Producing the future

Anna Schreil, VP Operations, The Absolut Company.

If you are a big player in a small town, it is important to always keep a close track on your responsibilities. For Anna Schreil, VP Operations at The Absolut Company, this is old news. Over the years, she has together with her team consistently introduced and implemented a number of innovative improvements to the factory in Åhus. But cobots, fully automated high-bay warehouses and industry 4.0-practices in all essence – the production of a bottle of Absolut Vodka requires more than a mere push of a button. It’s a complete chain where every link – from locally grown grains to global sustainability claims – must be seamlessly integrated. Every day.

Absolut exports 99 percent of what you produce in Åhus today. In other words – what’s essentially marketed as all local product is in fact in many ways a global matter. How can this fact be combined with your ambition to run a sustainable business?

– We have a production philosophy called One source / One community, where the first is all about our origins and our way of making Absolut Vodka – with sustainability and quality in focus – and the second highlights the community that makes it all possible. One source means that our product has one origin. The wheat, the water, the manufacturing and production processes all originates from one place. This gives us the unique opportunity to control and maintain a consistent and high quality in all our products and to monitor our production footprint. We now have data on everything from the fields where our raw materials grow to the glass supplier, who’s production plant is located some three hours away from our factory. It makes us incredibly circular and enables us to scale up or down all the links in our production chain in a sustainable way. Then we have the human aspect of production. Vodka is not made at the touch of a button. It is a craft that requires an incredible amount of knowledge. You really must master all the steps in the process – i.e. before, during and after – to get the best product possible. And then last, but not least, we have all the partners in our supply chain – Our community. There are so many people who are involved in and around our production. We recognize their importance and that’s why we always work in partnerships that don’t just involve a transaction where we pay and someone else performs a service for us.

How does Absolut work to be as circular as possible?

– Sustainability has been a priority for us a very long time – both in our products and in how we make them. It is always important for us to act on the basis that we are global company located in a small town. And to recognize that this comes with a huge responsibility. We don’t want to be associated with people roaming the streets drunk on our products and we don’t want the locals to be uncomfortable with odors emanating from the production plant or being accused of contributing to pollution in any of the places where we operate. Consideration is vital. And the same applies to all the employees within the company – both in Skåne and in the HQ in Stockholm, but also around the world. If we look at pure environmental aspects, I feel a strong engineering drive to have one of the world’s most energy efficient distilleries. We must be state of the art and that means that we don’t let any resources go to waste. We take care of our products and our by-products, we are careful to nurture our raw material resources and we always try to have an understanding of our own place in the value chain we’re part of.

Can you give an example?

–  Take the whole story of our hand sanitizers. In that specific case, we realized early on that we had the spirit and thus an important position in the chain, but that the chain also consisted of a whole lot of other links that had to be connected to get the end result that we were striving for. To be circular is to look at the whole system and understand what happens both before and after you’ve left your contribution. And I think we are very good at that today. But of course, we also look inwards at our own circular processes to try and come up with new ways of how we can improve and increase our sustainability work. For example, spirits are purified from fusel oil, which in turn contains hydrocarbons, which are a great source of energy that we can use as a green fuel at our factory. We have already invested in and taken into use such a facility. In the same way, the alcohol that we use to clean the machines with can be used to heat our facilities with.

What are the keys to how Absolut’s always been able to maintain a good balance between tradition and innovation?

– I think it’s interesting to imagine how our founder L.O. Smith would have acted if he’d been alive today. I’m absolutely certain that he hardly wouldn’t have tried to preserve his methods and that he wouldn’t be opposed to trying out all the different opportunities that new technology could bring. I rather think that he would’ve placed great emphasis on adapting his how to the future, that is, being openly curious about new, more efficient methods and better ways of ensuring and maintaining a consistent quality. Value creation is dynamic, and it is not possible to lean on practices developed some 40 years ago. As an engineer, I think it is value-creating that consumers like the products we develop and produce and that they are willing to pay premium for environmental friendliness etc. At the same time – especially for a brand like Absolut – it is necessary to never lose track of the core values that we stand for; a -premium vodka made with passion and love. It’s important to be sensitive to what changes you implement as they will have a value-creating significance for our consumers. That is why we work a lot with consumer insight, to always keep track of how the changes we plan to do are received by our customers.

Which areas have been most challenging from a sustainability perspective?

– The fact that we’re part of a system is both an enormous opportunity to influence, but also a limitation in the sense that we aren’t in control of the entire supply chain. Take the handling of the wheat we use in production as an example. Here, it is challenging to build in sustainability requirements because those will come with a price tag for the growers. And who’s going to pay for their conversion costs? Us, them, the government, or EU? These types of questions are becoming increasingly important. Organic isn’t always the same as sustainable. At the same time, as it isn’t up to just us to administer the right type of conversion, we are one of the largest players locally in Southern Sweden since we buy so much of the farmers’ production. So, if we can collaborate throughout the entire supply chain, we can establish a more circular model faster. But it is important to take it step by step and start small scale and then level up. That’s why we work a lot with cultivation data, which we previously collected by hand, but now have digitized. This means that we will have the opportunity to follow a specific batch from sowing to harvest and analyze all the factors that have influenced why, how and when a harvest has reached a certain quality. But this type of work is not done in the blink of an eye, so the time factor is a huge challenge sometimes, with long downtimes before we can get the correct answers to our questions. 

What values do you think Absolut creates?

– Locally, I hope (believe) we create immense value for our employees. We offer interesting job opportunities combined with a nice community where we try to make everyone develop and thrive. Then we create value for the greater Åhus area. It is not only our employees who earns their livelihood from us. We are one of the largest employers in North-East Skåne and that means that many local companies such as shops, contractors, haulers and machine suppliers are dependent on us to some extent. But, as I said before, we are constantly working in partnerships where we have high demands on each other. This is a great way of staying progressive. We’re also running Absolut Home – which is a pride and joy here and helps attract tourists to come and visit Åhus.

And on a global level?

– In a larger perspective, I think we create a lot of innovation that can give our consumers new values or experiences. Two good examples are Absolut Unique and Absolut Comeback. Both represents new ways for us to talk about innovation and sustainability through our products. The bottle is our main messenger and through it we can manifest everything that we to stand for.

I recently read that you are implementing a process called Industry 4.0. What does it mean?

– In short, industry 4.0 is about creating new values by adopting and applying new technology. Value creation is nothing new – we do it for consumers, customers and stakeholders all the time – but it can have value in itself to find ways to be more efficient. And by efficient I’m not only talking about cost saving measures. There are lots of new opportunities emerging from digital developments. Take automation, which is close to my area of production responsibility, as an example: today we have a high-tech high-bay warehouse that is fully automated and we have ongoing trials with cobots (collaborative robots), i.e. robots that can work close to humans. Some work tasks at the production plant are heavy and not so ergonomic and here cobots can play a very important role in saving our employees’ bodies and help free up more time for them to for example analyze data, work with new solutions or training. Industry 4.0 is, a bit simplistic put, all about finding ways and new places to implement digital technology in order to improve processes, control and forecasting.

Is there any part of the production that’s impossible to digitize?

– Yes, for sure. One can never teach a machine to think about all the possible situations that may arise. Artificial intelligence will never be better than the programmer who wrote the code – there’s just no good way around the limitations of learning that’s been built into the algorithms. It is in a way philosophical. Intelligent machines can be excellent as a complement and as an aid. Collecting, structuring and analyzing data takes time and effort, but you’ll always need people to interpret and analyze. I think this is especially important when it comes to food. Eating or drinking something is an experience of taste, smell and texture. There is a lot you can objectively measure, but the sensory ability that humans have to analyze with their tongues, noses and fingertips and connect the sensory impressions to a complex whole, is not fully replicable in a machine.

