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The Decanter interview: Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger

He’s outspoken, flamboyant and infamous for his comparisons of Champagne and Viagra. But the president of the house of Taittinger insists he’s a simple soul who could easily have been a poet or a priest. John Stimpfig meets him

Taittinger at a glance

Born Reims, 1953
Education Jesuit School in England and France; Centre de Formation aux Affaires a l’Ecole Supérieure de Commerce de Reims; and Centre de Perfectionnement aux Affaires de Paris
Family Married to Claire, father to Clovis, Vitalie and Clémence
Career Joined the house in 1976, international brand ambassador (1981-91), commercial director (1992-93), assistant managing director (1993-98), managing director (1998-2007) and president (2007-current)
Hobbies Walking, French literature, history, art and poetry

Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger wasn’t remotely expecting the call when it came on 28 may in 2006. Not least because it was late and he was going to bed. He’d literally just taken off his trousers when the phone rang with the most momentous news of his life. His E660m bid to buy back the family Champagne business had been accepted. Taittinger, finally, was his.

‘After that, i can’t quite recall the precise order of events,’ he says. ‘But i do remember phoning my father Jean, dancing in my underpants on the dining room table and opening a bottle of Comtes de Champagne with my wife and daughter.’

The previous year, the mighty Taittinger family had sold its eponymous Champagne business along with its luxury conglomerate, le société du louvre, to the American-owned starwood Hotel group for £1.75bn. ‘it was such a tragedy,’ says Pierre- Emmanuel. ‘The group was in good shape, with fabulous assets. Apart from Taittinger, we had the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris and the Hôtel martinez in Cannes as well as Baccarat Crystal and the perfume house Annick goutal.’

‘Officially, we sold for tax reasons. unofficially, family members were tired. They wanted to do something different. six of the seven branches voted to sell. Only mine wanted to carry on.’ How did he feel? ‘i was very sad to lose the group, but the biggest blow was the Champagne business. it was our name. i felt it was a terrible loss for the family and the staff. But i’m a democrat. what could i do?’

As it turned out, starwood really wanted the hotels and quickly put Taittinger back up for sale. ‘Instinctively, i knew i had to make a bid,’ says Pierre-Emmanuel. ‘The problem was i had no money and i didn’t know how to go about raising it. Fortunately, i learned fast with the help of Crédit Agricole (CA) in Reims who backed me all the way. But it was a roller coaster ride.’

A year later, against all the odds and 10 global bidders, Pierre-Emmanuel had pulled it off. ‘looking back, it was a personal quest to restore our family name, values and heritage,’ he points out. ‘And it wasn’t just me. CA were fantastic and i had incredible support; from my immediate family, staff, global distributors and the whole Champagne region.’

According to Taittinger, this heroic quest wasn’t about his own ego or ambition. ‘I really did it for other people, especially my father,’ he adds. ‘getting the Champagne business back helped heal the wounds at the end of his life.’ Equally, he desperately wanted to preserve the family business for future generations, beginning with his own children – Clovis, Vitalie and Clémence.

Initially, Crédit Agricole owned most of the business. under the deal, it promised to progressively sell it back to the family and outside investors of Pierre-Emmanuel’s choosing. Today, Taittinger has seven ‘very supportive’ private shareholders. ‘my family is the largest but we don’t own a majority stake. As president, i have executive control.’
Fulfilling the prophecy

Was he destined to do this? Taittinger certainly thinks so. ‘when i was five, my grandfather [Pierre, the founder of the house] gave me a book. Inside he’d written: ‘To my grandson, who will one day be an entrepreneur and guardian of the family tradition.’

Yet Pierre-Emmanuel’s early life showed little likelihood of fulfilling this burdensome prophecy. His father Jean (who later served in Pompidou’s government and as Mayor of Reims) was usually too preoccupied with politics and business to pay him much attention. His mother taught him poetry but refused to give him toys. ‘It was a severe childhood. At Jesuit school in France and England, I wasn’t a scholar or even a very good student. I loved art, literature and history but the priests said I should have worked harder.’

At 18 he joined the Marines for national service and was stationed in Martinique and Guadeloupe. ‘I was young, carefree and fit. It was an idyllic experience.’ Shortly afterwards he met his wife, Claire, in Chamonix. ‘Because I had no idea what to do for a living, I began to sell Champagne in the French Alps. However, I wasn’t paid a salary and worked entirely on commission.’

It was some time later when his uncle Claude, then Taittinger’s president, suggested he joined the family business. ‘I only did so out of obligation. At first, I had no passion for it,’ Pierre-Emmanuel admits. Despite this, Claude had spotted his nephew’s potential and quickly packed him off on two formative MBA courses in Reims and Paris. His full-time sales role began in England in 1980. Naturally, there were occasional scrapes including one in a pub when he accidentally gate-crashed a stag party. He’d had a few glasses of Champagne and was looking for the loo. He opened the wrong door and beheld three naked strippers. Unable to believe his luck, he started pulling off his clothes to join in. ‘At which point, I was politely escorted from the premises,’ he says, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

Claude soon noticed his nephew was a brilliant, charismatic salesman and promoted him to the role of global brand ambassador. ‘I enjoyed the travel, I loved meeting people and I learned a lot. But over time, I found it frustrating. I wanted more of a business role.’ He progressed to managing director in the late 1990s but that didn’t stop him becoming increasingly anxious over tensions within the family which were affecting the business. ‘There were things that needed fixing. I knew that one day, I would have to act.’

