Cover Story
In High Spirits
Grace Lim 
Nine months ago, Sébastien Mouquet landed in Kuala Lumpur to begin his role as the managing director of Pernod Ricard Malaysia. He soon noticed something peculiar about the locals.

“People love to eat here, no matter the time of the day,” he laughs. “This ‘eat all day’ concept is alien to me but it just goes to show how important food is. Being French, I understand that. We share a common love of food.”

This year also marks his 22nd year with Pernod Ricard, the world’s second largest wines and spirits company. He began his career with Pernod Ricard in 1995, just two days after finishing his studies at the European Business School in Paris. He hasn’t looked back since.

“As a student I studied as hard as I partied. I liked the party atmosphere, the convivial vibe and sharing happy moments with friends. This led me to consider a job in this industry. Pernod Ricard was a no-brainer as I was fascinated with its vast universe of brands.”

\After completing his final course on Friday, he packed his bags and moved to London, beginning work the following Monday as the marketing junior brand manager for Wild Turkey Bourbon. Two years later, he returned to France to be the finance controller in advertising and promotional investments for the Ricard S.A..

In 2000, he moved to Pernod Ricard Spain to become the senior brand manager for Ricard and Zoco, then to Portugal as cash & carry business director. It was back to Spain in 2005 to head regional sales, with a focus on “on-trade” activities in hotels, restaurants, bars and nightclubs.

More transfers ensued including national sales director of Ricard France, which he likens to leading a troop of 500 in negotiating national accounts and the commercialisation of Pernod Ricard brands in France including Pastis Ricard, Chivas Regal, The Glenlivet, Absolut Vodka, Beefeater Gin and Perrier-Jouët.

On his decision to move to Asia, Mouquet says that “it was a fantastic opportunity.”

This is his first time in Asia, and not just a big change for him but also for his wife and four children who moved here with him.

“Since I’m here with my family, I consider this a family adventure. My wife has taken on the role of travel planner for us. So far, we’ve been to Melaka, Penang and the east coast. Next weekend, we’ll be checking out Ipoh,” he says, the excitement over the prospect palpable in his voice.

The warm reception he has received so far also made the transition easy. “People are always asking us how we’re doing,” he smiles. “The only problem is the humidity. I know heat from living in Spain but the level of humidity here is different.”

As for the food, Mouquet is game to try anything once. “I don’t always know what I’m eating but it’s an excellent way to understand the different cultures here. Thankfully, I love spicy food!”

Work In Progress
After close to a year at the helm, one of the things that caught his attention about the Malaysian market was the high tax on alcohols and spirits. “It does pose some difficulties,” he admits, adding that he relishes the challenge of maintaining Pernod Ricard’s momentum despite this obstacle.

He is also keen on promoting responsible drinking. In 2014, Pernod Ricard launched Wise Drinking, a mobile application that allows consumers to enter the number and type of drinks they have ordered. The alcohol content of each drink is calculated every time a drink is added on the app to indicate the level of alcohol in the body, which also informs you if you should be driving or not.

“Even though it is obvious, we’re also the first to put on our labels that pregnant women are not encouraged to drink,” he notes. “We believe we have a role to play in terms of education. Our products are wonderful and qualitative as long as you use them properly.”

Pernod Ricard’s CSR project, Bottled Hope, is also aimed at the same message of responsible drinking, with the additional concern of protecting the environment. Bottled Hope recently organised runs in Cameron Highlands, Melaka and Serdang to raise funds for such non-profit organisations as Ecoknights.

“Ecoknights develops projects to protect the environment, specifically the forests and the rivers. The environment is very important to us because we live in it. If you’ve read any of our labels, you will find that one of the main ingredients is water. We need to defend access to clean water for everybody,” he explains.

Forging Forward
Mouquet notes that there are many differences between consumers in the West and the ones in the East. “In France, the aperitif is very important. It means having a drink before a meal to whet the appetite. The concept of having aperitif does not exist here. People tend to drink throughout the meal. In this regard, whisky and cognac are very popular choices.”

Their popularity bodes well for Pernod Ricard Malaysia. “We’ve every intention to defend our strong position for brands like Martell and Chivas that have been established over the years.”

He is pleased with Pernod Ricard’s brand recognition here. “I’m quite impressed. Now, one of our challenges would be to work on premium-isation. We want our consumers to be introduced to higher quality products and experience more premium drinks. It’s not about drinking more but drinking better,” he says.

Another challenge is recruiting and attracting a new generation of loyal customers. “These are young adults who may not be so familiar with our products. The launch of Martell NCF at the Royal Selangor Yacht Club in Port Klang was one of our initiatives targetted at this audience. This is an example of how we can rejuvenate a traditional brand.”

The ongoing push for Jameson Irish Whisky in Malaysia is another example. Its latest campaign was a huge success worldwide, most notably in the United States. The triple distilled whisky presents a smooth flavour and is easy to drink, a quality that, according to Mouquet, makes it the perfect bottle for introducing new consumers to whisky.

“It’s pleasant, versatile and can be enjoyed with ginger ale or even beer, which is unusual. This is the kind of innovation that we offer with Jameson for the younger consumers,” he enthuses.

Mouquet adds: “Malaysia is a very dynamic country, and people’s dedication in moving forward is what surprises me the most. They want the country to prosper. Even here at Pernod Ricard Malaysia, our staff are very proud of the company. I’ve travelled a fair bit and even though the culture here is different, I was not expecting this level of happiness, commitment and recognition. I truly appreciate that.”

He compares his job to that of an orchestra conductor, making sure that the different teams in Pernod Ricard Malaysia work together to achieve the best results. “I try to create a good communication channel among all the departments in the company. It’s a question of making everybody work together in harmony to get results.”

Mouquet loves his job and it shows. “Although I have been with the same company for over 20 years, I still have a lot of passion for it. I love meeting people and I love sharing with people. The latter is actually a core value of the brand that I hold dear in my heart.”

“I’m very lucky to be in Pernod Ricard, and this is something I always tell my team. We represent a universe of sharing good times with people, which we call conviviality. The company’s French tagline is Créateurs de conviviality, which means creators of conviviality. It’s all about spending time and sharing experiences together.”

As such, Mouquet looks forward to having more similar experiences. “We have this extraordinary privilege to work in an industry where there are ample opportunities to share good times with other people. I strongly believe that you don’t just sell the brands, you share them. You share a moment with a person. Our founder said that from the very beginning and that is something I plan to continue to cultivate. Plus, there is nothing happier than to be able to make at least one new friend every day.”

We will raise a glass to that.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 240.