Since the turn of the century, Pernod Ricard, the French-based alcoholic beverage giant, has imbibed great change.
There was the acquisition of Seagram in 2001, scooping up popular Scotch whisky brands Chivas Regal and The Glenlivet and Martell cognac. Around the same time, Pernod Ricard was selling off soft drinks, ciders, and other companies to remake itself into a pure player in the spirits and wine businesses. A few years later, it bought Allied Domecq and added Malibu rum, Beefeater gin, and champagne producers Perrier-Jouët and Mumm to the fold. In 2008, another blockbuster deal was inked when Pernod Ricard bought Absolut vodka.
Through it all, chief financial officer Hélène de Tissot was there.
Born in Nice, France, but primarily raised in Paris, de Tissot studied law and went to business school in the French capital. She began her career as a tax lawyer for Arthur Andersen from 1994 to 2002. During de Tissot’s time at the firm, one of her largest customers was Pernod Ricard, helping the company as it began to grow quickly outside of France and had to more seriously consider international tax regulations. She worked on Pernod Ricard’s acquisition of Seagram and after that deal was closed, Pernod Ricard made the decision to bring certain capabilities in-house, including the creation of a new tax director role.
“It was a great opportunity for me to join Pernod Ricard,” de Tissot told Fortune during an interview at Pernod Ricard’s Midtown East office in Manhattan. “I was happy to take the job.”
During her time in that role, de Tissot says Pernod Ricard was “very successful doing all those transactions, obviously with lots of work from the finance and tax point of view. It was a kind of fantastic momentum moving from one big acquisition to the other. It was a real success story for Pernod Ricard. I loved those eight years.”
But she didn’t want to stay just focused on taxes forever. De Tissot had joined in the most senior position in the group, and during her initial interviews with Pernod Ricard, the company’s then-CFO told her that if she was happy at the French beverage giant, she would have to leave her comfort zone and try something else, likely in finance.
That led de Tissot to Asia. She moved to Hong Kong with her supportive husband and three children to serve as CFO of the region, overseeing big markets including China, India, and Japan. The role was new, and de Tissot traveled throughout the region frequently. She dedicated a lot of time to get a sense of the bigger picture of what Pernod Ricard was aiming to achieve in the region.
“Tax is very close to many aspects of finance; many topics were very familiar to me,” says de Tissot. She quickly built the conviction that she wasn’t in this role to understand all the technicalities of what she was in charge of, as the team could be entrusted to deliver.
“I needed to bring the big picture to the team so that they could understand what was the group strategy, what was the role of Asia within that strategy, and the contribution to the short-term performance and as well the more mid- to long-term view,” says de Tissot.
By 2016, she turned to Paris to lead mergers and acquisitions at Pernod Ricard, returning to the company’s headquarters just a year after Alexandre Ricard became CEO and chairman. Just 18 months later, she was elevated to the role of CFO. Through these years, she helped close key acquisitions for Del Maguey mezcal, Monkey 47 and Malfy gins, and Rabbit Hole bourbon.
De Tissot says Pernod Ricard doesn’t adhere to a strict brief when buying brands. “We are constantly identifying potential targets in terms of M&A, and they can be different in terms of brands, market exposure, or categories,” she says. “It’s more the opportunity of very specific brands that we believe have a very authentic proposition or they are quite premium in terms of price positioning.”
More recently, Pernod Ricard bought Código tequila to better invest in the fast-growing Mexican spirit. Chateau Sainte Marguerite was acquired to add a premium-priced French rose that has great potential in France and the United States. Ceder’s Drinks is an alcohol-free, gin inspired beverage that plays into the growing trend toward low- and no-alcohol drinks.
All these deals, de Tissot says, highlights Pernod Ricard’s obsession with M&A, alongside organic growth, and seizing opportunities to offer drinks that consumers want. The brands the company buys have a proof of concept that features some early success, but Pernod Ricard can provide the necessary firepower to help them shine with large marketing and sales capabilities, as well as fully owned international distribution.
Of course, any hour-long conversation about alcohol will lead to the obvious question: what’s your drink of choice? For de Tissot, it varies considering the occasion or the place. In New York, she prefers cocktails with dinner, which isn’t as popular in France where the wine culture is so strong. De Tissot enjoys Absolut, and for her trip in New York where we met, she plans to have a margarita with either Codigo or Avión. When back home in France, de Tissot prefers Perrier-Jouët, specifically the blanc de blancs. And during the summer, the namesake apéritif Ricard.
In reflecting on the role and responsibilities of a CFO, de Tissot—who also oversees IT and operations—shares that leading finance is a combination of monitoring the performance of Pernod Ricard, tracking that the performance is going in the right direction, is consistent with what has been shared with investors, fully compliant with regulations, and keenly manages risk. All of this on top of the company’s very active M&A, which de Tissot loves. She also works closely with her peers as a member of Pernod Ricard’s executive board and executive committee.
Working with those key leaders, de Tissot shares, “is a way to be sure I am fully aware of what is the strategic intention and that I have a good understanding of how it will translate into finance and vice versa.”
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