“Today, it’s not just about taste, smell and appearance in a product. You want to know more about the origins, the company, the culture and sustainability and so on.” 

You have worked at TAC for a relatively long time. How do you think the perception on your products has changed during these years?

– The biggest change I’ve noticed is that the consumer’s interest in what and how we produce has increased a lot. Today, it’s not just about taste, smell and appearance in a product. You want to know more about the origins, the company, the culture and sustainability and so on. Especially the environment and sustainability issues are extremely much more important. Through the use of digital technology, everything local is also potentially global now but I think we’ve managed to build and maintain a strong leadership position through our smart use of tech and innovation. And it’s easy for us to talk about our origins, because we live and work in the middle of them.

What areas do you see as most important to continue to develop within TAC?

–  I think it is important to never lose focus on our consumers. We can digitize and streamline as much as we like, but we must not lose sight on all those who love to buy and use our products. Even though we are talking about implementing practices such as Industry 4.0, we must be careful to always include a consumer’s perspective. But we must never forget to develop ourselves too. We want to be progressive and at the forefront of many things, that requires constant development of our people and our collective capabilities.

What is your sustainability vision for the production in Åhus?

– There’s a roadmap for what we call Ambition 2030, which basically means that certain goals must be achieved within the next 10 years. For example, we want a completely climate-neutral product and we also strive to have a resource-neutral product where everything can be recycled. We simply don’t want any waste.

When googling your name, three major media incidents are recurring; one global, one national and one local. The autumn wheat shortage in Skåne 2019, the nude shock in Åhus 2018 and the black birds in The Absolut Tower 2017. Which of these matters engaged you the most?

– The wheat. Without a doubt. It was an issue that was so much bigger than just the fact that there wasn’t enough wheat available for purchase in Skåne. All of a sudden, we were faced with a real risk of no longer having access to everything we needed to manufacture our product. 2019 was the worst drought in 50 years in Skåne. We watched the farmers suffer and we saw how the whole system – of which we are very much a part of – shaken to its core. Animals had to be slaughtered due to lack of food and we had to save water and hunt down all the small drips we could collect. It was an unpleasant glimpse of what a system collapse looks like and I thought it was both scary and outrageous.

And what about the full monty at Åhus – or the naked truth, as it’s also called? What went through your mind when accepting to participate in a commercial where several of the production staff – including yourself – posed nude?

– When I first heard about the idea behind the naked truth – the vodka with nothing to hide – I remember thinking ‘who’ll want to be in this completely naked?’ At the same time, I thought it was a good idea and that it would be fun if it actually was us who work here who starred in the film. We are super proud of what we produce and we have absolutely nothing to hide. The casting was done entirely on a voluntary basis and I communicated early in the process that I wanted to participate. And it was, surprisingly enough, no problem at all getting a whole bunch of staff together and strip down naked on a cold and rainy autumn day. It was all fun and the whole factory came through with happy cheers and applause when we shot the scenes.

What’s most important to you as a leader?

– That I create the right conditions – for my employees and for myself, for a sustainable future and for producing premium products. It is a long-term commitment that I know requires my full attention at all times.

Which of your personal driving forces do you consider are assets in your work?

– The fact that I’m so solution oriented. I think that is a great asset. I often get a bit irritated when I think people are wasting more time discussing a problem than actually trying to solve it. It’s probably due to my desire to constantly try to find ways to improve things in order to develop myself.

What would you have done if you had not worked at TAC?

– I really like figuring things out, so becoming a forensic scientist might have been a good alternative career choice for me. I can imagine myself sitting around all day trying to put different puzzles together and combining traces and patterns to create new contexts.

The last question comes from your colleague Johan Radojewski. He’s curious to know how you – given that you’re so often positioned in the eye of the storm in many of the ongoing debates on sustainability, health, environment and globalization – work proactively to keep your finger on the pulse in these complex matters?

– The simple answer to a complex question is that I have the privilege of working very close to many experts on these issues. They help me collect and analyze the right intel and to filter in what is relevant for our context. So, surrounding myself with several and different types of skills is the key to keeping yourself up to date. I do also spend a lot of time reading up on topics and listening in to others who can give me inspiration and share their knowledge.

A new bar code

Iain Griffiths, bartender, co-founder of anti-waste punk pop-up Trash (fka Trash Tiki) and Global Sustainability Ambassador for Pernod Ricard.

Iain Griffiths is the co-founder of anti-waste punk pop-up Trash (fka Trash Tiki), Global Sustainability ambassador for Pernod Ricard and one of the bar industry’s most brilliant and alternative thinkers. We had a chat with him on how the pandemic has affected the industry, current trends and the future of the bar industry.

How has the pandemic affected you personally, and the industry as a whole?

– Personally, I opened a new bar in Toronto in September together with the Trash-collective that we had to close in June. It’s been a challenging and emotional roller coaster to be honest. Looking at the industry as a whole, it has devastated us. In a global sense, we were one of the first industries to be told to shut down. And in a North American sense, we were given a huge degree of false hope – we were told that we were essential workers, but at the same time we weren’t allowed to operate normally. We were forced to make do with delivering cocktails and to-go-options. And financially that’s completely unsustainable. We’ve been given nothing to help us survive. Quite the opposite, the laws that we are forced to operate under are actually hurting us more than helping us.

Sustainability is one of your great passions, how has the sustainability work within the bar industry been affected by the pandemic?

– Environmental sustainability is still hugely important, our planet is in an incredible bad place. But the with reality of the pandemic, and the minorities and marginalized individuals that are fighting for recognition – we just want to be conscious about sustainability being a part of that conversation, but without taking up space. The majority of bars in North America have only been able to operate through home delivered cocktails – and all to-go cups are in plastic. It’s all about taking the pandemic seriously right now. No doubt, environmental sustainability within the bar industry has become a far more complicated issue within the pandemic. 

What’s happening in the bar industry right now? Can you see any trends?

– What has been amazing to see is the way our industry has adjusted in every possible manner. For one, we’ve found new ways to educate and invest online and the standards of how things look has tenfold. It used to be hideous! I probably have 20 friends who designed their bar logo in Microsoft paint. Also, I’m stoked to see a political agenda feeding into our industry. We’ve begun finding a larger purpose and talk about race, politics, gender equality etc.

Iain Griffiths, bartender, co-founder of anti-waste punk pop-up Trash (fka Trash Tiki) and Global Sustainability Ambassador for Pernod Ricard.

What other trends do you foresee?

– I think we should take this moment of pause and self-reassessment to address the primary flaws in our industry and move forward in a clearer and different manner. I want to highlight three primary flaws; the first is the damaging language in bartending – the future is to find a better language and a better way to speak about ourselves, each other and the industry as a whole. Second is the expensive bartending consultancy which has created a big gap of inequity in the industry. Marginalized venue operators can’t afford consultancy which means they don’t get access to skills. Redistribution of finances and equity to marginalized groups will be key here. The third thing is that venue owners must become more equitable – both in terms of their staff, but also who they spend time with off work. It’s about fighting unconscious bias.

Want to hear more from Iain? Don’t miss his talk about “A Hospitality Career in 2021” on the Polish educational resource Barschool.pl’s FB page.

A natural dining experience

Visit Sweden's campaign The Edible Country turns Sweden into one big restaurant. Above is one of their tables in Asa Småland, Sweden. Photo: August Dellert.

During covid19 there’s no better thing than to turn to nature if you want to escape quarantine solitude. In Sweden, for the second year in a row, Visit Sweden together with Primus, Fjällräven and local tourism organizations are offering hungry tourists the opportunity to dine in the free. Edible Country efficiently turns the entire country into one great restaurant, where local produce is presented in the most natural surroundings possible. We talked to Frida Wallén, project manager at Visit Sweden, about what guests can expect from the experience.

How did this initiative come about?

