Career Advice Successful High flyers’ story

Philippe Guettat a charismatic leader who walks the talk

Managing to be in the right place at the right time can count for a lot and, career-wise, Philippe Guettat seems to have that knack.

He is currently chairman and chief executive of Pernod Ricard Asia, at a time when sales in China and India are experiencing rapid growth as middle- and affluent-class consumers develop a new taste for premium wines and spirits.

But he is also in a position to open up new markets in the region, whether by manufacturing locally or importing classic brands. And, with the march of technology, his job also means changing the way business is done by making use of the latest digital tools for advertising, promotion, and direct interaction.

“The basic agenda is to transform and accelerate,” says Hong Kong-based Guettat, who took up his present role in 2015. “Asia is already the key engine of growth for the company, representing around one-third of total sales, and it will continue to grow. But we still have to do the heavy lifting to recruit new consumers, interest them in our western-style brands — Chivas Regal, Martell, Absolut vodka and more — and educate the palate.”

The process begins with market research, talking to bar owners and key stakeholders to explore the benefits, assess potential, and do small-scale tastings. Brand ambassadors, many of them helpful bartenders, play a big part by helping to understand trends in their cities and identify the “tribes” who could be interested and influential in building a following.

In Thailand, for instance, one such tribe is a community of barbers. They talk about what’s new and may serve a drink to Thai hipsters, who later post a comment on social media. From there, things can quickly take off.

“Overall conviviality remains the foundation of everything we do and is embedded in our culture,” Guettat says. “But digital is transforming the mindset of the company. We now have advertising on a video-on-demand site in China and a chatbot giving advice on cocktails. That is the way to be relevant to consumers and double the penetration of our brands.”

Guettat hails originally from a town in Southwest France, near Toulouse, where his father was headmaster of a vocational school for students with social difficulties. His mother worked at the school as well, but Guettat’s early ambitions centred more on seeing the wider world, perhaps by entering the diplomatic corps.

“I wanted to travel, discover new cultures, and be involved in negotiations,” he says. “I was always very interested in politics and international affairs.”

After completing his baccalaureate locally, he duly did two years at university in Toulouse before transferring for a further three years at HEC Paris, widely regarded as the best business school in France, and graduated with a master’s in 1986.

At that point, compulsory military service was looming. Instead, he opted for the alternative and was handed an assignment intended to develop French export markets overseas. It saw him based in Milan, selling office furniture for a small company for the next two-and-a-half years — and thinking hard about his future.

“I learned a lot, including Italian, but also realised I was not that interested in B2B. I decided that working with consumers in the FMCG area had much more appeal.”

Accordingly, he returned to Paris, joined the marketing department of yoghurt company Yoplait and, before long, was given an exciting brief as area brand manager for Asia.

“That was my first ‘discovery’ of the region,” he says. “My job was to develop business and revenue in key markets from Japan to Singapore, which meant visiting five times a year. I had a great time, but after three years, could see that the firm offered limited career options. I wanted to be with a French multinational where I could have a long career, be more operational and, potentially, be based overseas.”

As things turned out, he found all that by joining Pernod Ricard. He began with them in 1991 as an area manager in charge of export sales in the Cognac region, and when word filtered through that the company was looking for people to move overseas, he was quick to put up his hand.

That led to a total of seven years in Singapore and Hong Kong doing various sales and marketing roles. Success there brought a three-year spell back in France, as marketing director for Pernod, before agreeing a return to Asia in 2002 as managing director in China, with a particular focus on overseeing key brands recently acquired from Seagram’s.

In due course, a couple more moves to gain experience as chief executive responsible for products like Absolut vodka and Martell Cognac paved the way to his current position in 2015 and the chance to put his stamp on a decentralised organisation which now covers 15 markets and has around 3,000 direct employees.

“As a leader, I need to balance things and make people empowered and accountable,” Guettat says. “It’s a constant evolution, which involves a lot of training and development, mentoring of senior colleagues, and spreading the culture. For instance, at corporate level, I’m an ambassador for gender and nationality balance within Asia to make sure we walk the talk. And we are introducing ‘reverse mentoring’ to help us look at digital developments from a business angle and see how we can be more effective in that respect.”

In his limited spare time, Guettat, who recently welcomed a fourth child, does trail running and half marathons, supports the PSG football team, and is working on one longer-term dream.

“I love projects and, at some stage, will be a winemaker; doing that will establish a connection with my grandfather,” he says. “I plan to buy a vineyard, maybe in Provence or the Southern Rhone region. I’m in the process of deciding, and I would like to open a restaurant nearby with my wife.”