit everywhere on the globe and when you come to a country like Nigeria you can sense that energy. You see the people and the way they move, you love the energy.
The second is the population; Lagos has about 20-25 million people, even more. This is gigantic even as you go across the globe. Very few cities are 20-25 million strong. It’s big!
PULSE: What would you attribute to the level of success of Hennessy in Nigeria?
BP: Most people will define success around the current situation and give the impression that it is overnight. Actually, success for brands like ours is not overnight. We’ve been in Africa for over 150 years. The first shipment was in 1866.
So the last 20 to 25 years, I’ve seen an acceleration of our business expansion particularly here in Nigeria which makes Nigeria one of our top ten markets in the world. Hennessy is present in about 120 countries and Nigeria is in our top ten markets for Hennessy in the world.
The success is always for brands that I can see coming from a long way with relationships in the market nurturing personal relationships with opinion leaders, with business leaders, with consumers. In doing that, we’ve partnered with local partners who will help us understand the market. There is no way that me or a team of French people coming into Nigeria can understand it with the same intimacy as if you have a local partner and that allows us to decipher and understand the specifics of a market like Nigeria.
With our focus in mind, we don’t come to any country, including Nigeria with our toolbox and say “this is the way it should be done”. The Hennessy family has never done it like that. They’ve been going around the globe. The first shipment of Hennessy in the United States was in 1794. We were founded in 1765. 1859 in China, 1880 in Russia. But every single time, we’ve always partnered and listened. We check on the pulse of the market and we became intimate with the market and I think that’s the basic element that has made Hennessy successful.
And then, obviously, we’ve invested in the market, we’ve explained to the people what makes Hennessy special or good. We make sure that the quality is there and protected but that comes after understanding the market.
PULSE: Why is the 250th anniversary so important to the brand Hennessy?
BP: It is because we only celebrate those milestones every 50 years so we are always looking in that time span. The last time we celebrated was 50 years ago for the 200th anniversary. When you have a milestone like this one, you have a fantastic opportunity to reflect on the past and to project yourself and say “how do I define myself moving forward?”.
If you look at our motto for the 250th anniversary, it is ‘crafting the future since 1765’. It means that we’ve created with the men and women the success at Hennessy today and because of that relationship that I just described about Nigeria, we are projecting ourselves into the future. That’s what we are celebrating. So as we go round the planet and we take the opportunity of the 250th anniversary, we are celebrating the men and women who’ve created what Hennessy is today and that is the most important part.
PULSE: 250 years after the first bottle was produced, how do you stay in line with the Hennessy vision?
BP: The story of the 250 years is the story of two families – the Hennessy’s as the visionaries, the founders and the owners of the house. We don’t like to use the word ‘company’ we rather say ‘house’. Internally, we say the ‘house of Hennessy’ because a house is inhabited, it has a human dimension rather than ‘company’ which sounds very corporate.
So we have the Hennessy family and then they’ve associated themselves with the Filloux family, the master blenders. We have two families that for seven generations have created from generations to generations the Hennessy Cognac which has expanded across the globe. So the absolute obsession is the quality. I spend probably more time discussing about quality with our suppliers. There has been a family supplying Hennessy continuously for 219 years. So the first element is the insurance that we retain the quality of our supply.
The second element which is more of a business element is the agility. Even though I am I charge of quite a huge amount of people, I do a lot of travelling and this is because we need to listen to the way that the world is ticking. For example, people are saying, “China is great – there’s an great opportunity there, we need to adapt to the flow of the economic environment”.
Hennessy is the only brand that has a true international presence and the success in Nigeria has not come overnight, it’s been in the works for at least the past 25 years. It’s how you project yourself; “What is the future of Nigeria to Hennessy?” That’s my key question and when I spend time here, it’s to understand this by talking to people like you, to our partners, to artists, to a young man working with Hennessy. “How do you as a young Nigerian look at the future?”. So I can come back to Hennessy in Cognac and have that in mind and decide, “How do I move the brand? How much resources to I locate to Nigeria to secure that future?”. So that’s the agility and the know-how that I need to develop and like the Hennessy’s have done, so that I’m the best international manager there is for a brand like Hennessy.
PULSE: What are the currently challenges of Hennessy globally?
BP: We are leaving in interesting times. The world is incredible because there is very little you can predict that’s why you need to have this widespread presence that allows you to face a world that is unpredictable. I think my predecessors were living in a world that was a bit more stable. This world is clearly unstable and who would have predicted that the price of the oil barrel would be close to 40$?
There were people talking about the oil price going to $200. This is impacting a lot of countries including Nigeria, Russia and countries. So it’s how these countries adapt to that. Then China’s new president who has decided to fight against corruption when he resumed power in 2012. This has significantly changed the environment and at the same time at the US which has a very low employment rate of say 5.3 per cent and core consumers which are African Americans are better off in this current cycle than the depression of 2008/2009. Hennessy has a booming business in the US. So on one hand we have some countries that are going through a hiccup and it’s about moving around.
And then you have the currencies; China just devaluated the Renminbi, this has an impact and the Euro is weakening against the Dollar, this has a positive impact on us. You need to be extremely agile but at the same time keep the long term perspective. You cannot just move a brand like Hennessy – one minute to the right, the other minute to the left. You need to be consistent. Again, I think we are successful because we are consistent. We take a reading on the world, we try to be agile but at the same time, we stick to a vision. That’s the key idea.
PULSE: So other than consistency, what gives your brand an edge over competitors?
BP: I have to say first of all, quality. How can I say this? We have the largest and most beautiful qualitative inventory of eau de vie on the planet. We have the most qualitative stock of great cognacs. The second I’ll have to say is our passion.
PULSE: What’s the day in the life of the CEO?
BP: It’s how do you embark people and say “this is the vision, this is what I’d like you to be totally passionate about”. And it’s the huge amount of energy, positive energy that you put to create what I call collective intelligence where you are a worker in any department, how do you bond people? I have close to a thousand employees at Hennessy – how do you turn them into a formidable force because everybody is pulling in the same direction. I don’t have to be behind anyone, I just know that the job is being done because people are committed, they are passionate and they believe in something and when they get up in the morning, they know what they want to do and they believe in it and it’s as simple as that.
After that, you put processes, you put whatever you want. I think I have the best team in the world – my talent is to hire the best people on the planet that will be totally motivated, dedicated to Hennessy. I am just the conductor in an orchestra, my team plays.
PULSE: For the past eight years, what has been your most challenging day?
BP: It never boils down to one thing or day – it’s an ongoing thing. If I’m in the shower or taking my marathon runs, my mind is on the business. I need to keep it under control so it’s cool and serene and very calm. You need to be very calm, so you face one problem at a time and you try to keep the vision so that you don’t kind of deviate from it.