Frédéric Mairesse, managing director of Champagne Barons de Rothschild, talks about his sparkling career
Some career choices are easily made. When Frédéric Mairesse was approached to become managing director of Champagne Barons de Rothschild, it didn’t take him long to decide to join the French luxury drinks maker.
The challenge presented was unique – to create and launch a new champagne house backed by one of the wine industry’s most famous names. In doing so, he would be able to deploy a full range of skills and experience acquired over 20-plus years in the trade.
“The initial task was to match the quality expectations of the Rothschild family who, at the outset, said they wanted the best in terms of grapes, processing and overall know-how,” says Mairesse, who trained first as an oenologist and later qualified as an expert winemaker or, in the French style, an “engineer”.
“Now, the mission is to build up the brand, win recognition as one of the world’s best champagnes, and keep expanding the distribution network.”
Mairesse was in Hong Kong to attend the Longines Masters international show-jumping event, with which Champagne Barons de Rothschild has partnered. The brand’s brut champagne will be served at the event for the next three years, as well as at other Longines Masters events in Paris and Los Angeles.
Originally from Reims in France, where his parents ran a local printing business, Mairesse started taking courses on the production of food and wine from the age of 14, alongside the standard school curriculum. By 17, sure of his ambition to be a winemaker, he began a five-year programme of formal study, centred on the vineyards and growers of the Rhône Valley.
He studied viticulture, climate, terroir and the entire production process – from the selection of grapes, blends and dosages through to disgorging, labelling and distribution. Along the way, there were also courses on finance, management, quality and, crucially, the chemistry behind different flavours and vintages.
“When someone explained how fermentation works, it all instantly clicked,” he says. “I saw what you could do and, after that, spent a lot of time understanding the natural and chemical processes and became very passionate about it too.”
Theoretical and practical learning ran in parallel, for Mairesse, with time spent in the classroom in Paris and on the ground in Bordeaux and Toulouse. As graduation approached in 1989, a training session at Danone led to a job offer with the Lanson/Pommery part of the group and, but with one potential hitch: Mairesse had yet to do his compulsory military service.
An agreement was reached, though, which allowed him to work for a year before putting on uniform. Fortunately, he was able to take a month’s leave to oversee a 200-strong team at harvest time and manage a pressing centre in the Champagne region. And, army duty completed, after a period of compulsory military service, he was then free to apply himself fully to the role of quality engineer. This not only required in-depth knowledge of growing, fermentation and inventory management, but also brought him into contact with some of the best people in the industry.
Already making his mark, yet keen at some point to run a company and not spend his whole career “in the tanks”, Mairesse felt the need to move on.
First, he went to Seagram, working on the Mumm and Perrier-Jouët brands for five years. Next, he became production director from vine to dispatch for Maison Pommery, a division of LVMH, where he also supervised part of the operations for Ruinart and Veuve Clicquot.
And then, contrary to convention and accepted wisdom, he left that coveted role with a leading champagne house to join a supposedly less prestigious maker of wines.
“My friends said I was crazy to leave LVMH and go to work on ‘mid-range’ wines in the Rhône Valley,” he says. “But I had the guts to take the risk, and they can see now that things did turn out well. The move allowed me to take on new challenges, gain broader experience, and develop the confidence to talk to people from around the world.”
It was, he readily admits, a huge job. For a start, as managing director at Domaines Paul Jaboulet Aîné and the Château La Lagune, he had to learn about every appellation and its characteristics. This meant understanding the specific features of 35 wines and vintages, 12 or more grape varieties, and getting to know 400 to 500 villages around the region. It also involved being responsible for other areas, such as sales and business development. And, ever present, was the need to ensure production processes and general operations moved with the times and met the highest standards.
All of this, though, stood Mairesse in good stead when Rothschild’s invitation came ten years ago to return to his roots in Reims. Taking charge of a brand-new champagne or, as he describes it, “the last to arrive”, presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This was especially so given the prime considerations spelt out were quality and reputation, rather than to chase after market share, sales numbers or short-term returns.
“The Rothschild family don’t care so much about the timescales,” he says. “If something takes four or five more years, it is not a problem for them. But they do say don’t make any mistakes about brand positioning and upholding the family’s values.
“Therefore, my job is to convince and consolidate, to find the best partners, explain what we are doing, develop the business with a certain amount of serenity, and think about the next 25 years.”
When not immersed in work, travel or promotional commitments, Mairesse looks to ski, sail, dive, go fishing, or just spend time beside the sea with his family.
“I love nature and I like to grow my own tomatoes – that is something without any stress,” he says.
Frédéric Mairesse gives his top five management tips
Pick priorities “I try to work with a smile and create a friendly ambience. But there are also times when you have to be tough for the good of the organisation – and the employees. In each job, you will have to do things that are liked and not liked by others.”
Build a base “As a leader, if you don’t have a strong team, you are nothing.”
Take time “If necessary, I am ready to explain things from beginning to end. By doing that, I find colleagues and partners are more willing to share their own views and to collaborate productively.”
Find balance “In dealing now with 80-plus countries, there are issues and events every day. I start early and finish late to keep up with everything, but you have to consider your family too, otherwise you end up working 24 hours a day.”
Look ahead “As the company grows, it is important to plan future hiring and be ready to share or delegate various responsibilities.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as A sparkling career.