CEO Q&A: Bernard Peillon, president and CEO, Hennessy

Business | Thu 30 Jul | Author – Business & Finance
Bernard Peillon Hennessy

As Hennessy celebrates its 250th anniversary, Bernard Peillon tells Niamh Mac Sweeney about how Ireland has a special significance for the brand.

Q: As Hennessy celebrates its 250th anniversary across the globe, how significant is this milestone? And what are the main celebrations for this anniversary?

Rather than just celebrate this significant anniversary in Cognac in France, we wanted to go to symbolic destinations around the world to celebrate the men and women who have really created Hennessy.

We have an international footprint with a really strong presence everywhere in the world, and Hennessy is a story of entrepreneurs who have made it possible to create the success that we have across the globe.

The idea was to have a tour that took in five continents with a very special stop in Ireland to acknowledge our Irish origins, ending with a unique celebration in Cognac to honour our employees there.

Q: Hennessy has a very strong heritage, what do you attribute this to? Equally, the brand and its values are highly regarded. How has Hennessy built the brand to what it is today?

I think the Irish character runs in our blood, and Hennessy is a brand and a company with character. It has always been a family-based company with eight generations of the Hennessy family together with the Fillioux family, who are now in their seventh generation and who have formed a strong partnership with the Hennessys to build a brand of elegance, quality and luxury.

Because of this legacy the brand is human and has heritage. Its not a corporation, it is very personal and people are passionate about it; because of this people relate to it through a strong emotional connection, which then allows us to recreate that same association when we go international.

We are 99% international and we are able to translate that passion and connect with our customers with the same strength of character and passion. Equally, there is this idea of being visionary, which stems from the founder Richard Hennessy – his vision has carried through.

I tell my team my own vision: that I want to be 15 minutes ahead of my time. I want to be constantly defining the future, and I challenge my team to behave with the same idea and the same drive that my predecessors have done – this is what makes Hennessy so unique.

The Irish character runs in our blood, and Hennessy is a brand and a company with character

Q: As president and CEO of a global brand do you have a particular leadership style?

My responsibility is to ensure that I’m not just a manager. The bottom line is extremely important but my personal belief is that I want collective intelligence, I want to capitalise on the fact that everybody, including outside partners, understand the vision that we have and adhere to that vision – ideally with all there mind, their guts and their passion.

We spend a huge amount of time explaining where we are and where we are going and the vision that Hennessy has today sees us positioned as the third most valuable brand in the world in the wine and spirits industry.

Obviously, our objective is to drive that position to become the number one brand in the world. I think we have that potential and I believe we can drive Hennessy to be the most successful premium brand in the world.

But that means that all our energies are driven in that one direction and that everyone has a part to play in that. The challenge for me is instilling that belief and ambition in others.

Q: If Richard Hennessy was alive today, do you think he would have envisaged the longevity and global reach of his Cognac brand?

I hope that he would be proud of what has been built by the successive generations – my predecessors and I.

He had an idea, but I don’t think you ever really know what the end game is.

Of course, I hope the philosophy of excellence he had is still recognisable in the Hennessy brand we have today. One of the core values of Hennessy is the spirit of conquest, in that there are always new territories and new opportunities to explore.

Another thing that is key to us is the art of blending, which not only refers to our business and the way we craft our Cognac, but it also refers to the way we approach the world.

We are great listeners, we travel a lot and we talk to people from all walks of life. We also observe the world in which we move and we spend time appreciating cultures from around the world, adapting the way we speak and the way we relate to that local culture.

Everywhere in the world we go, the local customers relate to the brand. Firstly, they relate emotionally to Hennessy because we have found a relevant way to speak to them. That language makes people feel that we are relevant to their lifestyle, while remaining true to  what we are – Irish-born but a French company in the luxury world.

We present ourselves with a certain level of elegance, and with strong connections to culture and the arts.

Q: Is it a challenge to stick to a core message when trying to speak to so many different people living in vastly different worlds?

Everything is a fine balance between acknowledging and respecting the local cultures so people understand us and relate to Hennessy, while at the same time remaining true to who we are.

hennessy panelPeople talk about the DNA within companies, and the DNA of Hennessy is deeply rooted into our history. For example, what are the important points that allow my team and I to define between two good ideas and decide what is the one that is more specifically good for Hennessy? It is always the one that is crafted to Hennessy and our values of excellence.

The reason why we put this at the centre of Hennessy is the idea that keeping the brand integrity and remaining true to the soul of the brand is so important because it is a personality, it has character and is not just a business.

Q: The US and Europe are clearly well established markets for Hennessy. What are the new growing markets?

China has been a growing market for Hennessy over the last number of years, as has the rest of Asia. The Chinese market has slowed somewhat in the last year, but in contrast other parts of Asia are showing extremely strong growth and potential.

So we have had to adapt and change to the changes happening in the markets. We have invested ahead of the financial trend in the US because we recognised the brand was extremely healthy there and we wanted to ensure this remained.

Because we are ahead of the game, we are in the best position to take advantage of growth and new markets. For example, we are seeing growth in Africa and we are well positioned to take advantage of this market.

The challenge for companies is always to find and craft new opportunities and it is exactly this mental attitude that is indicative to Hennessy and which is the driving force for defining and driving our future.

Q: What is your vision for the future and how do you intend to reach these aspirations? 

I believe that in the future Hennessy can be twice its current size on a worldwide basis.

There are some markets where our presence isn’t as strong as we would like, so there are still opportunities to grow there. The ambition is to become the number one brand in the wine and spirits industry in the world. And if I surround myself with the right talent, I think we can push the limits and achieve our goals.

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The Hennessy 250 Collector Blend

“To mark milestone celebrations, Hennessy has always carefully created a special Cognac to illustrate a sense of continuity. Today, Maison celebrates 250 years of savoir-faire and excellence by creating a unique anniversary blend,” Yann Fillioux, Hennessy master blender and taster explains.

The 250 barrels that hold the 250 Collector Blend – entirely handmade by traditional coopers have been specifically sized for the 250th anniversary and hold 250 litres rather than the usual 270.

The Hennessy 250 Collector Blend distinguishes itself by a warm, bright shade of amber, which comes from the slow ageing of the eaux-de-vie and the successive blending processes. Aromatic tones ranging from herbal to spicy reveal note of orange, nutmeg, liquorice, peppermint and saffron.