Family spirit: Alex Ricard’s plans for liquor giant Pernod Ricard

September 18, 2014, 11:50 AM UTC
Alexandre Ricard
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Philippe Wojazer—REUTERS

Alexandre Ricard has waited to run his family’s spirits business for practically all of his 42 years.

In February 2015, the Frenchman will take the reins as CEO and chairman of Pernod Ricard, the $10.8 billion distiller and owner of marquee brands like Absolut, Chivas Regal, and Jameson. Ricard, who goes by Alex, has been the company’s COO since 2011 and first joined in 2003 after stints with Accenture and Morgan Stanley.

Ricard was named as successor in August 2012 by current CEO Pierre Pringuet after a heart attack caused the death of then-chairman and former CEO, Ricard’s uncle Patrick (Fortune’s European Businessperson of the Year in 2006). At the time, Daniele Ricard, Patrick’s sister, was named chairwoman. In February, Pringuet will turn 65, the mandatory retirement age stipulated by the company, and Alexandre will replace both of them.

The deputy chief faces three top priorities: global top-line growth by pushing brands in key battlegrounds like China and the emerging market in Africa; innovation, in both design and product; and marketing with a focus on brand heritage.

Much like beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev, Pernod Ricard is the result of multiple unions over time. Pernod, an anise-flavored liqueur, has been a French staple since 1805; Ricard, an apéritif, was created in 1932 by Alex’s grandfather Paul. Longtime rivals for French palates, the two merged in 1975. Some of the company’s key acquisitions since then have been Allied Domecq in 2005 (and with it, Beefeater, Ballantine’s, Kahlua, and Malibu) and V&S Group in 2008, which brought Absolut, today the top-selling premium vodka in the U.S.

Roughly a third of Pernod’s business is in Europe, another in the U.S., and the final third in Asia. That last market has huge growth potential, but it’s far from simple: China has had a precipitous drop in sales of imported spirits, which experts trace to the Chinese broadly cutting back on luxury. According to Morningstar analyst Philip Gorham, “They’re cracking down on public officials accepting gifts and conspicuous consumption, and that affects premium spirits and Scotch. At some point they’ll hit reset, and it’ll grow again, but that’s going to be one of Pernod’s big short-term problems.” Indeed, the company’s revenues for the last fiscal year were flat solely because of a 23% sales drop in China and an unfavorable exchange rate. Its stock, which trades on the Euronext Paris, grew only 4% in the past year.

Ricard plans to address his China problem by ramping up Pernod’s wine portfolio there. In 2012 it bought the Helan Mountain winery, and an Australian wine it bought in 1989, Jacob’s Creek, sells very well in China. And he will use new sub-brands—the beverage industry typically calls them line extensions—to target specific groups, which Pernod has done with Martell Distinction, a new line of affordable cognac that it says is selling well among China’s emerging middle class.

“I think young consumers don’t look at the industry by segments,” Ricard says. “They don’t look at beer as beer and spirits as spirits. They have a repertoire of brands. Today it’s not, ‘Oh, I feel like a vodka’ or ‘I feel like a whiskey.’ It’s ‘I feel like an Absolut’ or ‘I feel like a Glenlivet.’” Wishful thinking by an optimistic executive, sure, but Ricard, a strait-laced, serious guy, is hip to millennials in surprising ways. In 2012 Pernod launched T-shirt OS, a shirt that can display personalized messages. Wearable tech is new and perhaps strange ground for Pernod, but the product was on brand (funded by Ballantine’s Scotch, whose advertising tag line is “Leave an impression”) and trended well on social media.

Along with the shirt, Pernod is testing an at-home bar appliance called Project Gutenberg. Both are part of Ricard’s initiative to invest 20% of the marketing budget in digital innovation.

This story is from the October 6, 2014 issue of Fortune.

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