For Cyril Sayag, VP at Pernod Ricard, all roads lead back to business in China
Fate, or something like it, keeps bringing Cyril Sayag back to China. He first visited Beijing in 1983 as a student learning Putonghua, biking around the capital, and wearing a Mao-style jacket to blend in with the crowds. He was back between 2000 and 2005 in a different guise, working for the European Commission during China’s accession to the WTO.
After a spell in Europe and a switch to the commercial sector to join drinks firm Pernod Ricard, he returned once more for a job which has evolved into a Hong Kong-based regional role that stretches from Mongolia to Indonesia and from Japan to the Gulf. Sayag’s brief as vice president for legal and public affairs at Pernod Ricard Asia involves everything from anti-counterfeiting policy and regulations implementation to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives.
“Our position is that moderate consumption of alcohol brings conviviality to personal relationships and can even have some health benefits,” says Sayag, whose brief as vice president for legal and public affairs at Pernod Ricard Asia stretches from Mongolia to Indonesia and Japan to the Gulf. “But the company is also very conscious of the potential and — sometimes — actual negative aspects. Therefore, we are an active participant in developing solutions which contribute to the reduction of things like binge drinking and the harmful use of alcohol,” he says.
Addressing the diverse range of issues requires different skill sets. One week, for example, the focus might be on meetings with the local authorities in a mainland city to discuss illegal production and infringement of trademarks. The next, it could be ensuring compliance with sales rules and respect for cultural differences found around the region.
On some days, the key task might be to review a CSR scheme like the one reminding truck drivers in India to be safe road users and offering them free eye tests and glasses to that end. On others, it could be to engage with trade associations and SAOs (social aspects organisations) to develop industry-wide programmes which help to shape responsible attitudes and, for instance, teach students in Japan to disregard peer pressure to over-indulge. “Overall, the biggest challenge for me is to build up the support structures for different markets, helping them with contracts and commercial issues, and making sure they have the right tools and capabilities,” Sayag says. “With acquisitions, we have grown very fast from being a relatively large French company in 2000 to being co-leader of the industry now, so I must also be able to ‘reboot’ from one topic to another on a regular basis to address both internal and public policy issues.” Doing so allows Sayag to make full use his training and experience, while maintaining and extending his links with China.
Sayag’s interest in the country sprang from a chance to study Putonghua in school. A short talk by the school director’s daughter introduced him to the concept of Chinese characters and how they were combined to give to new meanings — and sowed the seeds for what was to become a continuing fascination. Despite summer classes in Beijing as part of the first group of French high school students to visit the mainland, Sayag opted to take degrees in both business and law in Paris, which meant attending two institutions in Paris at the same time.
“I was relatively busy juggling the classes, but I wanted a university education that left the options open,” he says, adding that his subsequent 10 months of military service provided a distinctly different kind of learning. Stationed at Versailles with a tank division, many tasks were predictably mundane — sweeping the courtyard, serving coffee to officers, and doing guard duty in the rain — but he can see the benefits. “In terms of social education, it was important for me to do it and I learned a lot. It was a fantastic lesson in humility to see that being good in class doesn’t necessarily make you useful or a good leader in other areas.”
Moving on to join a Paris law firm, Sayag set his sights on a coveted spot with the European Commission. After a near two-year process of exams and interviews, he was finally accepted as one of 600 from roughly 50,000 applicants.
Based in Brussels, he worked on anti-dumping, parts of the WTO agenda, and the China desk as a prelude to doing an intensive language course and transferring to the EU office in Beijing in 2000. After five years in the city, he returned to Brussels.
“I had always wanted to work for the public interest and believe that the EU is a force for reform and change,” he says. “Nowadays, if you want to influence policy on things like international trade or climate change, you need the scale and capacity to be part of the global debate. As just one country in Europe, you are too small.” Content as a generalist in the commission, Sayag nevertheless received offers from elsewhere and when he received an offer from Pernod Ricard in 2008, he was ready to listen. The role took him back to Beijing and offered a chance to operate in an entrepreneurial environment, resolve practical problems, and instigate change.
“I felt it was the right time to move from public to private sector,” says Sayag. “You have only one life, so you should be ready to try different things.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as The call of China.