Up for the challenge 

Ann Mukherjee, Charirman & CEO, Pernod Ricard North America.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, or so they say. And for Ann Mukherjee, Chairman and CEO for Pernod Ricard North America, business in the US, as well as in the rest of the world, is indeed looking grave at the moment. But if you manage to gaze beyond the current corona-crisis, there’s brighter times ahead. We had a chat with her on all the great things she’s bringing to the table at Pernod Ricard, but also on some of the challenges of being a noob in the spirits business and why that’s so alluring to her, both professionally and personally.

You’ve been with the company for less than half a year, but long enough to get to up to speed a bit. Would you say it’s all that you expected?

– For starters, when I joined, nobody had corona on top of their mind. This crisis wasn’t at all part of the job description. But, apart from that, I’d say that working here has by far exceeded all my expectations. There’s such a strong entrepreneurial side to the organization that I didn’t expect. All the affiliates are having a say around how to build their business and there’s an incredible amount of trust in the leaders, in the teams and in the brands. I can confess that I had a little apprehension coming in, since I knew that this was a tight organization. People have worked here for ages and it was nervous being the new kid on the block. But the way everyone has put their arms around me and trusted me so early in my tenure have both empowered me and surprised me. I got a few warnings about joining the spirit business since I don’t have a background in it. People said it’s a very male dominated industry, and if you don’t know spirits or the US market, you’ll have a hard time fitting in. But this has by no means been an issue for me.

What has been the biggest challenges for you personally so far?

– I have a clear mandate from Pernod Ricard’s CEO Alexandre Ricard that we need to beat the market here in the US. The goal is to become the no 1 spirits company in the world. To accomplish this, the US market is critical. So, we need to deliver great results – which I truly believe we can. However, there’s a fine balance the need for speed, with the need for making change in a sustainable way that doesn’t overwhelm or intimidate people. So, we’ll grow our business, but we’ll do it in a sane and balanced way. That means prioritizing the right things at the right time. Walking that fine line can be a challenge sometimes.

One of the first things you initiated as CEO was to launch an Absolut Vodka campaign called SexResponsibly, which deals with the subject of consent. One might say that’s sticking your neck out a bit. How come this was your first initiative?

– Right after I’d joined Pernod Ricard, one of the first persons who reached out to me was Anna Malmhake at The Absolut Company. For me, Absolut has always been a great inspiration. It’s such a strong brand that transcends its category – a brand that has become an icon in itself. But I felt that it had been marketed in the US in a way that didn’t resonate with the brands true identity. It used to be a brand that always took a stand on issues no one else wanted to talk about. To give an example: in the 80’s it helped give voice to gay men by actively being part of their culture, especially at the legendary Studio 54 in New York. Absolut enabled people to be better and to be heard. So, I wanted to bring back the brand, so to speak, to the US market by once again connecting it to a timeless story in a contemporary way.

How did the campaign come about?

– The first company visit I did after joining Pernod Ricard was to The Absolut Company in Stockholm. Luckily for me, I happened to be there when Anna Malmhake was presenting ideas on how Absolut could instigate in culture. One of her propositions was based on the notion on sex responsible and consent. For me, it was a no brainer. I just said “Let’s do this. And let’s do it now!” Three weeks later the campaign was off the ground and I couldn’t be more proud of it.

What effect do you wish the campaign will have?

– I hope it’ll have a human impact. That it creates conversation. That it creates change. Consent is a grey area in many cases. As a women, when it comes to consent, the aggressor is in charge. So, people will likely side with the aggressor, saying that that the victim is responsible for creating the impression that this is ok. And that’s just wrong! I hope that the campaign can and will help create a conversation so that people stops and thinks “Wait a minute! That’s not ok!” In many ways, society has pressured people to behave in a certain way and I believe this needs to change. People needs to do what they deep down feel is right. To be in total control of their own lives. In my opinion, this is a timeless story that’s been twisted to suit a contemporary world. As I mentioned earlier, for me Absolut is a brand that can take a stand on this issue and speak to the target group in their language. That’s important.

What are you passionate about?

– I have three things that guide me in life. Well, they started from a business point of view, but they’ve become personal as well now.

First; my job as a leader is to create a roadmap for sustainable growth. That means having the right portfolio in place and the right strategy for optimizing the portfolio – both short and long term.

Second; we live in a VUCA world. There’s just a lot of uncertainty and volatility and adversity is the only constant that we kow of. So, we need to be agile and risk taking as an organization, so we’re able to adapt quickly. That means we have to have a culture and a mindset that can cope with the constant changes. And this is super motivating for me as a leader. I’ve gone through a lot of changes in my life, both professionally and personally, so this is close to heart for me. Third; I’m all about people. Great business come from quality of the people working. I love to help unlock potential in the organization. To give people the freedom and encouragement to achieve what they didn’t think they could do. And all these three motivations are the same for me on a personal level. I live by them as a wife and as a mother. It’s part of my job as a parent and family member to create sustainable growth for my children. To give them a future and help them navigate in life. To teach them the value to see adversity and help the accelerate as persons.

How are you dealing with the current Corona-crisis in the US operations?

– We’re all facing and fighting this crisis at the moment and I think it’s just astonishing how people can come together in times like these. And I’m so grateful and proud of my organization for keeping such a high level of positive energy. And I’m truly amazed by the compassion and creativity that I’m witnessing every day. We’re really focused on keeping our people safe at the moment. Our offices’ are closed, we have an crisis committee summoned, and we have a lot of initiatives ongoing to offer what we can to help ease the situation society is facing. For instance, we’re producing hand sanitizers for the government, we’re donating to help bartenders with their livelihood, we’re supporting hospitality workers through charitable organizations with free meals and we’re setting up tutorials to help laid off workers in our business increase their skills and capabilities. And these things are done all over the country. I really think that times of crisis reveals your character – it just doesn’t build it. And I can honestly say that the character of this organization is beyond belief.

How do you think this crisis will affect you long-term?

– We’re going to come out of this eventually, and when we do, I’m sure that the shape of our business and how we do things will change. I’m certain that new ways of working will emerge. Especially online. This has been a pressure test and the organization is definitely build strong enough to withstand it. Working in a new, virtual way has given us time and opportunity to really take a stand back and reflect on all kinds of changes that needs to happen – in a positive way. I think we’ll find many new ways to both grow our business and ourselves.

How do you envision future?

– As I mentioned before, we have a clear goal that we’re working hard to achieve and that is Pernod Ricard US needs to beat the market growth. The American operations is very important as it is an engine for growth for the entire group. We build great brands. We build great people and we do this both on our own soil and as exports to the rest of the group. We are a company that doesn’t just adapt best practices, we invent them.