– We know that many of the foreign tourists coming to Sweden are amazed by our close to nature lifestyle and are seeking simple, yet refined dining experiences. And as nature is one of our greatest assets, we thought about ways of showing off our great pantry with extraordinary produce in a natural setting. There is just an immense power in that combination if you get it right. Our way of doing so was to develop the Edible Country concept, a do-it-yourself (DIY) dining experience curated by nature. We had some of Sweden’s most renowned chefs helping us to compose menus from ingredients that you can forage in our forests, fields and lakes. And, as Sweden has the unique legal right to public access and open countryside (Allemansrätten), this is actually fully doable. The chefs that we collaborate with are hand-picked. The prerequisites were that they should be Michelin-starred chefs who already had Swedish nature as an important element in their cooking philosophies. Along with the menu suggestions comes instructions on how to properly cook the dishes. We want to offer the best meal experience possible with gourmet food at an unexpected location. The recipes have been developed individually for each table to fit the specific location.

How does it work?

– Each table is hosted by a local entrepreneur. They are responsible for any permits needed and if the guests have to acquire a fishing card or any landowner permission to forage. At many of the tables a basket of ingredients is offered to be used if everything can’t be found or picked at the spot. The menus are always inspired by the place where the tables are located and one  purpose of the concept is to get people to really experience the amazing nature in Sweden and learn about the place they visit. All tables offer a Do-it-yourself experience that cost 200 SEK per person, however most guests choose to book add-ons unique for each table. The possible add-ons include a basket of ingredients, a local guide that explains what and where to pick edibles in nature or a local chef to enhance the meal preparation experience. Last year, we had 13 tables open, but this year we decided to expand and open 23 tables. They are open for bookings from May to October and are located across the country – from North to South, East to West.

A real do-it-yourself (DIY) dining experience curated by nature. Dinner guests preparing a meal. Photo: August Dellert.

Why are you doing this?

– We want to show all the values Sweden has to offer. That’s why The Edible Country was initially launched as an international initiative and marketed to tourists visiting from abroad. But given the current pandemic and all the travel restrictions, we’ve also promoted this at home through our regional partners They are marketing their tables locally and the domestic interest has really spiked this year. I guess it’s as exotic to some swedes to visit some of these places as it is for someone travelling from outside the country.

Has the concept been copied abroad?

– Not that we know of yet. But you have to remember that Sweden’s legal right of public access is quite unique and I’m not sure that this could be done to the same extent anywhere else in the world. And that’s the key to the whole concept. The Swedish lifestyle is all about having the ability to roam free in nature. The nature is open to be enjoyed, as long as you respect it and keep it preserved for the ones that come after.

Tapping into culture

Johan Radojewski, VP Marketing Malibu.

Mastering digital transformation within an innovative company might seem like an easy task. But to stay relevant in a globalized market, while at the same time advocating Nordic values, you need to stay on top of more than just tech developments. We had a talk with Johan Radojewski, VP Marketing Malibu, about staying at the forefront while at the same time honoring your history.

In your corporate presentation it’s stated that “Johan is passionate about cultivating an environment where curiosity and courage can thrive, since he believes the best innovation comes from audacious risk-taking and teamwork.” What does this mean?

– The key here is to never stop being curious. In my opinion, you can have the best education money can buy, but when it comes to building an innovative business culture, curiosity is what keeps the wheels turning. And we’re all about innovations at TAC. Finding the next big thing and exploring new routes. So, we need to have a culture where people feel that they are being a little bit challenged to see things from new perspectives. The opposite of just sitting around waiting for directives on what to do. We distill insights, trends and impressions to invent new brands and develop our existing portfolio.

We live and work in a very fast-paced environment where new inventions constantly reshape how we interact with each other, how we communicate and how we do business. How do you work to stay on top of the latest trends that might influence your brands, especially given that you compete on a global market?

– You need to have several sources of input. You can read, google or consume popular culture. In our industry, the relevant insights might come from food trends or farming as well as music or lifestyle. So, having a diverse culture, with lots of entry points into different sources, is super important. Your own interests, as an employee, governn the way you are receptible to new impressions and new information. I, for instance, love food, drinks and travel. When you combine that with my interest in marketing and communication, you get a good sense of what I can bring to the company. And this goes for everyone who works at TAC. Curiosity and personal values surpass general knowledge. You can always learn as you go if you have the right mindset.

What’s been most challenging?

– I often try to dwell on the contrast between something being complicated or complex. Complexity is all around us. I mean, the world is a complex place, with society, technology, networking and an endless buffet of channels to choose from. But that doesn’t mean that things have become more complicated. Complexity is something that you can’t influence, but you surely don’t have to make things more complicated than they need to be. Take Spotify as an example: Why are they so successful? It’s not just because they have all music imaginable available. No, it’s because they are convenient. It’s so easy to find what you’re looking for. So, the user experience is what makes or breaks the case here. And the same is applicable to leadership or governance. You have to keep asking yourself how you can make things less complicated and more convenient. I think we sometimes have a tendency to overestimate technological shifts short term and underestimate their impact long term. And the same goes for the current pandemic. I’m pretty sure that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find that the world’s changed completely over-night, but in the long term, things will be different due to the learnings we’ve had to draw now.

You started at TAC some 8 years ago. It might not seem like such a long time, but in terms of technical developments it’s close to a lifetime. How has TAC transformed during your tenure?

– It’s a new company today. So much has happened over the last decade. Our interaction and dialogue with consumers and our different markets have improved immensely. We’ve become much more integrated into everything. And that has also meant that our work has had to adapt and that we, as a company, have had to put an effort into becoming more agile, and open to change, than before. As an example: back in 2012, you could spend 10 months developing a print ad and then you complemented that with an Out of Home campaign and possibly a TV commercial. That was it. Today, just the sheer volume of assets that you need to produce and the speed that you must keep is beyond comparison. And looking into my magic Chrystal ball, I foresee an even greater fragmentation. Things will get more complex with larger niche groups and special interests that we have to cater to. People want personalized experiences and products and, given the technological opportunities that we now have access to, I think that this will only increase. And that’s something we need to always be aware of and try to master in the best way we can.

Johan Radojewski, VP Marketing Malibu.

Is a forward-thinking approach and an aspiration for constant development required or are there still some old truths that always apply?

– One thing I’ve learned from our history is that the people working here are extremely proud of their craftmanship and they feel very passionate about the brands we produce here at TAC. And this is regardless of if you work in production, finance, marketing or any other function –in Åhus or in Stockholm. Take Absolut as an example, the current set-up and the great history are interlinked and essential for the brand. We stand and fall with our products, so it’s always a priority to have them as kick-ass as possible. One thing that has always been true is our quest for serving our consumers with the best “convivilaité” experience possible, whether that is a state-of-the-art vodka or an amazing event at a festival. Having the consumer value at the forefront has been and will be a constant mission but of course, the way we do it, and the tools we can apply will always evolve.

How do you think TAC’s Swedish heritage impacts the way you act when it comes to innovation?

– I think it is safe to say there’s a reason to talk about a Swedish innovation culture. I think innovation has been a cornerstone of the Swedish business society since its inception. Of course, in the early days with the big Swedish industrial companies, but that shifted overtime to more creative industries like the music industry – where swedes have been at the top of the charts since the dancing days of ABBA. And Swedish advertising agencies have done well in Cannes Lions and other international contest and companies like Volvo, IKEA and H&M have done great campaigns with global resonance. Today, Stockholm is seen as one of the most attractive places for the global start up community with many successful companies in for example Fintech, and more lately some really interesting companies popping up in the area of “impact entrepreneurship” with a mission of solving the world’s greatest challenges. So, I think the fact that TAC is placed in the middle of this, influences the way we think and challenge ourselves. And of course, Absolut is part of the amazing Swedish innovation DNA. And I’m pretty sure, that this type of creativity that seems to be fostered here in Sweden was one of the reasons as to why Pernod Ricard chose to make Stockholm the home for Malibu and Kahlua. To learn from all the great things Absolut has been doing over the years and tap into the creative culture of Sweden.

