Alexandre Ricard is CEO of drinks giant Pernod Ricard. Currently the world’s No2 wines and spirits business, he is keen to make it to the No1 slot and believes that his company’s approach to responsible drinking is a serious step towards achieving that goal.
Interview by Liz Jones.
At 43, Alexandre Ricard is fairly young to be CEO of the world’s second biggest liquor company. And it’s something he is asked about a lot. However, he believes youth is nothing to do with how old you are, but down to one’s mindset. “We at Pernod Ricard all have a young mindset, regardless of our age group. We are a dynamic organisation.”
At a recent ‘Meet the CEO’ student event in Brussels organised by the company, Ricard displayed his obvious and unashamed passion for the drinks industry: “Alcohol is art, part of human mystery if you like. It’s beautiful, as long as you respect it of course,” he said. “I love the industry and its ability to spread conviviality around the world.”
He is enthusiastic about the heritage of his brands too – which include Absolut vodka, Chivas Regal whisky, Jameson Irish whiskey and Malibu rum– and their stories. “Some of them have fifth generation coopers!” he told his rapt audience.
It is clear too that he has an equal passion for his business’s tag line ‘createurs de convivialité’ (creators of conviviality) and that responsible drinking is a huge part of that. “Conviviality and excess do not mix,” he said. He acknowledged that the drinks industry is part of the problem when it comes to drinking issues but maintains that he wants Pernod Ricard to be part of the solution. “We want to be more positive about the responsible drinking message,” he said. “Company prides comes out of the firmly held belief in the concept of responsibility. We’re not cynical about it. Excess is the opposite of what we want.”
Indeed responsible drinking is a key pillar of the company’s CSR programme. In 2009 the company underwent a big review of its CSR activity, restructuring and assessing its relevance to each market. For example, in some markets the topic of responsible consumption addresses drink driving while in another it may tackle binge drinking. However its Responsible Party initiative is a pan-European programme, run in partnership with the Erasmus Exchange Student Network (ESN), which is present in 32 countries. Thus the programme has great scale, having reached 250,000 students since its creation.
Now in its sixth year, the company originally teamed with ESN to address the problem of binge drinking. As a body that supports exchange students and the nature of their work (running lots of ‘get together’ events), it has inevitably run up a reputation for exchange semesters as being ‘times to party’. [Exchange students are distinct from international students in that they are only do part of their degree in a different country, as opposed as a whole three-year degree].
ESN research shows that exchange students tend to drink in the manner of the country in which they are studying. For example, Spanish students who usually drink wine with a meal at home, suddenly shift to drinking vodka shots when studying in Stockholm…
While the first partnership in 2010 was very much regarded by students as being ‘anti-alcohol’, its approach has been tempered and the focus is now fully on wellbeing. Responsible Party ‘squads’ – trained student ambassadors – provide kits to enable and promote responsible consumption, ie water, breathalysers, condoms, etc.
Ricard himself is a firm believer in the ‘peer to peer’ approach at a Responsible Party. “It should be considered friend to friend. It’s a young person’s duty to inform, rather than a top down approach,” he said. “Friendliness is key.”
And he knows what he’s talking about. Last year, on the company’s annual Responsible Day - where the whole company stops to do voluntary work - Ricard spent the day as a party squad member. “It was a very enjoyable experience,” he recalled. “It was interesting to see how receptive people were to the message.”
And when talking to students in Brussels recently, he shared a story to emphasise further the importance of promoting responsible consumption: “I recently asked a bar owner why he didn’t push excess consumption to boost his sales and he told me that excess drinking led to fights and that way he’d lose customers, so ultimately was bad for his business.”
It’s true for Pernod Ricard too. When one student suggested that an alcohol company promoting responsible drinking was rather like a gas station promoting public transport, he was quick to respond: “We’re in this for the long term, to ensure the sustainability of the company. Ethics have to be part of the business. We also want to attract talent and young millennials are looking at these kind of ethical stances in their future employers.”
Quizzed further, Ricard insisted: “Excess is bad for the individual and bad for the company. Moderate consumption will not have a negative impact on sales.”
Ricard is keen for Responsible Party to reach further in 2016. “One thing I’m expecting and will see over time is further innovation and creativity with new technologies. They’ll be able to give us new ideas and so we’ll be leveraging new technologies to spread the message. We’ll also be sharing best practice.”
The Responsible Party initiative does not promote the company’s brands nor is there any signage, indicating that it is a Pernod Ricard activity. Why not? “It’s not the objective of the party,” Ricard said. “The objective is to do it, not advertise it. It’s better the ambassadors advertise the message and not Pernod Ricard brands.”
“It’s not about scoring ‘positive points’ nor is it free advertising,” he said. In fact, he says he’d be happy to partner with competitors and would really like Responsible Party to be a global spirits industry initiative.
Speaking to Ethical Performance he said that he has seen an evolution in general consumer behaviour towards a more balanced approach to drinking, given that the ‘please drink responsibly’ message has been promoted – by law – for a significant time.
“After work you can go home and switch on the news. But that’s a downer. I go home, get a drink and then chat to my partner about how the day has been. That kind of balanced approach and lifestyle is only going to grow, he maintained.
Ricard doesn’t like the term ‘CSR’. “It’s fashionable,” he said. “But it’s been part of the company’s DNA from the beginning and not new to its principles.”
Indeed, he told the story of how during his grandfather’s day, the Vichy government during World War Two prohibited the production of alcohol (said to be ‘contrary to the values’ of France). “That meant 800 people out of job but my grandfather couldn’t allow that. He called his workers together and decided to grow rice instead and to this day, the area – the Carmague – is the biggest rice growing area in Europe.”