SB Interviews… Christian Porta

10th September, 2012 by Richard Woodard
Christian Porta 2

Christian Porta will celebrate a decade as CEO of Chivas Brothers next year

The “with food” occasion has historically been the stronghold of Cognac (and baijiu) – so don’t Porta’s efforts to target this opportunity risk conflict with Pernod’s other Chinese success story, Martell Cognac?

Not really, he says. “The opportunity is so huge. The meal opportunity historically has been in the southern part of China, where Cognac has made an effort for the last 10-15 years; it’s in the western and northern part of China where we are doing most of our work. There is room for two big imported spirits categories within that opportunity.”

The Asian potential for Porta’s brands extends well beyond China, taking in Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia, as well as a host of smaller markets such as Laos and Cambodia, as well as India – if that country’s punitive excise tax system is ever reformed.

Mind you, the company is still managing to sell more than 100,000 cases of Chivas Regal in India even now, investing also behind Ballantine’s and 100 Pipers to complement parent company Pernod Ricard’s successful domestic brands, including Royal Stag and Blenders Pride.

That’s due in no small part to the far-sighted vision of the old Seagram business, which made inroads in establishing routes to market in India and China when rivals like Diageo remained hesitant about their potential.

It’s a similar story with Scotch whisky stocks, with Pernod reaping the rewards of a bullish Seagram production policy from nearly a generation ago. “They laid down a lot of stocks in the ’90s, but then they put their foot on the brake in the late ’90s very violently,” says Porta. “When we took over, there was a lot of whisky available, but we were quite optimistic. We started rebuilding distillation capacity and reopening closed distilleries.”

That sense of optimism continues into the present boom in demand for Scotch: following the extension of The Glenlivet distillery to fuel its long-term ambition to overtake Glenfiddich as the world’s bestselling single malt (Porta is coy about whether this will be achieved during his tenure), Chivas is reopening Glenkeith and extending Glenallachie, Glentauchers, Tormore and Longmorn.

No wonder, then, that when asked about the possiblity of future, niche acquisitions, Porta somewhat hedges his bets. “You never know, but we have had so much work to do with the integration of Seagram and Allied,” he responds. “We have single malts in our portfolio that we haven’t even started on, like Scapa with its Orkney heritage, and Longmorn, a hidden gem in Speyside. We have our own hidden gems in the portfolio, which we intend to develop, and I think the most difficult part of my job is knowing where to begin and what to prioritise.”

More than a decade after the company became a serious force in the Scotch whisky industry, and nine years since Porta took over at the helm of Chivas Brothers, it’s clear that Pernod Ricard’s Scotch whisky business remains very much a work in progress – and that seems to suit its CEO just fine.

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