What motivates you?

–  I’ve always had a need for a creative outlet. I like to build things and to write and create. And my position at TAC really enables me to pursue this. We’re all about art and science, which I love. And I have a lot of freedom to create my own working conditions and that’s a huge motivational factor for me. And I like to be surrounded by likeminded people but with different backgrounds and perspectives – it really challenges your way of thinking so you feel that you never stand still.

From what I gather, you’re not old enough to base your leadership on experience alone, yet you’re not young enough to be truly digitally native. Which challenges does this offer you and how do you handle them?

– Well, this isn’t something I’ve given a lot of thought. It’s important to be attentive and responsive, both towards consumers and also internally. Be open and curious and try to not be biased or full of preconceptions to the best of your ability. The older you get, the more your experiences are cemented in your persona. So, it’s important to sometimes try to unlearn, to not get stuck in your old ways of thinking. And it’s of course also super important to surround yourself with people that constantly push you to  develop.

Johan Radojewski, VP Marketing Malibu. 

What’s the best thing about your job?

– TAC is an amazing workplace. For me, it’s an arena for all the things that interest me. It’s a way in and out to cultures and people. You really feel that you’re at the forefront of a lot that’s going on around the world every day. And that keeps me fresh.

As VP Marketing Malibu, you’re in charge of one of the more notable initiatives by the brand: the annual Malibu Games. How have you shifted focus this year, given the fact that there’s a pandemic limiting the usual set-up?

– We had to cancel all our plans and develop new ideas. Simple as that. So, we went back to the drawing board and started to back track our initial motivational factors for the Malibu games. Then we reconsidered how to utilize this in the current situation. The solution was to do a digital activation together with our influencers on how Malibu could help motivate their followers to have the best summer ever and how to connect digitally, when there are physical limitations. Malibu is all about bringing a bit of sunshine to our consumers, and this is a very good way of doing so through digital experiences.

Malibu is a brand with very strong ties to younger generations, to summer and to fun. How do you avoid being perceived as irresponsible?

– By being extra cautious and aware of that everything we do, say and communicate needs to be reflected on. We are responsible and we take responsibility for what we do, who we collaborate what age groups we communicate with. This is something that we never compromise with. Ever.

What would you have liked to work with if you hadn’t been with TAC?

– I’m a nature guy, so I think I’d be pretty happy working for the Sea Rescue Society. I love the archipelago, and everything related to boats and boating. The more time I can spend out on the islands and on the sea, the better I feel. It’s quite the opposite of what I do today, and I don’t know if I could do it for a living for the rest of my life, but I wouldn’t mind giving it a try.

Next time we’re talking to Anna Schreil, VP Productions. What would you like me to ask her?

– She’s at the very epicenter of so many of the ongoing debates on sustainability, health, environment and globalization, so I’d like to ask her how she works proactively to be at the forefront knowledge-wise?

For arts sake!

For arts sake! Nahema Mehta, CEO & Co-founder, Absolut Art.

The artworld has taken a hit by the covid pandemic. But the experience has also helped to broaden the need for artistic commentaries and accelerated the online purchase behavior for customers around the world. It’s a pivotal moment for the online art space, if you ask Nahema Mehta, CEO and Co-founder of Absolut Art.

What’s going on with Absolut Art? 

– For now, the art world has gone digital – and for us, that’s a good thing. Specifically, Absolut Art has seen a +25%, +102%, and +360% revenue increase in online sales YoY in the months of April, May, and June respectively. We’re a digital player in an industry that takes place predominantly in the physical world. And right now, the physical world is closed. 

This sudden shift has proven pivotal for us. While we have always believed in an omnichannel experience (and we still do as there will always be a basic human desire to stand before a work of art in-person) we were guilty of relying too heavily on physical experiences and not focusing enough on optimizing our digital consumer journey and e-commerce experience. Covid-19 has forced us to hyper-focus on our online efforts on all fronts, and we’re ready for it, having recently welcomed the wonderful Martin Smeding to the team, who is co-leading the project with me as COO and Head of E-Commerce. We’ve been so proud of how the team has risen to the challenge and stepped up in the face of the many obstacles Covid-19 presents in pretty much all aspects of our lives. 

How has Covid-19 affected the business?

– Part of the reason we’re seeing this kind of growth during Covid-19 is that crises like these tend to accelerate existing trends by at least 3 to 5 years, and there are two existing trends that align with Absolut Art’s digital first and curatorial approach:

First, an existing trend in the art world has been purchasing art online – of the USD 65 billion global art market, online art sales is the fastest growing segment currently valued at USD 5 billion and expected to reach USD 9.3 billion by 2024. Covid-19 is accelerating this already impressive growth trend as people are rapidly becoming fluent in purchasing art online as it’s their only option. 

Second, art purchasing is part of the huge trend towards conscious consumption, which is also accelerating in the time of Covid-19: as people become more mindful about everything from what they put into their bodies (healthy eating) to “voting” with their dollars (deciding which brands they support), people are also becoming more and more conscious about what they bring into their homes. And with people spending more time at home, they are looking to upgrade their living spaces with objects that inspire them. 

Now is the time for Absolut Art to put our foot on the gas pedal! 

Will the art world move fully digital? 

– We believe that it will always be both – real world and online. Our industry needs an “all of the above” strategy through this crisis and also through the very long economic crisis that’s going to follow. 50% of the people who have given their careers to the art world who are not collecting a paycheck right now. 95% of artists who have given their lives to creating art report that they are making less money or no money right now. 70% of them report that they are less productive as a result. This is a moment to lean in and support the art world in every way that we can – whether it’s shopping online, or supporting the virtual art fairs, or donating to our cultural institutions. Absolut Art is a dual-sided marketplace and we are hyper-focused on supporting both our consumers and our artists in a way that also serves the larger community and cultural conversation. 

How are you choosing which artists to collaborate with right now? Can you give me some examples?

– We champion diverse, global voices which is core to our mission of making ideas and artworks accessible and open to all. In this current climate, we’re finding that two things seem to be particularly resonant with our audience.

First, we’re seeing a lot of interest in sales that support and celebrate important causes – there’s an enthusiasm for collecting with a purpose right now that is quite inspiring to see. For example, we commissioned iconic French photographer Brigitte LaCombe, who just graced the cover of Le Monde’s magazine, to shoot her life in isolation in North California where she is quarantined. The commission partially benefits the Coalition for the Homeless, shich helps the most vulnerable communities who do not have the privilege to quarantine at home. We’ll also be releasing a collaboration with celebrated female chefs including April Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, and Natasha Li Pickowicz of Cafe Altro Paradiso, in support of rebuilding iconic local NYC restaurants that have been ravaged by Covid-19. 

Brigitte Lacombe, California, Pacific #2. Courtesy Absolut Art.

– Second, we’re seeing a heightened interest in works that are joyful and uplifting. In the face of a chaotic newscycle where we are bombarded with scary statistics, we commissioned British artist and The Guardian’s lead data journalist, Mona Chalabi, to create a series of drawings using positive data from the natural world in honor of Earth Day. It was very well received and ended up on the homepages of Cool Hunting and Dezeen. We’ve also started to release a collection celebrating the beauty of summer including new works by some of our best-selling Swedish artists like Anders Romare and Kristian Bengtsson, as well as works by new Australian artists like Stuart Cantor and Ryan Pernofsky. 

Mona Chalabi, Aviation, 2020. Courtesy of Absolut Art.
Brigitte Lacombe, California, Pacific #2. Courtesy Absolut Art.

What does the future look like?

