‘I will have no mistress anymore. My wife will be happy’

Taittinger CEO Pierre-Emmanuel on giving up his mistress in retirement and not listening to your kids

 

Unlike his uncle Claude, who ran the Taittinger family business until he was 80, Pierre-Emmanuel will exit at the relatively young age of 65.

He runs one of the few champagne houses still in family hands, but a decade ago it was almost lost and, if the experience taught him anything, it’s not to hang around too long.

In 2005, several branches of the family voted to sell the business, which included several hotels, to US private equity group Starwood Capital, despite the objections of Pierre-Emmanuel and his side of the family.

“Officially, we sold for tax reasons. Unofficially, family members had become tired. The business was still profitable but they wanted to do something else,” he told a seminar on family-run enterprises at the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year event in Monaco last week

“When you are old, you don’t believe anymore, even in your kids; you only like people who flatter you. You don’t hear advice, especially when it’s tough.”

It’s obvious the decision still rankles. However, a year after the sale, Taittinger pulled off an unlikely coup. With a consortium of investors behind him, he managed to buy back the group’s champagne division from Starwood, beating off 10 other potential buyers in a fierce bidding war.

Restoring the family’s heritage came with hefty final price tag of $850 million (€746 million), however, which left the company with a mountain of debt and not much fizz. A long and difficult period of restructuring ensued.

“It wasn’t about ego or ambition. I did it for the customers of Taittinger, for the employees, and for my region because Taittinger is a champagne firm and must remain a champagne firm.”

Under his stewardship the company is thriving again, with annual sales of its flagship Brut NV close to a record six million bottles.

One of the first things he did upon assuming control was to impose a strict ceiling on retirement.

“I suffered too much watching brilliant people become old and stupid – and, believe me, they were much more brilliant than I could ever be.”

Instead of expounding on the virtues of a family business – the traditions, the attention to detail, the loyalty to customers and staff – Taittinger rails against company founders who fail to cede control, describing them as a “cancer” on the business.

“So if you have members of your family – even if they are the most brilliant one – you have one thing to do: fire them immediately.”

He then reams off a list of once-great family businesses in France that have gone to the wall.

It probably wasn’t what attendees were expecting but Taittinger isn’t your typical champagne boss. He abhors questions about the composition of his champagnes; decries the practice of scoring wines; and regularly digresses into politics, poetry and, like every self-respecting Frenchman, sex. He recently compared his product to Viagra, noting it was popularised by a mistress of Louis XV, who apparently found the king “a much better lover” when he was drinking champagne.

The dapper, tousled-haired 62-year-old appears more bon viveur than businessman.

“I am paid to drink, I am paid to eat and make love sometimes, and drink wonderful champagne sometimes.”

“Champagne is not only a wine, it is a symbol of happiness, a symbol of delicacy, of elegance.”

However, behind the floral tones lies a forensic attention to detail. The house has a reputation for prizing quality over quantity. Taittinger is fanatical about the quality of his bubbly.

The company’s premium cuvée, the Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs, made solely from the chardonnay grape, and which is famously drunk by James Bond in the Ian Fleming’s novels, is only produced after an exceptional harvest worthy of vintage champagne.

Taittinger is the grandson of Pierre Taittinger, who founded the house just after the first World War, with the help of money from his British wife. The company offices are located above 1,000-year-old cellars in Reims in France’s Champagne region.

The business owns 288 hectares of vineyards in the appellation, making it the second-largest landowner in Champagne after Moët Hennessy. This provides it with 50 per cent of grapes it needs. Independent suppliers grow the rest.

He said his family took “the champagne train at just the right time”. Sales of bubbly soared after the second World War, rising from 50 million bottles a year to more than 300 million.

Right place, right time – it’s a common enough motif for entrepreneurs.

Taittinger will soon become the first champagne house to produce in the UK after investing in a former Kent apple orchard last year.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, he believes wine snobs give the industry a bad name and has a preference for simplicity and affordability.

At around €60 a bottle, Taittinger’s Prélude is modestly price by champagne standards.

“Champagne is not too serious. Today, we take wine far too seriously. Some bottles are far too expensive,” he said.

Taittinger’s other bugbear is the dire state of French politics; the decline in France’s global standing, the loose political arrangements that govern, and the ailing state of its public finances.

“France is extremely badly run . . . When you are a champagne president you can change the woman every day – it’s part of the job – but when you’re French president you should avoid that kind of thing.”

He jokes he may well, one day, run for president himself before reflecting he may have drunk too much champagne for high office and may also lack the killer instinct necessary.

“I am a businessman but not totally . . . I am dreamer, I am passionate, and in politics, you know, you have to kill people.”

He has prepared four people, including a son and daughter, as possible replacements but insists he is ambivalent about the decision.

And of his own retirement: “I will be sad because I love my work . . . but I’m already preparing. It will be a beautiful day. They will offer me two little dogs because I want to take care of two dogs. The conversation will be superb. I will have no mistress anymore. My wife will be happy.”