Thomas Bouleuc’s career spans across top global companies – L’Oréal, McKinsey and Moët Hennessy and this reflection: “With each job I had, I thought I had the best job in the world”. In July 2019, he journeyed to Malaysia to assume the role of Managing Director of Moët Hennessy Diageo Malaysia (MHD). Little did he know, he would find himself in uncharted waters as the country (and half of the world) goes into a lockdown eight months in.
His prudence and astuteness have provided a crackling stimulus for the company and, dare we say it, the luxury wines and spirit market. Fuelled by the spirit of conquest, MHD Malaysia pulled through 2020 by adapting to the changes brought by the pandemic with his discerning guidance and people-driven approach. In March this year, Thomas was also entrusted with managing the distributing and brand-building of the MHD portfolio in Singapore.
“Every day is a new adventure, a new journey,” he says over a breakfast meeting in Kuala Lumpur, clearly elated to be out in the city centre and just connecting. Given the uncertain times, he has accepted that consumer events and travel will be few and far between while digitalisation will be the order of the day. “Zoom meetings will never replace face-to-face interactions, but we have to do what we have to.”
And that’s exactly what Thomas did at the onset of the Movement Control Order last year. “We did our best to listen, observe, address and constantly address. No one had the recipe to the solution, even the problem was not clear and what more the solution. Our operations were quickly digitalised and streamlined, and our plans were revisited every day because change was constant. Agility was definitely key here.”
He’s proud of what the team has accomplished in spite of adversity, acknowledging the impact the lockdown has had on his people.
Communication has been an important part of the Covid journey. A big sports fan who is always fascinated by great teams, coaches and managers; he said effective communication is a recipe for success. “To be able to express yourself in a safe mode and create a safe environment for people to speak is important. Doing away with sitting in a meeting with too many slides, we started a one-hour townhall to encourage an honest discussion on any topics affecting us. It can be an online session when we can’t gather in office,” he shares.
Training on communications have also been rolled out company-wide, with a focus on giving and receiving feedbacks. “We’re training our people to receive feedbacks positively, without getting defensive and by actively listening. When we talk about making the company a safe place, we’re serious about creating diversity in our recruitment and inclusive in the way we behave. I’m a big believer in behaviors.”
It’s important to keep a startup mindset in this day, even if Hennessy is a company that was started in 1765; he says. “The beauty of Hennessy is you will be inspired by the founder, a man who had a taste of adventure and discovering culture. He’s a good inspiration for the company, and it’s our company culture to lead and to continue to challenge ourselves as the founder had. Hennessy is undoubtedly a cognac leader globally, but it’s important to remain humble and to continue to conquer. With the spirit of conquest comes humility and humility is the source of leadership.”
According to Thomas, “Each label under the Hennessy brand has a role to play from VSOP to X.O and the sublime Paradis. So, there’s so much to do, in respect of local culture. For Chinese New Year, we partnered with Chinese contemporary artist Liu Wei for a VSOP Privilège limited edition bottle and we had the lou sang. The HennessyMyWay initiative also has been supporting the bartending community impacted by the pandemic. See how the global brand blends with local culture?”
Expounding the blending anology further, he explains how the products contain a blending of different eaux-de-vie and not to mention the partnership with the Fillioux family, where eight generations of master blenders have lent their nose to the Hennessy trade. And that partnership and blending of talents trickle down to the local company, where each division comes together seamlessly to tell the Hennessy story.
Thomas is a believer in consistency and twice in our breakfast meeting he cites the quote “it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon”. Slow and steady wins the race must be inserted into this probe on his leadership style. It’s one of the lessons he picked up running marathons, he discloses. “Pace your appetite because there will be highs and lows. When it gets tough in a race, it’s important to keep at it and be resilient to get your pace back. You need to be resilient to manage your energy and stay consistent.”
Be the change you want to see is a powerful mantra, he says. “It inspires me. So, I try to be collaborative and inclusive while encouraging conversations, because I believe collective intelligence is the best recipe to success.” At MHD, the core belief is that people make a difference and at the heart of it all is Richard Hennessy, an Irish military officer, businessman and the founder of the Hennessy cognac dynasty. “He was a fantastic human being, a charismatic leader and now, it is up to us (the team) to build on the legacy and make it even larger. It is our duty to be very respectful of the legacy we’ve inherited.”
SELLING THE STORY
MHD does not sell bottles with honey-hued liquid, but what they’re offering for sale is an experience and exceptional craftsmanship. And it starts with a sensorial experience, the multi-layer profiles, the first, second nose and boom, it’s a firework.
“Generations of people have worked on the product. When you take a sip, whether you’re aware or not, you’re somewhat connected with the people who work on putting a bottle of Hennessy together. It’s not just the story of people and culture, it’s also the story of nature. With cognac, it starts with the grapes, sense of place, terroir, region, wine growers, distillation, ageing, blending and the whole nine yards. It’s fascinating, the world and the works behind the bottle,” he tells us.
Before he came to Malaysia, Thomas visited the Hennessy Maison and had one glass of the rare Hennessy Paradis with his colleague and friend Maurice-Richard Hennessy at Château de Bagnolet, which overlooks the Charente Rivier. “I went there with the main purpose of taking the inspiration with me on this new journey to Asia, so I can go on and tell the story of Hennessy in a convincing fashion,” he remembers, reinforcing how storytelling is a big part of what the brand stands for.
Another important story for the brand is sustainability, as everything begins with nature and the soil. The “Living Soils” initiative by Moët Hennessy aims to unite its communities across the world and develop a global social responsibility programme built around four pillars – Regenerating our Soils, Mitigating our Climate Impact, Engaging Society and Empowering our People.
When it comes to the trends in the luxury wines and spirits industry, Thomas says there are multiple trends that are fascinating to observe and analyse. “We noticed a shift towards premiumisation and curiosity to drink something older, more complex. There’s a huge appetite in raising the level, discovering higher quality products,” he says.
There’s also that disruption or breaking traditional barriers around cognac, evident on the mixology platform. Being at home last year has also encouraged that urge to experiment and people are becoming “crafters of their own experience”, just like the #HennessyMyWay 30-second challenge. Bartenders from all over the country participated in this pitch to create cocktail recipes using local ingredients, and the top 10 winners of this year’s edition each received EUR 500 (RM2,473) and an invitation to experience Hennessy on the global stage.
“Hennessy is really taking the next step to support the bartending industry in Malaysia, especially having hit hard by the Covid-19 restrictions,” he concludes, driving home the point: when we put people first, we thrive.
(Photos: Moët Hennessy Diageo)