– I’m hopeful that, in the long term, there will be a continuation of the progress we’ve seen, especially in the last few months, of the art world becoming more welcoming, more transparent, and more frictionless. Making the art world more welcoming is also going to help solve a significant problem that we have in the industry, which is insufficient diversity. The more that we can make this industry more welcoming and transparent, the better chance we have of making the art world more diverse and more inclusive. Digital spaces democratize access to art by breaking down the geographical and socio-economic barriers that exist in the physical art world, and that’s what Absolut Art is all about. We will continue championing diverse voices and innovating towards a frictionless art buying experience, both of which are at the heart of our mission of making ideas and artworks accessible and open. 

The truth is the communicator’s greatest asset

Paula Eriksson, VP Corporate Affairs and Communications, The Absolut Company.

A passion for controversial campaigns, long term impacts of the pandemic on the spirits industry and why she would never post a tweet on national security. Paula Eriksson, VP Corporate Affairs and Communications at The Absolut Company, doesn’t shy away from tough questions. We had a talk with her on how Sweden’s biggest food export brand Absolut has kept their pace over the course of history and why the future looks ever so bright and shiny, despite the gloomy times that’s currently preceding. 

You’ve been with The Absolut Company (TAC) for many years and have seen changes in attitudes and behaviors towards spirits and alcohol brands. How would you describe that people outside the organization are perceiving TAC today?

– When I started at Absolut, we were a part of government owned Vin & Sprit. Then we were sold to Pernod Ricard and became a regular, privately owned company. In the beginning, focused on being fully integrated into the Pernod Ricard-world and adjust to their culture. And, with all the efforts put into assimilation, less energy was spent on maintaining and keeping good relations with Swedish public authorities and stakeholders. Earlier, when we were a government owned corporation, we had close and natural contacts with ministries and politicians but once we were settled in the Pernod Ricard-universe we realized that some of our old contacts were not even sure that we were still present in Sweden anymore. In recent years, we have therefore gone through great lengths to reconnect with our former contacts. We emphasize the fact that Absolut Vodka is Sweden’s single largest food export and that everything we manufacture is still produced in Sweden. Actually, my perception is that Swedish people are often positively surprised when they learn that we’re still made in Åhus and that we export 99 percent of everything we produce.

How do you work to stay relevant?

– For us it’s always a matter of finding and initiating collaborations with others. As an example, we didn’t create the brand Absolut Vodka just by ourselves – it’s always been done in collaboration with the most creative and forward-thinking people of their time. So, we are constantly working on our networks to be in contact with those who are shaping the present – right here and right now. For us, this is a way of ensuring that we’re relevant to in our time and for our time. That’s super important for a brand like Absolut. We need to be agile and quick to forecast trends and influences in order to be able to have a rewarding dialogue with people. For example, in the 80’s our focus was on art and artists, while today we’re perhaps more into people within the start-up scene. We are constantly trying to capture and absorb important learnings from what’s happening around us, locally and globally.

How do you and TAC work to avoid being accused of communicative “washing”?

– In my opinion, the truth is the communicator’s greatest asset. To be transparent about what you do – without hiding anything or exaggerating matters. It may not always be so easy to live up to this motto, but for Absolut, I think it’s relatively easy for us as we have all our production in Sweden. But, at the same time, we have other TAC brands that operate in several countries, such as Malibu and Kahlua, and both these brands are managed globally from Stockholm. And there, the supply chains are much more complicated. That’s also why we invest a lot of time and energy to map out and understand how we can influence these. As I see it, as a large company, you have an obligation to be transparent with what you know and what you may not know. My experience is that consumers are both accepting and forgiving, as long as you are open to and about your challenges and have a plan for how to deal with them.

“My experience is that consumers are both accepting and forgiving, as long as you are open to and about your challenges and have a plan for how to deal with them”

Which market do you see as the most challenging from a communications perspective?

– My initial instinct is to say Sweden, although it obviously depends a little on what you mean by challenging. In Sweden, it is a challenge that there is a limited understanding domestically for our industry and our specific terms and conditions. We have quite unique historical conditions here at home given the long Vin & Sprit monopoly. This means that we have to think in a completely different way about how, where, when and what we communicate in Sweden. But there’s obviously other markets with different challenges that we need to address. In the US, for example, need to tell a new generation about all the fantastic values that Absolut stands for.

Which values ​​do you think Absolut creates?

– I think that a lot of the values ​​we create are based on our passion for progression. We are constantly trying to find new circular sustainability models and innovative solutions and we always aim to have an entrepreneurial mindset. In Sweden, we are a well-integrated part of the economic ecosystem and in our large network we can contribute with a lot of good things that helps to pave the way for a more circular economy. Two examples; we sell stillage – which is a by-product from the fermentation – to livestock farmers and we sell C02 from our fermentation to algae cultivation. We create job opportunities for around 2000 people in southern Sweden. Both directly in the form of our 500 employees at TAC, but also by generating additional business in and around Åhus. We have a visitor center, so we are part of the tourism industry now too. And we also contribute a lot by being a big advocate of Swedish values. We believe in openness and inclusiveness regardless of origin, sexual orientation or gender. This is always expressed in some way in our campaigns. One might think that we’re stating the obvious, but sadly you don’t have to travel far beyond our borders to learn that this kind of position can be perceived as quite provocative and controversial. But we want to contribute to a development where individuals can live their lives as they wish.

Alcohol and communication can, of course, be seen as not entirely unproblematic. How do you and TAC work with responsible consumption and responsible communication?

– When it comes to consumption, it is always a matter of treading with great cautions. I believe that there is a legitimate position for our products in-between abstention and abuse. Where the actual boundary goes is obviously individual, but in general, I think you can say that when your alcohol consumption is becoming a problem for either yourself or for others, then you’ve most likely passed it. When it comes to our communications, we are always extremely careful – both in what we say and what we don’t say as well as in what we do and don’t do. Our communication should be responsible and follow good taste and good manners and we would, for example, never try to piggyback on people’s insecurities nor imply that one becomes more popular or successful by consuming our products. Or that you perform better. And, of course, we never target or address minors. We sell premium products and our whole business idea is based on people drinking less, but better.

Art, fashion, culture and gastronomy are all natural parts of the Absolut brand – how does TAC work communicatively to tie these various initiatives together?

– Everything we do is held together by our motto Passion for Progression. By that, we mean that we like to be a part of and a driver for progress. This is nothing new to us. It actually goes back all the way to L.O. Smith and the way he liked to do business. He was a curious guy and we’ve tried to incorporate his sense of curiosity into the foundation of the company. We want to be relevant to our consumers and to be present in a context that’s natural and familiar to them. But – and this is important –  we want to be there with integrity. For us, as I said earlier, it is about sharing and disseminating our values of openness and of having an inclusive attitude and constantly seeking partnerships that can help us develop and progress. Regardless of issues, matters, genres or sectors.

Absolut has, over the years, built brand identity by questioning norms and stick it’s neck out. Which is your favorite campaign?

– And this is something that I, personally, is very proud of. One of my favorite campaigns is actually our latest major initiative #SexResponsibly. I think it, in a good way, touches on and raises a difficult question that is extra relevant to us as a spirit producer. Alcohol can never be used as an excuse. There´s no exceptions to that fact. But there are also other historical initiatives that I’m very fond of. One example is that we were so early in our support of the LGBT movement, already in the beginning of the 80s. And I’m proud that we didn’t back away when HIV came, I mean – we even organized a fundraiser to support HIV-infected people.

The Swedish food and beverage industry is going through one of its most trying times right now. What do you at TAC do to support them?

