Anna Malmhake, IDL Pernod’s Chairman and Chief Executive, had never been to Ireland before but she’s glad she made the move.
It’s quite a quantum step for Absolut Vodka’s former Global Vice President from having responsibility for one (albeit) mega-international brand to having the multi-faceted responsibility for distributing a range of wine and spirits brands domestically while overseeing Irish whiskey production and its growing exporting operation – all while maintaining and stimulating relationships with the domestic on- and off-trade markets here.
From her third-storey glass office in IDL’s Ballsbridge HQ, she ruminates on her new responsibilities. For one thing, she realises that going into a new market means having to be open to lots of ideas and influences and accept that there’s lots to be learned.
“But I’ve had a few similar challenges,” she tells me, “I worked as Marketing Director with Coca-Cola in Sweden where I worked with the hospitality industry, so I know enough to have respect for what I need to learn here at IDL.”
In the same spirit, she agrees that Irish Distillers’ ‘learning cure’ is proving steep “… so many professional people are working here”.
And she’s greatly impressed by the Irish pub. It’s even better than painted abroad by Irish pub enthusiasts, she says.
“The ‘snug’ is simply a fantastic idea. I’ve seen so many different types of bars and pubs, mainly in Dublin and Cork, but I’m looking forward to going out and seeing more places as I realise that there are regional differences too.
“Visiting the pub is an incredibly pleasant experience. Sweden doesn’t have the same pub life – it exists, but it’s not as big.”
What is big in Sweden, however, is going abroad to buy alcohol. So do high Swedish taxes work in reducing alcohol abuse?
– “No,” she replies, “It’s driven people from drinking in the on-trade to drinking at home. There’s immense traffic going to Germany etc to buy and illegal spirits are incredibly big in Sweden.
“I happen to be of the opinion that pub life is a great thing for any society.
“Personally, I think all the good things about the wine and spirits industry live and breathe in the bar, club and nightclub arena.”
And Anna has run the slide-rule over IDL.
Sales of Jameson grew 20 per cent in the year to the 30th June. Volumes grew 17 per cent, topping the 3.4 million case mark worldwide.
“Since then the first quarter of our fiscal year – July to September – is looking well for us with volume up 23 per cent and value up 29 per cent on the same period in 2010.”
Nevertheless, spirits sales in the Irish on-trade show a decline of six per cent.
Given that the company is growing so incredibly fast with Jameson’s international success, she senses a challenge “… a nice opportunity to bring some of that excitement to the Irish publican”.
Jameson has grown in the US based on a lot of great things happening in pubs and bars, she points out, firstly in New York and then in other cities.
She hopes to take these lessons into the Irish market and is keen to get started.
“We’re the same company, in the same building, all living and breathing for Irish Distillers, whether we’re selling Jameson in Manhattan or Cork.
“I know the on-premise is having an incredibly tough business right now but I’ve also seen some businesses doing amazingly well. The common denominator they have is in being able to generate excitement around the various brands, bringing them to life — and I know that we can act as a partner in bringing these outlets to life.
IDL intends to innovate in 2012 and the best way to do this is in partnership with the on-trade, she believes.
“There’s a second part to this; being an outsider, my impression is that Irish people are a bit modest. One of the reasons Irish whiskey is doing so well internationally is that it’s a fantastic product. Visitors to our Visitor Centre tastings come out and go into pubs and bars realising that there’s something unique here in Irish whiskey.
“People hear of the heritage around this and get really excited. To a lot of young adults, it’s news.”
And that’s where the Irish pubs can play a part.
“We should be making more use of the uniqueness of what’s on offer here,” she states looking me squarely in the eye, “So far, I’ve not walked into a pub where people tell a bit more about the history and the heritage of the pub, the snug etc.
“The Irish pub is iconic for the rest of the world and people come here to discover it.
“We could generate more excitement for our Irish whiskey range and offer unique experiences such as the Irish pot stills,” she believes.
Fully aware of the pub’s pain right now, she offers some words of consolation.
“Pubs can live through this by looking at new ways of adding experiences whether it’s a new type of food offering such as Fondues, for example, then building an experience around a visit to the pub. If people are trying out new drinks, they should be told about it on the coaster, for example.
“Sometimes people get stuck in a routine and are not very excited by their drink. Giving people ideas to make the product more exciting is both innovative and connected to the human experience. No one else can do that in such a unique environment but the pub, restaurant and nightclub.
“We must be a good partner in creating new excitement and re-igniting this excitement around Irish whiskey,” she believes.
Anna sees two main challenges in steering IDL through the next few years.
“We have to have the ability to increase this organisation’s capacity to handle more and more countries buying Jameson and the rest of our portfolio.”
It’s a nice challenge to have…
The second follows conversations with her Nordic colleagues.
“They’ve just realised how many people go to Ireland from the Nordics to visit bars and pubs there. So both from a domestic perspective and that around Irish whiskey, for me this is a key priority.”
As I prepare to take my leave, I ask what was the biggest lesson she learned from being Global Vice President for Absolut?
Absolut is probably one of the greatest business case studies in the world, she replies, “I’ve had the opportunity to talk to people who were there in ’79 when it was launched in New York and the one key thing I’ve learned from this (and its subsequent launch in other countries) is that it’s all about co-operation with the on-premise in the early stages. It’s about the excitement you can create in partnership.
“That made Absolut a success from the beginning and they were able to create that excitement for customers.”
She’s quite clear. Looking at the history of Absolut spreading across the world, that was key to its success – “how people connect with a spirits brand is via on-premises”.
Anna Malmhake holds out the promise of some good news for the on-trade in these troubled times as we cautiously turn to face into 2012.