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Stephane de Meurville: In high spirits

LiveMint logoLiveMint 19-05-2017 Sapna Agarwal

It is 7pm on a Friday, and I am meeting Stéphane de Meurville, the current managing director of Moët Hennessy India Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary of Moët Hennessy and part of the LVMH luxury goods conglomerate, at Luna Nudo, the new restobar at The St Regis in Mumbai.

De Meurville took over from Bruno Yvon in November. But he only finished his term as managing director for Moët Hennessy Group Canada at the end of January and was dividing his time between the two countries until then. When I meet him in March, he already has plans firmed up for the India market and is in a hurry to capitalize on the opportunities. “India is a big market. I can’t say I have a full understanding of it,” he tells me.

But he knows what he wants to do. On the agenda is a rethink on the top brands—Moët, Hennessy, Dom Pérignon, Glenmorangie, and Chandon. This includes re-energizing the flagship Moët brand, which, according to him, “deserves a bit more attention”.

“It’s half our name, we can’t forget it,” says De Meurville in good humour. More importantly, however, sparkling wine is becoming increasingly popular in India, especially with younger Indians who have worked or studied abroad. De Meurville noticed this at a wedding in Goa—the younger crowd partied all night long and drank sparkling wine, a marked change from the Scotch-drinking older generation.

De Meurville also talks about the premium vodka Belvedere, which he hopes will appeal to consumers in search of organic offerings. “India is all about farm to table as far as cooking is concerned. With Belvedere, we will offer the best in glass as well,” says De Meurville.

He’s been busy. Earlier this month, the company launched Délice—a new sparkling wine variant of Chandon that India produced at its winery in Dindori, Nashik. Délice can be had as a cocktail with a slice of fruit in it or on the rocks. It seems to be the equivalent of the Ice Impérial champagne from Moët & Chandon that can also be iced or spiked with fruit: perfect for mid-afternoon on a yacht.

"De Meurville is a marathoner; when he’s travelling, he always carries his Nike Pegasus running shoes. He plays tennis and rugby, and surfs. On family, he shares that his wife Sandrine is a teetotaller and describes his children, a girl, 20, and a boy, 14, as “international kids”."

Similarly, the company is looking at introducing more experiential branding ideas, such as the Veuve Clicquot bar, a champagne bar, to the country. The brand has also started hosting a select crowd at two high-end hotels in Gurugram and Mumbai for Dom Pérignon Nights, where they can enjoy the premium champagne by the glass.

I see an opportunity to interrupt and ask him if we should order something to drink. We decide to order a glass of Chandon each; De Meurville tells me it’s also the top recommendation of our server. Apparently, the server has no idea who De Meurville is.

De Meurville started his career with Moët Hennessy in 1996 and has, over the years, held various roles in marketing (Moët Hennessy Europe), business development (Maison Veuve Clicquot) and general management in the Middle East and eastern Africa.

He is a fit 48-year-old, with cropped salt and pepper hair. On his right wrist, just visible beneath the sleeve of his grey Pal Zileri suit, is a red thread similar to the one that some Hindus wear on auspicious occasions. This, he tells me, is the colour of the Basque cross, a symbol of his region in south-west France. It is also a link between India and his native town, whose emblem is very similar to the Hindu swastika.

He tells me it’s not unusual for him to keep long working hours. Even on his birthday, which was a day earlier, an official engagement had kept him busy until late evening. His work requires him to travel constantly. He is out for two-three days a week, travelling within India and to countries in the neighbourhood—Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. He has to visit France and Hong Kong, the global and regional headquarters, respectively, once every six weeks.

Given the portfolio, work for De Meurville often involves having a drink at social events. But he rarely takes more than a glass at official engagements, he adds. His favourites: Moët & Chandon and Hennessy VSOP, depending on the moment and the person he is having it with. Ironically, his wife Sandrine is a teetotaller. “She takes care of the family and maintains the balance,” says De Meurville, who admits to never drinking alone.

“The idea is to build the category,” says De Meurville about his current focus. The champagne market in India is just 36,000 cases a year and the sparkling wine category, 70,000, he says. In 2016, wine consumption in India was 30.2 million litres a year, less than half of the vodka consumption of 67.9 million litres and a fraction of the total whisky consumption of 1,885 million litres, according to Euromonitor International, a market research company.

He admits that making the sparkling wine category grow is not an easy job: You need to educate and convince the consumer and build the distribution network.

To start with, De Meurville has brought on board actor Sonam Kapoor to endorse the Chandon brand, launching a digital video, Party Starter.

Strengthening the distribution network includes extending the brand’s geographical reach. Currently, the company is in the big cities and some states—Mumbai, the National Capital Region, Bengaluru, Chennai, Kolkata and Goa. “As a company, we have limited resources,” says De Meurville.

LVMH, the world’s largest luxury group by revenue, reported earnings of €37.6 billion (around Rs2.6 trillion) in 2016 and an operating profit of €7 billion. A privately held company, Moët Hennessy India is growing in double digits, De Meurville explains. He plans to double the company’s revenue size in three years and is optimistic about achieving this faster, though he accepts that the uncertainties surrounding policies and regulations could slow them down. For instance, on 1 April, the Supreme Court passed a ruling that prohibits the sale of liquor in bars, restaurants, hotels and liquor vends within 500m of highways. Last year, Bihar banned alcohol consumption.

Uncertainties are not peculiar to India, however. “It’s a global phenomenon and requires the company to be agile and adapt,” says De Meurville.

I ask him if he is able to switch off when he is in a bar or restaurant. He replies in the negative, adding that he always observes how restaurants welcome their guests. “I love to share the feedback, to improve the place; it helps to improve the business,” he says. For instance, when you sit at a table in a restaurant, the first thing the server asks is whether you want a glass of water. Instead, staff should be trained to offer an apéritif first.

De Meurville is also quite definite that a drink like Hennessy, which costs Rs6,000-7,000 a glass, should be poured in front of the consumer. “It’s not about trust, it’s just that as a customer I feel I would like to see the bottle.”

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