Corporate maverick

here was genuine rejoicing in Champagne when Pierre-Emmanuel bought back the family business in 2006. Nevertheless, not everyone was convinced he would be up to the demanding and difficult job of running it. He has certainly proved a flamboyant and unconventional president who always does things in his own inimitable style. ‘I am a very simple, passionate man,’ he says. ‘Money and numbers don’t really interest me. What I do is not influenced by banks and bankers. I do things from the heart and instinct.’

By his own admission, he’s a romantic dreamer and corporate maverick who believes in old- fashioned concepts such as honour, patriotism and duty. He also has quite a cultural hinterland. ‘If I hadn’t gone into Champagne, I would have been a poet or an artist. Equally, I might have ended up in politics or the priesthood,’ he claims.

In other words, he’s a mass of contradictions. At the weekend, this most patrician Champenois often decamps to his medieval manor house in the Ardennes with no electricity or running water. ‘It’s the perfect antidote to my luxury lifestyle,’ he explains. Then, in the next animated breath, he tells me about his intense personal optimism before confessing to occasional bouts of melancholia. ‘I suppose I am a singular and slightly crazy person. As I grow older, I do think I’m becoming more English in temperament.’

Yet he remains resolutely French when comparing Champagne with Viagra. Such comments have unsurprisingly landed him in hot water (and garnered considerable press coverage.) Taittinger is unconcerned and unrepentant. ‘I’m colourful, opinionated and outspoken. I love women and I like to talk about Champagne and sex. Why not? Sex has played a huge role in the success of Champagne. You can trace it back to the mistresses of Louis XIV. So I constantly tell my colleagues that Champagne is a symbol of pleasure, joie de vivre, seduction and sex. Surely that’s something we should celebrate?’

Conversely, he couldn’t be more politically correct on issues such as climate change, describing global warming as the Third World War. ‘It’s the biggest issue the planet faces,’ he says. He hates wasting water and drives a car that runs off ethanol.

Method in the madness

At times he must be infuriating to work for, because he is so gloriously unpredictable. That said, all his staff obviously revere and respect him. ‘He’s an inspirational boss and it’s never dull,’ one employee told me. ‘And he really loves to party. Once, I saw him break a dance floor in Spain.’ Pierre-Emmanuel doesn’t demur. ‘My motto is “be serious; but not too serious”. This business should be fun,’ he insists. ‘We have a responsibility to bring happiness.’

Self-evidently, there’s method in the apparent madness. At the start of his tenure, Taittinger brought in a dynamic, brilliant and very young management team with an eye to the future. His son Clovis now looks after all Taittinger’s export markets after a lucrative career in property and finance. His daughter Vitalie is both artistic director and the glamorous public face of the brand. Another key appointment was managing director Damien Le Sueur.

Significantly, there was no change in the portfolio or the winemaking department where long- standing cellarmaster, Loïc Dupont, continues to reign supreme. Consequently, the brand’s beloved house style of elegance, delicacy and finesse has been maintained and even enhanced at Pierre- Emmanuel’s hands-on urging. ‘I am mad about our style and quality,’ he says. ‘Everyone in the team tastes every week and all take part in the blending.

‘The big change has been our global marketing,’ he continues. ‘I tasted with Claude for 30 years – he was the one who taught me the magic of Champagne. He was an exceptional taster but never liked to talk about our wines. He thought great Champagne should speak for itself. Today, it’s not enough just to make superb Champagnes. We have to compete, communicate and explain.’

An important early project was revamping the visitor centre, which receives upwards of 60,000 people a year. The brand’s advertising has also been brought back to life with a series of creative campaigns, spearheaded by Vitalie. And most recently Clovis has pulled off a deal which saw Taittinger become the official Champagne of the 2014 World Cup(pictured).

One senses an edge, energy and excitement surrounding the brand; especially its über- fashionable Comtes de Champagne. Since the release of the 2002 vintage, the demand, image and sales of this wine have soared. ‘I’ve put a lot of emphasis on Comtes and to see it doing so well is very rewarding,’ says Pierre-Emmanuel. ‘What I don’t want is for it to become too expensive. That’s a worrying trend for some prestige cuvées. When a bottle of Champagne costs more than the weekly wage of a psychiatric nurse in a hospital, things have gone too far.’

The next generation

Unlike his father and uncle, Pierre-Emmanuel will hand on the executive baton to the next generation sooner rather than later. ‘I’m quitting at 65,’ he declares, begging the question who will take over in 2018. Many have assumed that Clovis has been groomed for the top job. His father’s response is characteristically enigmatic.

‘I honestly don’t know. God will decide. ‘What I do know is that Taittinger is in very good shape once more,’ he resumes before I can press him further. ‘And whoever gets the job will inherit a great business. We are now one of the top five Champagne houses in terms of quality, image and prestige. And we are very profitable. The last two years have been our best ever.’ More than half a century later, it looks like Pierre-Emmanuel has proved his famous grandfather right.

Written by John Stimpfig

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