By Jennifer Maloney
Ann Mukherjee is a spirits executive who often speaks about the
devastating role alcohol has played in her life: When she was a
child, she was sexually assaulted by a man who was drunk, and when
she was a teenager, her mother was killed by a drunken driver.
Since taking the helm as chairman and chief executive of Pernod
Ricard SA's North American business in late 2019, she has put those
experiences at the center of her business strategy. She introduced
an Absolut Vodka marketing campaign tackling the subject of sexual
consent. Pernod, which also makes Malibu rum and Jameson Irish
whiskey, has expanded into low- and no-alcohol offerings as some
consumers choose to drink less. And Ms. Mukherjee has taken public
stances on racial justice and other issues, arguing that CEOs can't
stand on the sidelines.
"Employees today...they want to know what you stand for," she
said. "Staying silent is also a choice."
Ms. Mukherjee, who was born in India and raised in the U.S., now
lives in Dallas. In this edited interview from The Wall Street
Journal's Future of Everything Festival this week, she talked about
responsible leadership and how the pandemic has changed the
workplace for the better.
WSJ: You've been really open about the tragic role alcohol has
played in your life. Could you share more about that decision?
Ms. Mukherjee: Given the pain I've gone through, I never want it
to happen to others. So if I really want change in this world, I
have to walk into the fire. This is a company that feels very
deeply about responsibility, and it's given me a chance to make a
positive dent in the universe.
WSJ: It's so easy for a brand to make a wrong move right now.
You took a risk last year with Absolut Vodka's "Sex Responsibly"
campaign. Tell us how you made sure to set the right tone.
Ms. Mukherjee: Any chance you take with a brand has to be
authentic. With Absolut, it's always been a brand of provocation.
Whether that was gay rights in the '70s, it's a brand that has
brought tough issues to the forefront.
There are a lot of things we stand against, but nobody really
takes on the issue that alcohol is at the intersection of a lot of
issues. If you truly want to be responsible, you can't hide behind
it. There are a lot of people that use alcohol as a way to
perpetrate violence. And it's time for us, if we are asking
consumers to be responsible, to stand up and talk about what that
WSJ: What's the next taboo subject you'd like to tackle?
Ms. Mukherjee: The next one we're going to talk a great deal
about is: As we come back from Covid and mix responsibly, how do we
keep respect at the center? There are a lot of different viewpoints
in this country, and that's OK. But let's remember to respect each
other. If there are some people who want to wear their mask, let's
respect that. If some people want to engage a little bit
differently, let's respect that.
WSJ: Is the idea of corporate social responsibility
Ms. Mukherjee: People have to remember that any company is a
microcosm of America. I have employees who are conservative. I have
employees who are liberal. I have it all. How we treat our
employees is how we need to think about what corporate
It's in that intersection of understanding about doing what is
right. That's going to mean different things for different
companies, but it's really important that companies and CEOs at
least understand what it means for their company. And they, as
CEOs, need to act on it. Sitting on the sidelines isn't possible
anymore for any leader.
WSJ: How do you respond to CEOs who say, 'I don't want to be an
activist. I just want to run my company and stay out of the
Ms. Mukherjee: Unfortunately, we are all in the fray. We're in
the fray because we work in a social microcosm that intersects with
our business. And people just don't want to join companies. They
want to buy into the company that they're joining.
WSJ: When you and I spoke last summer in a Zoom call, George
Floyd had recently been killed and you had 'BLM,' for Black Lives
Matter, painted on your nails. Why did you do that?
Ms. Mukherjee: I was experiencing people struggling in meetings.
I had people want to cancel meetings. And I realized this had
struck a chord among my people. So I shut down all my meetings and
went on a listening tour for about a couple weeks. I will tell you,
the pain people were experiencing -- there were also people who
didn't understand the movement. I put the cause on my nails so
people could see it visibly mattered.
WSJ: Many companies are talking about diversity, equality and
inclusion right now. What are some changes that could really make a
difference and what is just window dressing?
Ms. Mukherjee: People who are chasing numbers are window
dressing. We at Pernod Ricard have something I think is beautiful.
It's called 'better balance.' We have to reflect the society and
the consumer base we serve, and that means balancing all
One of the big tensions here is, yes, I need to make sure every
minority group is represented. But I work for a French company.
There are a lot of brilliant white French people at our company.
They are just as important and matter just as much as every diverse
WSJ: Most of your time as CEO has been with a large number of
your employees working from home. How has that changed your
thinking about remote and flexible work?
Ms. Mukherjee: We have to ask ourselves, what is a purposeful
meeting? People in the past would just get on a plane without
thinking about it. What we're looking at now isn't just the cost.
It's about the carbon footprint we're putting on the planet when we
keep putting ourselves on planes.
And, how is it that we're saying no to potential employees who
could be great for our business but maybe they can't move to a
particular city? We are re-evaluating everything.
Look, we still need to see people. But we can be thoughtful
about how we do it.
Write to Jennifer Maloney at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 15, 2021 09:14 ET (13:14 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.