– In almost all of our communications at the moment, we try to find ways to lift how we can support small producers who suffer extra from the fact that bars and restaurants are unable to keep up their usual pace. For many smaller businesses these are their most important distribution channel. We try to support them by paying attention to their situation and help market the immense variety of fantastic products that you, as a Swedish consumer, can order at Systembolaget. At the same time, we also encourage and remind people to support bars and restaurants. Buy take-away or gift cards that can be used later. Help to put a silver lining on their existence now, in the same way that they help you in more normal times. As a company, we try to avoid canceling as much as possible and instead reschedule or postpone planned events, so that they can be held when society returns to a more ordinary everyday life again.

How are you affected yourself?

– We are very much affected by the fact that people cannot travel or go out as they used to before covid-19. Our whole business is built around socializing and social interaction. But we are also fortunate to be part of a large and stabile group during these trying times. It is a very privileged position to be part of a big company with so many strong and beloved brands and that also has a sound strategy on how to act during extraordinary circumstances.

How do you forsee the development of Swedish gastronomy over the next 10 years?

– I think it might be good to look in the rearview mirror sometimes to better be able to predict what’s coming ahead. We have had an incredible gastronomical development at home over the past 10 years. You can almost talk about a Swedish cooking wonder. The quality of the craft now is so incredibly much higher compared to 10-20 years ago. Today, there is so much knowledge and passion amongst Swedish chefs, combined with a kind of humble compromise. You dare to take your skills to the limit and see what you might find. And I think this mindset will continue and prosper and also transfer into the way that we, as food and drink producers, will think and act. We will see more niche producers making amazing products. And we will see an increasing willingness amongst consumers to pay for quality. I also think we will start to talk more about regional cuisine, about terroir and about origin, and not just talk about “Swedish” food. There is clearly an increased pressure from consumers that wants to know where the products they’re being served comes from and how they are manufactured. This means that we need to accept a greater responsibility at the producer level. We need more transparency and more knowledge. Consumers are discerning and as a producer, you must be able to answer whether what you produce or manufacture is justifiable.

You have, not least because being so active on Twitter, from time to time been acting  spokesperson for the entire TAC. How do you handle that?

– Well, for starters, I do consider my Twitter account my own. With that said, I am also aware that I use it as a professional, meaning for work purposes. So what I say might have an effect on the company, and this is something I always consider before posting a tweet. Bur all misinterpretations are my own and it is entirely up to me and my own judgment govern what I publish. To some extent that naturally holds me back from posting to much private stuff on my Twitter, as they run the risk of being seen in the light of the company. I won’t post any security policy-related comments for example.

Do you have any role models and if so which ones?

– One person I admire greatly is the murdered human rights activist Natalya Estemirova. She was basically a just an ordinary history teacher who had an inner conviction to seek the truth about human rights. Someone, who so selflessly stands up against a system, is impressive. Her integrity, despite living with a death threat, is astounding and I think it is very important that she – and others who have acted unselfishly because they believe in something greater than themselves – are never forgotten.

What would you have done if you had not worked at TAC?

– I dreamed of becoming a journalist, but, unfortunately, I think I am a little too uncritically. I tried my luck at it a few times, but I never really got the hang of it. But I’m also very much into problem solving, so engineer is also something I might would have considered today. I feel great inner calm and satisfaction when I solve a problem.

Next person in line to be interviewed is Johan Radojewski, VP Marketing Malibu. What question would you like me to ask him?

What’s it like to lead to a global brand like Malibu from Sweden, given that the brands biggest markets are the United States and other key markets include the United Kingdom, Germany and Spain? How do you know what consumers around the world actually want and how they like to be addressed?

Sustainability takes forever

Vanessa Wright, Group VP Sustainability & Responsibility, Pernod Ricard.

Going from strategy to action isn’t always as smooth ride. Especially when it comes to making major sustainability-changes in an organization. But for Vanessa Wright, Group VP Sustainability & Responsibility at Pernod Ricard, making a real difference has been a strong driving force to getting people enthusiastic about reaching the ambitious goals. And the road was in fact less bumpy than anticipated.

You’ve been heading the Sustainability work for Pernod Ricard since 2017. How has your work changed in during this time?

–  A lot, I’d say. When I joined the team at HQ, progress had already been made on some key sustainability issues. Responsible consumption was a key focus then and there was also a 2020 environmental roadmap in place. However, I thought that a more comprehensive strategy for a broader scope of our sustainability work was missing, so that was what I wanted to start with. In order to do that, I first had to do due diligence on better understanding the material issues of the business, followed by articulating the vision and then building a strategy so that the entire organization felt onboarded and included. For me, involving all parts of the business and getting engagement and support from all levels was fundamental in making such big changes. In April last year, we launched our strategic 10-year plan – our 2030 S&R Good Times from a Good Place roadmap – a strategy that addresses every aspect of our business from grain to glass.  So now our focus is on making the strategy come alive. From an outside perspective of the organization the whole view of sustainability has also changed a lot. It’s gone from being in the philanthropy box to being fully embedded in the business s. The level of maturity has increased and with that comes the notion to address broader topics.

What was most important when you started?

– Responsible drinking was the key focus in 2017. Today, all our four pillars (Nurturing Terroir, Valuing People, Circular Making and Responsible Hosting) are equally important. But key for us is of course terroir – all our products come from nature and are rooted in the countries where they originate from. So, it’s very important that we maintain and build good relationships with all the farmers and producers we work with and that we nurture nature and its ecosystems. Otherwise we simply won’t have a business for the future.

Corona, climate and changing the world: how do you see that the industry and business must change in order to help create a new, more sustainable society?

–  I think it’s a matter of looking at the bigger picture. Nature, climate and people are all interlinked. That means we must strengthen what we rely on. Conviviality is all about sharing and that goes beyond people. We need to take social responsibility and do what we can to help, both during this imminent crisis, but also in the longer run. Sustainability takes forever and that’s the point. We need to balance all elements, from raw materials to finished product. From people to business.

2025 is an important year for Pernod Ricard in terms of sustainability, with some high set goals: 100% recyclable, compostable, reusable, or bio-based packaging and no single-use plastic in point-of-sale materials. How will this be achieved?

–  By hard work and a change of our mindset. By exploring different materials, by altering our marketing briefs to our agencies so that including eco-design principles is mandatory in execution. By working even closer with all our suppliers on how we, as a joint team, we can reach even further. And by making sure all our affiliates adhere to our guidelines. And by investing in innovations that we’ll enable us to impose change quicker.

Good Times from a Good Place is an initiative to be fully implemented by 2030, from what I understand. What can you tell me about this ambitious program?

– Our roadmap is for 10 years, so most of our targets are 2030 but some are 2025. However, we need to go step by step on this journey with our affiliates so that we help each other and learn collectively.  We’re all in this together and it is a long-term plan, fully aligned with the UN SDGs global agenda and timeline as well. The strategy was built like a pyramid, where the bottom is the fundamentals, the middle is more focused on business strategies and the top the most ambitious, where areas of leadership is addressed. The framework is key to ensuring that we all work in a consistent way towards the same goals.

What motivates you?

– I loved my job in communications. It was interesting, it was varied, I got to travel the world and do extraordinary things. But when I got the opportunity to take on this role, I felt a strong calling to be able to make a real difference. We are lucky at Pernod Ricard, we’ve got a young CEO (Alexandre Ricard, editors note) with his name on the door and that, for me, ensures a long-term commitment and a continuation of a great legacy started by his grandfather. We’re doing something valuable and that’s something I feel very passionate about. It feels good to do something that matters, driving change and working with others to achieve it.

What do you consider your biggest achievement so far?

– Launching the Good Times from a Good Place strategy. We’re a small team in a large, global organization and I’m very proud of the way we’ve galvanized our affiliates internationally and engaged them to build and drive their own local actions. Only eight weeks after launching the strategy, some 76 percent of the people working at Pernod Ricard said they were aware of the new strategy. The awareness of the importance of what we’re doing is very high and we’re also started to be seen as global leaders in within the industry.

Which sustainability issue is closest to your heart?

