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The spirit of innovation

Published on Friday, 17 Oct 2014
Photo: Sky Lip

Any graduate recruited for the Pernod Ricard Asia regional management trainee (MT) programme has the opportunity and potential to reach senior management level, but they must be ready to roll up their sleeves and apply themselves from day one.

"These people are smart, but they have to deliver results as well," says Bernard Coulaty, VP of human resources at Pernod Ricard Asia. Coulaty devised and oversees the programme, which offers a select number of places per year for applicants in key markets in Asia. "Everyone in the company knows them, but they are not regarded as 'stars', [as that] could be a pitfall. They have to prove they can integrate with colleagues and be hard-working, dedicated and compatible as they learn about the different sides of the business."

The aim of the scheme is to attract a select number of graduates from top universities. The graduates are then based in their home markets and assigned to a particular "focus function" in line with their interests and future career goals. Recruits will be quickly immersed in the day-to-day work of their departments and take on a number of challenging personal projects.

In the initial 18 months, each graduate also undertakes a well-structured series of job rotations, overseas placement, courses and familiarisation trips. This gives them an overview of the work of different departments in their own market, an understanding of how everything fits together, and exposure to the company's international operations.

From its headquarters in France, Pernod Ricard makes and markets such well-known brands as Absolut Vodka, Chivas Regal whisky, Martell cognac, Jameson Irish whiskey, Jacob's Creek wines, GH Mumm champagne, Beefeater gin, and Kahlua and Malibu liqueurs. It has a global workforce of around 18,000 and a decentralised organisation based around six brand companies and 80 market companies.

As a matter of policy, there is a commitment to sustainable development and responsible consumption. In addition, the corporate strategy emphasises three core values to guide its expansion: an entrepreneurial spirit, mutual trust and a strong sense of ethics.

"Taking these principles, the programme aims to develop young talent in Asia and shape the company's future leaders," Coulaty says. "Each country decides on the number of trainees to recruit each year, but we are very selective about candidates and normally keep the number small."

Applicants should have a solid academic background and strong language skills, with excellent written and spoken English. There are no specific requirements regarding degree subjects, but candidates should have a minimum second (upper) class honours. It helps if they can show "mobility" by having taken part in student exchanges, overseas internships, or even a back-packing trip somewhere abroad. The company takes this as evidence of curiosity and an open mind, and a sign that individuals will fit in with the prevailing culture and philosophy.

"We want graduates who are ambitious for themselves and for the company," Coulaty says. "Sales of Western wines and spirits still represent only a relatively small proportion of the total market in Asia, so there is huge potential for growth, which we expect to continue. Therefore, new management trainees will have to keep up with the expansion of the industry and will have the chance to be creative and innovative."

In looking to establish the company as an employer of choice in Asia, the programme also leads to a long-term career path with clear objectives and performance targets.

"To build a career, you need to be engaged in the process," Coulaty says. "For that reason, we expect our staff to fully engage themselves in training, talent development programmes and the Pernod Ricard culture. It is an attitude we look for in the pre-hiring interviews and assessment centres."

Everything starts with online tests and an interview with the local HR manager in the candidates' respective countries. A shortlist of 30 or so is then invited for a day in Hong Kong, which includes group exercises, case studies, collective assessments and social interaction with senior company staff.

In the programme's first year, 11 recruits were selected, then seven, and in the current third year of hiring, the target is around 10.

"It is a question of quality, not quantity," Coulaty says. "So far, we have 100 per cent retention and since the programme is designed to include rotations, travel, a week in France and leadership training, it has everything that graduates like."

His advice to candidates preparing for an initial interview is to "be yourself". It is also a good idea, he notes, to have some concrete examples in mind to illustrate experiences and achievements.

Shanghai-based Karen Gao was part of the programme's first intake. She joined Pernod Ricard almost 18 months ago and is currently completing a job rotation with the marketing team in Hong Kong. Before joining, she studied law at Fudan University and then took a master's degree focusing on education, culture and society at the University of Pennsylvania. She feels the combination of hands-on experience in her focus function and time with other business units has been an excellent way to learn.

"By getting involved in the work of different departments and markets, you get an overview of the group's business model and an understanding of the industry," Gao says. "This is a good way to build up knowledge and skills and, throughout the programme, trainees are also closely involved in a range of projects, seeing them through from planning to execution."

For one such project, Gao had to co-ordinate a new product pre-launch for a Jacob's Creek wine in Shanghai and Chengdu. With the aim of gauging consumer reaction, the project entailed elements of testing methodology, on-site interaction, trade marketing communication, test result analysis and final reports.

"I had to start by building the structure and mechanics for the entire event, which was all my responsibility," she says. "I was also in charge of decisions relating to agency management and budgets, so the whole project was my baby."

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