Pernod Ricard's North American CEO says people will still want
the bar experience. But they may want it at home.
By Jennifer Maloney
This article is being republished as part of our daily
reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S.
print edition of The Wall Street Journal (August 3, 2020).
Ann Mukherjee became chairman and chief executive of Pernod
Ricard SA's North American business in December. Four months later,
the coronavirus pandemic had shut bars and restaurants around the
globe. And she quickly learned a lesson: When the facts on the
ground are changing every day, it can be a mistake to prepare for
an uncertain future too soon.
Ms. Mukherjee, who was born in India and raised in the U.S., now
lives in Dallas, where she has witnessed the pandemic's whipsaw
effect on business as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott opened and then
reclosed the state's bars amid a surge in new Covid-19 cases.
Pernod, the maker of Malibu rum, Absolut vodka and Jameson Irish
whiskey, is adjusting distributor inventory levels up and down as
states open and close. At the same time, its executives are
contemplating how the pandemic may have a lasting impact on the way
we drink and socialize. The company has shifted its bartender
training programs from in-person to online, and is showing barkeeps
how to make takeout cocktails with its products.
In this edited interview with The Wall Street Journal, Ms.
Mukherjee talks about managing amid ambiguity, and how she jumped
the gun on preparing for the new normal.
Too much too soon
WSJ: When you think about how you have navigated this period of
instability, what did you do right and what did you do wrong?
MS. MUKHERJEE: One of the things I did right that I feel really
good about is I overcommunicated with my leadership, I
overcommunicated with my employees, I overcommunicated with our
distributor partners. And in that over-communication, I think we
got to better actions.
And I think what we didn't get right...in March, I thought Covid
would be done in two months. I was like, we're going to get through
this, but let's plan now for recovery, and how do we come out
stronger than before we went into Covid? What I did wrong was I
didn't adjust every time we found out this was going to
There is going to be a new normal, and if we don't start
preparing for that new normal now, we're going to be behind the
eight ball when we get into that new normal. But a lot of that new
normal is going to be based on stuff we still don't know. And so if
you push your organization way too hard to adjust too quickly,
you're going to fatigue them. By the time you get to the new
normal, they're not going to be able to act.
We have to stay competitive in this environment. Balancing that
and pacing that with people's ability to absorb change, I think
that's going to be a constant struggle. And so it's forced me to be
ruthless in my prioritization: Do we really need to do X by Y?
WSJ: Can you give an example of how you were preparing for the
new normal too soon?
MS. MUKHERJEE: When the pandemic happened, we took it as a two-
or three-month hiatus. Bars had shut down, so we had people that we
thought we could use to start thinking about new ways of doing
things, create transformation projects.
Because restaurants had shut down and a lot of our people
weren't out there servicing our restaurants, we said let's take a
huge step back. How should we be servicing restaurants? How do we
make sure that we understand that we're going to be in towns that
really matter and those are the ones that are growing, and how do
we use analytics?
That was remapping across all 50 states. So this was a pretty
major undertaking. We thought now is the time to do it, and we're
going to come out stronger. And it nearly killed them.
WSJ: Because they didn't actually have any downtime to work on
it. They were in the middle of a crisis.
MS. MUKHERJEE: They're in the middle of a crisis. Literally,
every week, some new thing hit our transom.
The last straw
WSJ: Was there a lightbulb moment when you realized that you
were driving the team too hard?
MS. MUKHERJEE: I think the moment for me was when Black Lives
Matter happened, because, all of a sudden, I started getting phone
calls where people were like, "Ann, I can't deliver this," or "Ann,
I need two weeks for this," or "I need an extension here." For a
two-day period, I went on a listening tour. I started calling
The amount of people that started breaking down in front of
me.... People felt like they were in a war zone, and all of a
sudden, it just started clicking together about what they were
trying to deal with personally, and here we are shifting all these
priorities on top of it, and that was the moment that I said, "We
need to stop."
WSJ: Did you experience that mental fatigue yourself?
MS. MUKHERJEE: When Black Lives Matter happened, I was
struggling to concentrate. My children -- we're people of color.
We're brown. My children were facing some very difficult things in
their own school. So I was having a really hard time. I was so
disturbed by what was happening, and I admitted that to my
employees. I said, "If I'm having difficulty concentrating, you
must be, too."
Focus on agility
WSJ: Can you give an example of how you're prioritizing now?
MS. MUKHERJEE: Now prioritization has become a weekly activity.
We meet as a kitchen cabinet, as a leadership team, once a week,
and we take a hard look. When Black Lives Matter happened, my
marketing organization had to relook at all the content that was
about to go out. We did not want to be tone deaf during that time.
Two weeks later, now it's a social-media boycott. So then we had to
overhaul our entire media plan. [Pernod paused its advertising on
Facebook and all other social-media platforms in response to the
We're still trying to do a lot of analytical projects to help
us, post-Covid, start making decisions at the speed of business,
and we're going to have to because it's going to get so
unpredictable. It's almost like tending a garden. You've got to
weed it every single week.
WSJ: What is your thinking now on the new normal? What will it
MS. MUKHERJEE: Alex Ricard [CEO of Pernod Ricard] talked about
this notion that the power of humankind to want to connect and
bond, that isn't going to change. The variable is, will we have a
safe enough environment for people to socially connect?
We make products that allow people to connect. So we're starting
to think about things that we've never thought about, which is
people want to still socially connect, but they might want to do it
at home. So they might want to have a bar experience at home.
We've seen a lot around cocktails to go. So for bartenders at
restaurants who are doing carryout, do we have an easy way for them
to create a cocktail, provide the containers for them to do
WSJ: How have the recent reopenings and reclosings affected
MS. MUKHERJEE: Right before Memorial Day, we were opening back
up again. States like Texas, California, Arizona, Florida. Our
biggest businesses are in these states. So here we are getting
ready with our distributors. We're sending people back out again.
We're ramping up our production. We're making sure inventory and
stocks are there. It was a major operation, and here we are six
weeks later, and they're all reclosing again.
And so, how do we do things like educating our bartenders about
our brands? Well, now you've got to do it virtually. So new
training comes into play. This opening and reclosing of bars tells
you how nimble and agile you have to be, state by state, to figure
out what you do with your workforce.
WSJ: Do you think some states opened bars too soon?
MS. MUKHERJEE: I think some states opened up bars too soon
without protection. We could absolutely open up restaurants and
bars if we manage to do it with social distancing and masks. When
Texas started reopening again, my husband and I went out to a
restaurant, and they did a phenomenal job. Gloves, masks. The
tables were far apart, large tables.
If you reopen everything too fast without safety, you're going
to get an uptick in cases, which is what we're seeing.
WSJ: What will you do differently moving forward?
MS. MUKHERJEE: We've got to build even more agility and
flexibility into the way we operate and make decisions. How do we
help the organization work smarter in real time? We have to build
in that, if we get it wrong, we don't throw out the baby with the
bathwater. You learn from the mistake and use that to get stronger,
and that's a big culture change.
Ms. Maloney is a Wall Street Journal reporter in New York. She
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
August 03, 2020 02:47 ET (06:47 GMT)
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