– All our four pillars are equally important, but for me, terroir is the closest to my heart. I am a scuba diver, so I have very strong affiliations with nature. I’ve seen the negative impact on our oceans firsthand, and that really motivates me to make a change. At Pernod Ricard all our products come from nature and I think this is a very important topic for us to address and help improve globally – nature, people and climate are all linked.

The art of being underdog and market leader at the same time

Anna Malmhake CEO, The Absolut Company.

Reconsider, redo and always rethink what you do. Those three mantras can perhaps summarize Absolut’s CEO Anna Malmhake’s view on how to stay on top in an industry where traditions and heritage constantly must be balanced against having the courage to stick your neck out and take a stand. We had the opportunity to sit down with her and talk about the importance of innovation, how to best nurture a centuries old cultural heritage and why you no longer need to go to New York to know what the next big food trend will be.

You have worked for Absolut previously, but was away on another assignment within Pernod Ricard for a few years. What has been most fun and challenging so far?

–  I would say globalization. To me, it’s a privilege to so often to be able to meet and interact with people I would never have come into contact with otherwise – both inside and outside of the company and the group. But of course, there are also some challenges due to us being present at so many diverse markets at the same time. As a company, we’re always at different phases on different markets, which is something we always need to take into careful considerations. In some markets, we are a clear challenger, while we are the leading brand and mature in others.

In which ways have TACs developed itself to keep up with innovation, globalization and digitalization that have been the driving trends lately?

– We’ve always had to realize that we must be agile. When we started exporting Absolut Vodka in 1979, we were the “underdog” in the market. We had no experience of exporting – Vin and Sprit, which previously had a monopoly, was a fully state-owned company operating solely in Sweden. So, we had no established distributors overseas. We had no experience in markets where alcohol advertising was allowed. We were the challengers, simply, and meant we always had to think like challengers. It made us entrepreneurs. Later, when we had transitioned into market leaders in the US, we were still new to other markets at the same time – so the culture of being fast-paced and entrepreneurial lies in our DNA.

How do you and TAC act to create and maintain an open and inclusive organization?

–  I think it’s about having a good balance. For a while everyone said it was cool and good to fail. But it is not at all always cool to fail; there is a big difference between for example failing because you did not spend enough time and effort or failing because there were unknown factors you couldn’t have foreseen before you started. When you do fail because of something unknown and you learn something – great! What you learn from that situation can probably be applied to lots of projects in the future. In an organization as big as TAC, there is room for several different types of entrepreneurship and innovations. We have those who like to sit by themselves and twist and turn a problem, throwing a solid solution on my table later. Then there are intrapreneurs who love the power and collaboration opportunities that exist in large companies. Absolut art.com is a good example of this type of intrapreneurial initiative. Here you have all the power from TAC summoned behind an initiative – with financial muscles and amazing contacts in many countries – but the project is run by a small group of committed and initiated people who themselves have a mandate to influence, in an entrepreneurial way, everything they do and want to do.

Is development constantly required or are there still some old truths that always apply?

–  I’m very conservative with everything that has to do with safety in product development, manufacturing and transport, for example”. I think it’s great to be able to lean on practices that have been tested and evaluated for a long period of time. However, there are always people in the organization who are a little more uncomfortable with innovation, but you have to remember that within such a large company as TAC there are a lot of positions where this is considered a strength. Not everyone needs to be creative or innovative.

What do you think TAC’s Swedish heritage means for how you act when it comes to innovation?

– I am convinced that Sweden’s long and successful engineering tradition is very important. It’s always been at the forefront of finding new and creative ways of doing things. We are used to rolling up our sleeves when it comes problem solving. There are, among other things, clear examples of this in our own industry’s history. When Eva de la Gardie came up with how to make vodka on potatoes and was elected to the Academy of Sciences, or when L.O. Smith presented the best way to make absolutely pure alcohol in Paris 1878. What he created back then has over decades become the company we are today. Our industrial heritage is deeply rooted in the values of our company.

What other innovative companies or entrepreneurs inspire you?

– Many of the companies I am inspired by are in a completely different place or sector compared to TAC. They’re usually smaller and more highly specialized. For example, I am very impressed by a L.A based company called Wave. I met the founders in February and was completely fascinated by their product. They do virtual concerts. What was most inspiring was that they, themselves, fully understood the power of their product. Their unique selling point revolves around design and creativity of what they do. Their approach to building and producing concerts and making them accessible – it is so much more than simply just another virtual experience. They work with creating different types of worlds, tailored for the musician and the music being played. For me, it was very visionary – not just the technology itself, because I’ve seen it before – but how they use and build around it. It is the kind of company inspires me very much.

How do you and TAC work to avoid being blamed for different types of communicative “washings”?

– When you are as big as we are, it is inevitable that sometimes people disagree with what you do or say. And as we sometimes talk about issues that are sensitive to some – LGBT rights for example – sometimes people assume we use do this for some kind of opportunistic reason only. But the truth is – all things we talk about are in our heritage and in the brand DNA. Of course, there are “trends” in which issues that are currently on the agenda. If you don’t genuinely have an authentic point of view or commitment to a particular question, it is better to stay away. After all, brands have no general public mission to work with activism. There are plenty of things that are right or worth fighting for, which is nevertheless inappropriate for us as a company or brand to begin to communicate around.

Which values do you think TAC brings to the table?

– First of all, I think Absolut vodka is an excellent product. Of course, alcohol has its pros and cons like everything on earth, but I genuinely think the world is a better place when people have the opportunity to go out and have a drink with their friends. I’m convinced that we can contribute a lot to Sweden’s reputation and how us Swedes are being perceived, as we at TAC are so international. Especially within the world of foods and drinks. TAC is a company that demonstrates that you can create a strong, idea-driven world around a brand that can live through the centuries. We show that communication can be both contemporary and relevant, but in a timeless manner: We’re timeless in a timely way, as my colleague Ann Mukherjee who is CEO in the US, so nicely puts it.

What do you see as your greatest opportunities going forward?

– A continued globalization is a huge opportunity for us. There are countries where we are beginners as a brand, where we have a great opportunity to talk through our products. We have been working in “stealth mode” for a long time with things that are very important and valued today: environment, sustainability, ethical business, communities and partners. These are all subjects that are becoming increasingly relevant and modern in all markets. We know that we are at the forefront in many areas here in Sweden, but the world is catching up.

And the biggest challenges?

– It is extremely important to know what is really relevant to people in different countries and it is obviously difficult to constantly keep track of it. It’s not possible for us to just sit in Stockholm and think that it is the center of the world and that all external monitoring can be done from HQ in Liljeholmen, Stockholm. Sweden is not the whole world and it is easy to overestimate what we have here on our home turf and believe that it is the benchmark for everything.

For many, at least in Sweden, Absolut has a strong connection to our cultural heritage. How is that reflected in TAC:s business?

– We are always very attentive to the fact that we are the heirs to the entire Swedish aquavit heritage. After all, LO Smith’s creation did evolve into State-owned Vin & Sprit, which was then sold off and became TAC. I think it’s an interesting circle that has been closed – that the company that was created to make absolutely pure spirits then became The Absolut Company. And given that Vin & Sprit was a monopoly in Sweden for decades, we are now sitting on the whole cultural heritage, which we care for and nourish very tenderly with the help of our archivist Lovisa. Among many things, we have a fully functional distillery from the 1920’s. Talk about cultural heritage! It’s also visible in our products. Take Åhus Akvavit for example, here, we’ve worked with Swedish craft throughout the product. Absolut was also the company that started and led the trend with flavored vodka and it ties back to our history with aquavit – pure spirits with added flavors. We find lots of inspiration for our products in the unique heritage that we have access to.

What impact does Swedish food and beverage heritage have on your business?

