15 Sept 2014 Business Men – Panos Sarantopoulos – Interview

Portrait du Mois  : interview Panos Sarantopoulos

Name : Panos Sarantopoulos

Age : 46 ans

Nationalité : Grecque

Base : Paris

Education : Northwestern University, Chicago, Rutgers University, New Jersey

CAREERHaving grown up in Greece, Panos completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the USA. He returned to Europe and joined Hennessy Cognac, before moving to Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. At 38, he became CEO of the Champagne house Krug. He joined Metaxa as CEO in 2011 and was recently appointed CEO of the Liqueurs & Spirits Division of Rémy Cointreau

“Success is a series of small victories…”

To many, it’s a drink associated with modern Mediterranean holidays in the sun, quaff ed over ice with a slice of orange, but Metaxa was actually invented in 1888. Since then it’s become rather popular across the world, meaning that Panos Sarantopoulos – House of Metaxa CEO until last month when he was promoted by parent company Rémy Cointreau – needs to know a thing or two about professional diplomacy in far-flung places.

Rule one: when you’re at a business dinner in China, make sure you eat whatever’s put in front of you, regardless of how you might feel about it…

Respect your hosts “When I was doing business in China in the 90s, we went out for dinner and they asked me if there was anything that I didn’t – or couldn’t – eat. I replied (perhaps too quickly), ‘Absolutely nothing’. Well, you can imagine the array of exotic south Chinese cuisine that I was faced with! Let your mind run crazy and you’ll be halfway there. Sometimes things take you out of your comfort zone, but you just have to go with it.”

It’s not all about me“Houses [drinks companies] are living organisms. It is not just a visible brand or a trademark, or even a building, it’s about the people who work together as a collective: they bear the house on their shoulders. What I’m saying is that while history may want big men or women to run businesses, it’s actually all about a team effort. I am merely a catalyst.”

Take your time

“I remember one time when I met with our biggest customer. The discussion was focusing in on our new (higher) price and it was going to be difficult, as I couldn’t afford to come down – but I also couldn’t afford to put his business with us in peril. I got stressed, I got hot under the collar, and I chose to leave the discussion and come back to it after a little while. It was a decision that served me well because I learned…”

Don’t be afraid to walk away “When I returned to the office that day, I spoke to a colleague. He gave me some valuable advice: if you’re negotiating and you feel that you’re unable to walk away from the deal you’re making, you’re not really negotiating. So, I went back to the customer and said to him that if he couldn’t accept our new price, we didn’t have a deal. I braced myself for the worst, but a week later – probably the longest week of my life – he accepted.” Turnarounds don’t happen overnight“ Sometimes, if you look at the whole task in front of you, it can seem impossible. What we did at Metaxa is to take on one challenge at a time, one bottle at a time. We started to achieve goals step by step and one small victory followed another. Confidence grew and our success snowballed. I’m happy to say our house has grown stronger today – but it took a couple of years for this turnaround.”

Mark each victory

“Talking of success, it’s important to get together with your team and make a mental note of what you’ve achieved. It could be over a glass of something or on a mountain-bike ride, a team picnic on top of a hill or any other type of activity. Stop, take a deep breath every once in a while and look back at where you came from and where you are today, right now. You’ll be ready for the next challenge.”

Double-check everything

“Certain phrases make me twitch my antenna – words such as, ‘Everyone has approved it already’. Once, because of this sort of attitude, we sent an expensive gift box to print with 1898 in big numbers on the front. It should have read 1888. Fixing that mistake delayed the project by a whole month. An extra pair of eyes on something doesn’t ever hurt, even if it’s been checked 10 times before.”

Do not accept “the impossible”

“I am always amused when people in business say that something is simply impossible. In fact, that’s what inspires me. When I worked in the Champagne trade, we were told that it was not possible to do any business without discounting. Well, we introduced innovation in our bottles and that brought added value to them. Champagne lovers recognised what we were trying to do and we were able to sell our products beautifully, without any kind of discount at all.”

Useful is the new powerful

“This may seem like an unusual phrase, but it’s one that I learned from my fi rst boss in France in the 1990s. Basically, it means that, although a director within a company may have the power on paper, a trainee may have more energy, ideas, involvement and eloquence – and their input can drive a given project forward just as effectively.”

You need meaningful support

“I travel, I’m up every morning at five and often back late in the evening. I can only do what I do thanks to a supportive home life – in particular, my wife, Claire, who holds the family together. I owe her a lot. She’s my social and cultural adviser, as well as my link with normal life.” Use your initiative“One time I found myself in the middle of winter in Tokyo. I’d been travelling and had passed the dateline without noticing, which meant that I had missed my hotel booking. I was considering sleeping under a bridge. However, I decided to go to the hotel’s bar, get warm and perhaps have a sip of the spirit sample in my bags to cheer me up. Luckily, I ran into the manager at the end of his shift, and so I offered to do a tasting with him there and then. He agreed, and later that night, he was able to make a few calls and fix me up with somewhere to stay in the city – quite a relief!

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