Paul Scanlon
Paul Scanlon
Image: Supplied

When I meet the MD of Pernod Ricard South Africa at the company’s Green Point headquarters, he is wearing a wrist brace and sporting several cuts and bruises, which he incurred in a mountain-biking accident.

There’s an impatience — a suppressed energy — about Paul Scanlon, a debonair Irishman in a smart suit and trendy glasses. It’s quite obvious he’ll be back in the saddle the minute he gets the green light. The scope for outdoor adventure is just one of the things he likes about living in Cape Town. He also enjoys frequenting foodie hotspots in the family’s Constantia neighbourhood, such as Foxcroft and Beau Constantia. Off duty, he enjoys a Jameson, but prefers to taste South African wines.

Scanlon, born in Paris to Irish parents, lived in France, Italy and Switzerland while he was growing up, and is fluent in French and Italian. “Languages are definitely a door opener for anybody who wants to get ahead,” he says. Scanlon studied at Trinity College Dublin, before starting his marketing career in financial services. It wasn’t long before he grew bored and moved into the world of branded drinks, joining Pernod Ricard in 1996.

Today, Pernod Ricard owns iconic brands such as Jameson, Mumm, Absolut, and Chivas Regal. The company’s history is a feel-good story about how familyowned Ricard grew into one of the world’s biggest wine and spirits groups in less than three generations by merging with fellow French company Pernod in 1975.

Several mergers and acquisitions followed. Most significantly, Pernod Ricard bought Irish Distillers in 1988 (Jameson), created a joint venture with Cuba Ron in 1993 (Havana Club), and acquired a large chunk of Seagram Wine and Spirit (Chivas Regal and Martell) in 2001; it also bought Allied Domecq in 2005, and Vin&Sprit (Absolut) in 2008.

Scanlon has been with Pernod Ricard for 21 years, working in different markets on major brands while traversing the globe. “People tend to stay a long time or leave very quickly if they don’t buy into the company culture,” he says. At the core of that culture is a focus on being “creators of conviviality”. “We are in the lifestyle business, creating moments where people can have fun and enjoy themselves,” Scanlon says. “South Africa is a young market with huge potential. Unlike first-world markets, it’s dynamic and still undergoing transformation. Our local consumer-insight teams are a crucial aspect of the business.” These teams interact with the customer base, constantly asking questions about the drink of the moment and how vodka is being mixed right now.

We are in the lifestyle business, creating moments
where people can have fun and enjoy themselves

Scanlon’s business philosophy ties in with the company’s global values: “To empower my staff, and to lead from the front.” The fact that it’s a family concern means that there has always been a strong legacy of entrepreneurship within Pernod Ricard, and little by way of stifling bureaucracy.

“In Europe, corporate offices are typically hierarchical. The newest, least-experienced person in the office would never dream of knocking on the MD’s door.” Scanlon says. “I enjoy the fact that the most junior member of staff is not afraid to come in and present an idea to me.” In terms of sales, the company’s biggest success story in South Africa to date is Jameson — it’s the single most profitable spirit brand in the country, selling at a big premium, Scanlon says.

An obvious challenge the company faces is the economic downturn, which has seen a slowdown in the sales of super-premium and premium brands. “Last Christmas, R450 was the normal spend for a whiskey. This year, we are already seeing a trend of trading down to less expensive brands,” Scanlon says. “It’s typical of a recession, but as things improve consumers will come back to brands that are aspirational.”

In the meantime, Pernod Ricard is investing in certain brands that are taking off in South Africa, particularly in the affluent, see-and-be-seen Johannesburg market. “There is enormous long-term growth potential in Mumm and cognac, despite these premium drinks making up only five percent of current spend,” Scanlon says.

So, what can the public expect from Pernod Ricard in the future? “We are launching Absolut Lime in South Africa. Seems obvious, but it’s never been done before. It’s been a huge success in the US,” Scanlon says.

The company is also launching an artisanal German gin, Monkey 47 Gin, to keep up with the seemingly insatiable demand for craft gins among South Africans.

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