– It has a huge impact! We have amazing flavors and ingredients here in Sweden that’s also greatly appreciated internationally. And we have fantastic chefs and restauranteurs who know how to make the best of the best. This means that we have a unique situation when it comes to product development. Our team in Åhus have access to our entire cultural heritage and then add to that the fact that we have a domestic gastronomy that can give us fantastic inspiration about what is happening here and now. Today we have access to so many talented and creative people close to us. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, it was obvious that you had to go to New York or London to learn from the top chefs and foodies. But that’s simply not the case anymore. Today we have everything right here at home and people comes to us instead. Working with Swedish food and drink today is incredibly fun and rewarding. We’re also avid supporters of Swedish gastronomy through our initiative Tomorrow´s Table.

What do you look forward to the most if you gaze into the future?

– To see the continuation of developments on the US market. With Ann Mukherjee coming in, I’m sure a lot of exciting things will happen. She is exceptional when it comes to product marketing. I think a good example of this is that campaigns such as SexResponsibly have already been launched. It’s a more challenging way of communicating than what’ve done in a long time in the US, but the reactions from consumers has been very positive. It will be fun to see how we can continue down this chosen path. I generally think that we recently have done things that are more in line with what we used to do historically, where we dared to take a stand and stick our chin out way more often. I look forward to doing more of this in the future. My vision is for TAC is to become Northern Europe’s most innovative company and for Absolut vodka to become the largest spirits brand in the world. We will achieve this within the next 15 years. I am sure of that.

Paul Ricard had a motto to “make a friend every day” which is still a guiding principle within the group. What is your best practice for achieving this?

– If you are curious, it is easy to make friends! This can be exemplified by realizing that this chef you just met at a restaurant probably knows a lot of things I don’t know, and that I can learn something. Or that the bar owner I meet knows a lot about what it’s like to start a new business and work at this particular place. For me, it’s important to try and absorb all the knowledge that is around me all the time. Regardless if it’s while traveling or back home at the office. And when you listen to people, learn from them and share your own knowledge – then you make friends.

If you weren’t the CEO for TAC, what alternative career do you wish you would have pursued?

– I probably would have wanted to become an engineer. Astrophysicists for example – but of course it is only a daydream that I would be sufficiently talented for that kind of work.

This is an interview series where several members of TAC’s management team will participate. Next in line is Vice President of Corporate Affairs & Communications Paula Eriksson. What question would you like to ask her?

– Wow, how fun. Then I wonder how Paula Eriksson would describe that people outside the organization is viewing TAC today? I’m sure she can give a good answer to that.

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.

The odd one in

David Mizrahi is the CEO and Global Brand Director of Our/Vodka.

Ever since the black-ops initiative Our/Vodka opened its first distillery in the German capital Berlin in 2013, the outspoken ambition has been to build a global business through local relevance. But it takes a lot of commitment, courage and dedication to walk the walk and talk the talk. Specially if you strive to be an independent player like Our/Vodka in a major team such as The Absolut Company. Meet David Mizrahi, captain of a ship with the ambition to become a small fleet.

During the American prohibition period that lasted between 1920 and 1933, alcohol was completely banned in the US. No manufacturing, transportation, importing, exporting orselling of spirits were allowed. Of course, that didn’t stop thirsty Americans from drinking. Instead, a black market for moonshine spirits, speakeasy-bars and mob-controlled establishments blossomed in all the major cities. When the ban was lifted, things went back to business as usual in most parts of the country, except for in one location: New York City. The complicated zoning regulations in Manhattan made it (almost) impossible to open and run any local distilleries. The dry-spell lasted for a good 85 years until a bunch of Swedes decided a change was due. But the struggle was real. It took the passionate people behind the brand Our/Vodka 5 years, some 200 meetings with city officials and a change in the zoning law to be able to finally fire up the distillery pots.

And the very same passion that could impact local legislation and pave the way for artisanal spirits manufacturing in the borough of Manhattan, runs as pure as New York City tap water through the entire Our/Vodka organisation. And at the very top, CEO David Mizrahi is in control of the flow.

Could you give an elevator pitch on the story of Our/Vodka?

– Our/Vodka is an intrapreneurial venture funded by Pernod Ricard. We make spirits in our micro-distilleries located in the heart of cities, by partnering with local individuals and organization that love their city as much as we do. Currently we are operating in New York and Los Angeles with a Miami facility to open soon.

How do you find the right people to collaborate with?

– We aim to find people that have a similar set of values as we have. People that view the world in a similar way. That care about similar things. Like developing the community. Helping the environment, making the neighborhood more inclusive and better for all. This is a key element for Our/Vodkas success: to develop authentic, long lasting relationships with the community. From our neighbors, suppliers, customers and consumers to city officials and other stakeholders. We strive to make everyone in our communities feel proud of having us around. Our way of doing this is to always try to connect and interact with those around us in our “mutual love for the cities we are in”.

How do you work with creating a sense of loyalty and companionship within the organisation? There must be some specific challenges heading a company with so many operations in different countries, with different languages and different cultures?

– To begin with, at Our/Vodka I get to work with a phenomenal group of diverse people who love being entrepreneurs. I truly believe that this is the source of our resilience and cohesiveness. On my side, it’s my priority to instill a strong entrepreneurial culture in everything we do, where people feel encouraged to experiment while knowing that someone has their back. This, together with keeping our communication channels constantly open, has helped us overcome the challenges of running businesses located in different regions.

David himself is no stranger to be the odd one out in a foreign culture. Being a native Venezuelan, he is now residing with his family in the Big Apple, but his professional career has taken him from the warm Caribbean beaches of South America to the icy cold shores of northern Scandinavia.

– While completing my MBA in 2008, I asked a former colleague who worked for Absolut if I could have an internship. My application was accepted, so I packed up my life and boarded a plane to Sweden. Lucky for me, it was in the middle of the summer so, of course, I fell instantly in love with Stockholm.

Since David first joined The Absolut Company, Pernod-Ricard has acquired the business and things are now, at least partly, run from Paris, France. 

But Our/Vodka has HQ’s set up in the US and is currently operating distilleries in New York and L.A on US soil.

Our/Vodka started as a black-ops within the Absolut family – how have you been supported throughout the journey of building a brand from scratch?

– We remain a black ops set up, as we are slightly removed from the corporate grid that our “sister” brands are in. I say “slightly” because we still keep ties to the larger corporation, specially when it comes to oversight and governance. For example, we have a Board of Directors with senior executives of the Pernod-Ricard organization.

How do you strategize being a small company with big financial muscles?

– We are part of Pernod Ricard group of course. But every start-up has a financial backer. Ours just happens to be Pernod Ricard. That does not mean that we have big financial muscles. It just means that we are likely never going to be late in paying therent, our suppliers or paying our team’s salaries. But that does not mean that we have the power to spend more than what our start-up business can afford.

The concept of Our/Vodka is to market small-batch spirits made in close collaboration with the local neighborhoods, nearby suppliers and produce sourced locally. This means that the location of the distillery is a key element for success. There needs to be a strong sense of community and local pride at every new destination that Our/Vodka is opening up at.

What characteristics are you looking for when deciding on expanding business into new markets in new cities?

– We are of course always looking into new possibilities to expand the business. However, our strategy is first and foremost focused on making sure the ones that are open are working well and meeting the high expectations that we have for them. We are looking for “new partners” but not for opening new cities but rather to engage in smart and interesting programs that can bring to life what our brand is all about. For example, we are partnering to launch a new product in New York in March 2020. It’s a Basil Infused Vodka produced in partnership with an organization that has a beautiful mission called Rethink NYC. We use “excess basil leaves” that are harvested in an urban farm in Brooklyn. Excess leaves means that if we had not used them, they would have very likely gone to waste. It really is a great product with a big mission –to avoid food waste. We are also exploring plans to move into other vodka infusions and perhaps even other spirts such as gin and tequila.