Never mind what marketers tell you, good champagne doesn't really demand a 'special occasion'. And there's no such thing as 'the right time of day' to open a bottle of great champagne. Yet, sipping wine at eleven in the morning on a working Friday doesn't come naturally. "What if I was to say you would be the first Indian lady to be sipping Veuve Clicquot's new Rose?" says Madame Cécile Bonnefond, president & CEO of the House of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. It doesn't take more persuasion from Bonnefond - a 'special occasion' having been firmly established, inhibition saunters out of the door. Having successfully broken my resolve, the elegantly dressed head of the 236-year-old champagne brand - the hippest champagne in the world, let it be added - makes herself comfortable in the sofa, picks up the Riedal flute, holds it up to the light, admires the perfect bubbles rising inside and wonders aloud at the unique copper pink of the bubbly - apparently not an easy colour to get. That Bonnefond is the first woman to head the iconic company after the legendary Madame Clicquot herself, is a fact that sits lightly on the former's slim shoulders. In fact, Bonnefond emphasises a fact few know - that in the history of the champagne brand, there have been only ten people at the helm: two women and eight men. Not a bad ratio even by modern standards! It's this two century-old heritage of Veuve Clicquot that Bonnefond is particularly proud of; at the same time, keeping the brand contemporary is her biggest task. "Tradition can be very boring so the constant challenge is to make heritage interesting, very hip yet not flitty," Bonnefond describes her job in a nutshell. The 52-year-old, who has accumulated years of experience in companies as diverse as Danone and Diageo, knows there are no definite answers to these challenges, and admits that she's always walking the edge, driving everything simultaneously. Bonnefond draws her inspiration from the indomitable widow (Madame Clicquot; veuve means widow in French) who turned her husband's fledgling business into a global brand. "Madame Clicquot is the one who drives us every day. When she took over in 1805, she went international immediately and 70% of our produce went to Russia. She introduced new technology, had the best vineyard and put salesmen on the road, which is why she was called the Grande Dame, which actually means 'tall and great', though she was tiny in size. In the men's world of wine she was the Grand Lady. It was a great recognition," says Bonnefond. Such is Bonnefond's admiration that Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin is the only champagne house to have a fulltime historian creating the longest, deepest archive of champagne. "After creating a Rose in 1775, she decided in 1810 to do away with Rose in favour of vintage. In 2001, we got our historian to dig out the old recipe and rediscovered it!" says Bonnefond, adding that a good Rose is dependant on great crop of grapes for red wine - if it's an awfully hot year, one can end up with too much concentration and no elegance. "Yes, legacies can be intimidating, yet one knew there was a reputation and my role was to be a caretaker of a legacy, which is also very inspiring," says Bonnefond.
Bonnefond, an alumnus of the European School of Business in Paris, says it was expected of her to be part of businesses like Danone, Kellogg, Diageo and Sara Lee. Wine, though, was an entirely different proposition. "There was the fact that I was not a wine-maker, which meant I was not 'in'. Yet, the biggest challenge was business and that is what prevails. The rule of the game is always success, and once the business is successful, all the questions disappear," she says in a very pragmatic manner. Where Bonnefond has succeeded really well is in creating brand spin-offs. "We as a brand are limited by our produce," she says, pointing out that being dependent on crops, the brand cannot simply build more capacities and increase production. "So we need to build a market around the brand, and there are obvious synergies with colour, design and service." Bonnefond, for instance, tied up with designer Karim Rashid for the Veuve Clicquot Globalight and Clicquot Loveseat. She also engineered the Veuve Clicquot association with luxury Italian motoryacht maker Riva to produce the Grande Dame Cruise Collection of coolers and accessories. And she commissioned Porsche Design Studio to create products like the champagne storage tower. "It began with Porsche a decade ago. I accelerated this and made it part of the DNA of the brand, and it is pretty successful as well," says Bonnefond, for once ready to talk figures. These spin-offs contribute as much as 5%-10% to the champagne house's coffers. The idea, of course, is not to hand it out to every channel of business. For example, the ice bucket has never been sold to the supermarket or to F&B, as it was meant for night clubs and is exclusive to them. The Karim Rashid-designed sofa was never created with the intent of sales in mind till a client from Italy ordered it for himself - today the company has sold 50 units of the sofa, each priced between Euro 8,000 to Euro 10,000. "But we are very careful as we have not developed it as a line of furniture," Bonnefond adds. In the four years that she has been at the head of the table, Bonnefond has seen new markets like Japan, Brazil, Hong Kong, Australia, Russia, old Central Europe, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa, Dubai, Singapore and Korea grow; China is still new and India is expectedly big, though it is hampered by the high duty structures. Bonnefond being unwilling to share figures, one can only gauge from LVMH's 2007 annual report that its wine and spirit division - which also includes Moet & Chandon, Dom Perignon and Krug - made 3.2 billion Euros, up 7% on 2006. In total, the group sold 62.2 m bottles of champagne in 2007 up from 59.9m the previous year. The global slowdown is a reality, though, and Bonnefond is not one to run away from it. "Last year was a record year with sales, and yes, with the slowdown it will be harder this year - but definitely not dramatic. Will luxury see a slowdown like the stock exchange? No. Also for Veuve Clicquot, we are lucky as we have fiercely loyal consumers," she says.
Women of Substances One of the most interesting properties of the House of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin is the Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman Award of the Year, founded way back in 1972. Considered 'revolutionary' at the time of its institution, the award is a much sought-after accolade: past recipients include the late Dame Anita Roddick (founder Body Shop), Pearson CEO Dame Marjorie Scadino and caterer Prue Leith. This year, for the first time, the award recipient was an Indian - Biocon's Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw. "We wanted to recognise the efforts of South America, Asia and Africa as well, so we began these awards in these countries," explains Bonnefond. "For India, I requested for help from the French government to identify the right person, and the one name which came up immediately was Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, an amazing woman. We are really proud that she is the first recipient of this award in India and she has raised the bar very high." The criteria or "qualities" that are sought in women, Bonnefond says, are success, corporate social responsibility (CSR), ethics, social awareness and care about using natural resources. "CSR is very important. Around 25-30 years ago, our vineyards began being environmentally driven and when I came in, I extended the same to the whole company. In everything that we use, whether it is the paint on the ice bucket or the colour, the material, I ensure that it we use bio-degradable materials. We are, in fact, the first company to put our consumption of water and power in our profit sharing agreement. Going forward, the luxury consumer too is going to make an ecological choice," says Bonnefond. And yes, just in case you wanted to know why Veuve Clicquot instituted a Businesswoman Award: "There are already lots of awards for men," Bonnefond explains in a matter-of-fact manner.