Cognac magnate responsible for transforming family business


KILIAN HENNESSY: Kilian Hennessy, who has died aged 103, was the patriarch of the Hennessy clan and the man widely regarded as responsible for transforming the fortunes of his family cognac business.

His success in the competitive drinks industry was especially remarkable since he never intended to become associated with a company founded by an Irish ancestor five generations earlier. The younger son of a Co Cork man, Richard Hennessy who left Ireland in the middle of the 18th century to join the French army’s Irish Brigade. After distinguishing himself in battle, he retired to the Cognac region and began sending barrels of aged cognac back to his native country. In 1765 he established the business that still bears his family name.

Born in 1907, at the age of six Kilian Hennessy left Cognac with his parents and only returned to the area towards the close of the second World War. In the years between he lived in Paris and worked as a banker.

In 1944, he and his brother Patrick came to the aid of their cousin Maurice who had been in charge of Hennessy since 1923 and now needed help restoring the fortunes of a severely depleted company. An association with another similar family business, Firino-Martell, which had been in place for almost 20 years, was ended and a decision taken to make Hennessy cognac a globally-renowned brand with its own international distribution network. At the time cognac was not a drink widely consumed outside France and certain other areas of Europe.

One of Hennessy’s first tasks was to travel around the world promoting the merits of Hennessy cognac. In 1946 he visited Asia and spent time in Hong Kong and Japan, both of which would subsequently become keen buyers of Hennessy products, as is China today.

During this period he came regularly to the home of his ancestors, Ireland. In order to encourage interest in the company’s product, he looked for ways to associate it with high-profile occasions, establishing the Hennessy Gold Cup at Cheltenham Racecourse in 1957. In its inaugural year, the race was won by Mandarin, a horse owned by his then-wife; it won again in 1961, by which time the race had been moved to Newbury.

In his promotional work Hennessy focused on American consumers, travelling to the United States two or three times annually; today it is the largest market for Hennessy cognac. He also recognised the importance of ongoing involvement in the business by members of the family and this remains the case to the present.

Nevertheless Kilian Hennessy accepted that in order to retain a competitive edge in the international market, strategic alliances would have to be formed.

In 1971 he championed a new partnership with the Moët Chandon Champagne house, resulting in the Moët-Hennessy merger; he served as chairman of the board and CEO of the company from 1972 to 1976. In 1987 Fred Chandon, head of the Champagne house, proposed an additional merger with the fashion house company Louis Vuitton, an idea that was backed by Hennessy.

Today the group, Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, usually known as LVMH, is one of the world’s largest luxury goods companies incorporating some 60 luxury brands and with a net income last year of €1.973 billion. Within this conglomerate, Hennessy retains its own identity but benefits from being part of an international organisation.

Despite his age Hennessy continued serving as an independent advisory board member for LVMH until his death while his son Gilles is a member of the LVMH board of directors and a cousin Maurice Hennessy acts as the brand’s global ambassador.

In his final years, Hennessy divided his time between the family’s château de Saint-Brice in the Charente and a home in Switzerland where he died. He was predeceased by his third wife, Sylvia de Castellane, but is survived by two children, Gilles and Moira and a number of grandchildren.

Kilian Hennessy: born February 19th, 1907; died October 2nd, 2010