Bubbling force from North who runs champagne giant

Having grown up on a pig farm, Jim Clerkin’s early years with Guinness paved the way to top Moët Hennessy USA post

If you are thinking about splashing out on a sparkling surprise, Jim Clerkin is the ideal man to ask for advice.

Northern Ireland-born Clerkin knows a thing or two about life's little luxuries, particularly when it comes to some of the world's most desired wines, spirits and champagnes. As president and chief executive of Moët Hennessy USA, he oversees the fortunes of a portfolio which includes Dom Pérignon, Hennessy Cognac, Moët & Chandon, Krug, Veuve Clicquot and Ruinart Champagnes.

Moët Hennessy USA is part of LVMH, the largest luxury brand group in the world. And Clerkin's position means he has a golden ticket to the kind of events most people can only dream about – or watch on television from the comfort of their sofa.

Just a couple of weeks ago, he met Clint Eastwood at the Golden Globes and then caught up with Eastwood and Bono in the bar at the awards party.


But Clerkin has not always been surrounded by aspirational brands and global celebrities. As a boy growing up on his father's small pig farm in Rostrevor at the foot of the Mourne mountains, the big plan was for Clerkin to get educated and then come back and help his father get into the pig industry in a much more commercial way.

Along the way, he met some people from Guinness, who gave him the opportunity to “try his hand” at marketing and sales. His father, who Clerkin says was his “best friend” in life, told him categorically that he could not but take the chance that he was offered.

Father’s blessing

So, with his father’s blessing, he stepped into a bigger world and a new career. But for all his subsequent adventures, Clerkin has retained his decidedly grounded approach to life.

Soon after joining Guinness, he met a man who set him on a new direction in life – John Lavery, a popular managing director of Guinness Northern Ireland, who became both a friend and mentor to him.

He credits Lavery’s influence as one of the reasons why he is where he is today – in Moët Hennessy USA’s headquarters in New York, heading a team of 330 people he has the “privilege” of working with and who are responsible for producing annual revenues in the region of $1.8 billion.

Clerkin believes that mentors can play a “critical” role in helping anyone with ambition succeed. In Northern Ireland recently to take part in the FPM Annual Leadership Talk, in association with the Ulster University Business School at the Belfast campus, he was evangelical about encouraging people to find mentors in the workplace and outside of it to learn as much as they can from them.

Value of mentors

“It can make all the difference. It was very important to me from day one. I don’t think you should ever be afraid to admit that you need help. No one has all the answers, but getting help and advice can help you find the answers and make the right decisions,” Clerkin says.

It is not just people starting out in their careers that may need a mentor he believes.

“It can be a very lonely place at the top as an MD or a chief executive. It can be difficult to tell people what’s on your mind because, at that level, most people who work for you have vested interests in the business – their input will not be neutral and it might not be for the greater good of the business.

“But if you have a good mentor or coach that you can sit down and talk with and you know that the only agenda they have is to help you, that can be a great sounding board. And you know the advice they give you is impartial, even if you don’t take it.

“It’s great to have support – it can make all the difference,” Clerkin adds.

The lessons he learned from his early mentor John Lavery and the work ethic “instilled” in him by his father – not to mention his own talent – helped Clerkin rapidly advance through the ranks of Guinness ultimately to the role of executive sales director and a seat on the board.

“I had a wonderful 18 years with Guinness and a lot of experiences in my different roles. When I first started, the food and beverage industry in Northern Ireland was unlike any other in the world. There were a lot of hotels and bars but it was a very difficult environment for them. Many were under attack and it was very challenging, but I had a lot of opportunities and I was very happy,” Clerkin says.

One of those opportunities involved moving to Dublin where he was approached by Grand Metropolitan to lead its Irish wines and spirits operation, Gilbeys of Ireland.

It was a managing director’s role that he relished and, during his time there, he brought the Northern Ireland and southern divisions together to create one of the largest wine and spirit companies on the island.

Grand Metropolitan had merged with Guinness to form Diageo in 1998 and, in 2000, completely out of the blue, they asked Clerkin to move to the United States to look after Diageo's wine and spirit division in the western region.

It was not an opportunity he wanted to embrace at the time.

“I was really happy living in Dublin, I had successfully brought both Gilbey’s businesses together and I had taken up the role of chairman of the Wine and Spirit Association of Ireland. I had just bought a cottage in the beautiful village of Carlingford in Co Louth and I remember thinking at the time that life was good,” he said.

Early reluctance

“I didn’t want to move California and I remember going to see my boss and telling him that I was really very unhappy about it and he just said ‘I am not asking you do you want to go, I am telling you.’” Clerkin says.

It was an order that fundamentally changed his life – and has left him with a gentle Americanised accent which still mingles with a strong hint of a Northern Ireland one.

“If I hadn’t gone, I would not be where I am today, no doubt about it. At the time I thought it was, at best, a sideways move for me, I didn’t want it. But what it taught me was this – and this is a valuable lesson in business – sometimes what you think is a sideways move can be a very good thing.

“You need to take a different look at it and you shouldn’t be afraid to take it – move sideways and learn something new, grow from it and develop. Okay, you might be reluctant to do it, but look at my experience,” Clerkin urges.

Step sideways

His “sideways experience” in turn resulted in his appointment as president of Diageo North America’s western division, then president of

Allied Domecq

North American and also president of Beam Global Spirits and Wines with responsibility for the US and Mexico.

In 2008, Moët Hennessy USA came knocking at his door to make him the group’s first executive vice-president and chief operating officer of Moët Hennessy. Two years later, he was appointed president and chief executive of the group’s USA operations.

For all his initial reluctance, Clerkin says he has never for a moment regretted his move to the US or, for that matter, looked back.

“The American style of business suits me – you make a decision, they stick with it they respect it. They don’t change their minds about it on Tuesday.

“I always look at what’s next, I never think about where I’ve come from.

“I’ve been given this wonderful opportunity. I see myself as the custodian of these iconic brands and I want to make them better and it is one of the reasons why I continue to coach people and mentor people in my organisation. It is very important to me to help people grow faster and to grow the business,” Clerkin says.

His “mentoring” approach does not just stop at the office door: he is a passionate supporter and remains actively involved in the charity Co-operation Ireland USA. For Clerkin, it is an opportunity to give something back but it is also a chance to expand his love of mentoring to a lifetime project that remains very close to his heart – any opportunity he can get to help promote the “wee North”.

He tells a story from his days in Guinness about a man who used to drive the forklift truck at the site in Ballymena.

"That guy was Liam Neeson and I think that brings home to me the work ethic in Northern Ireland – he started off driving a forklift truck and now he's the third-highest-paid star in America in terms of movies. There is a great work ethic in the North. Maybe it is because it has come through such a tough time – though, of course, there is a great work ethic throughout Ireland.

"But we're out to prove to the world how good the people of the North are – I've heard everybody say that people from Northern Ireland are industrious, hardworking and have great ethics. I think the future is bright." CV Name: Jim Clerkin Age: 64 Title: Chief executive and president of Moët Hennessy USA

Family: Married to Jenny. They have four children – Jennifer, Rachael, James and Luke.

Nationality: “Born in Rostrevor, Lives in New York State.” What you might expect: He likes all of Moët Hennessy USA’s portfolio of brands. But if he had to choose a favour, it would be a chardonnay from the Newtown Vineyard in California.

What you might not expect: He has run four marathons – his fastest was the Dublin Marathon in 1983 when he finished in 2.59.04.