Jean-Etienne Gourgues: Who is the new chief of Chivas?

Jean-Etienne Gourgues landed one of the top jobs in the Scotch whisky industry when he took over as chairman and chief executive of Chivas Brothers this summer.

The Pernod Ricard subsidiary swept the board at the International Spirits Challenge 2021, securing two trophies, three double-gold medals and 47 golds. Its brands include The Glenlivet, Chivas Regal, Ballantine’s, Royal Salute and Aberlour. 

Gourgues was already well-versed in the portfolio, as he has spent the past seven years heading up Pernod Ricard’s operations in China. He has been with the business since 2001, when he became a brand manager for its Mumm and Perrier-Jouët Champagnes. Gourgues worked his way up to international director of Martell Mumm Perrier-Jouët, before taking over as president and chief executive of Pernod Ricard Japan in 2011. 

After three years in that role, he moved to China. His time in Shanghai was bookmarked by two crises – the government crackdown on “conspicuous consumption” and then the Covid-19 pandemic – so he is accustomed to overcoming challenges. The rm’s China business was down 25% in the year before Gourgues arrived in Shanghai, but he turned it around and le it in very good shape. He believes that China will remain a strong growth engine for the business, and the drinks industry in general, in the years ahead. 

“The number of consumers for importers of spirits in general and Scotch whisky in particular has grown tremendously,” he says. “The spectrum is much broader than it used to be. It was focused on high-end luxury stores and nightclubs, but now it’s much broader, which is much healthier. Scotch whisky consumers are also younger and younger, even for a highend product. 

“The affluent class of people with over $5,000 income once their rent is paid is increasing by 7 million additional people on a yearly basis. You put the purchasing power of one Switzerland each year into China. It’s really significant numbers and it’s tremendous for the Scotch whisky portfolio there.” 

The UK was just emerging from lockdown when Gourgues landed in London this summer. He has been regularly travelling up to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dumbarton and Speyside to oversee the Chivas Brothers business, which has faced many of its own challenges, including Covid, Brexit, a transatlantic tariff war and the threat of strike action from workers. 

However, Gourgues is upbeat about the rm’s prospects. Its Scotch whisky business is up 6% over the past year, driven largely by a very strong performance in the US. “If we compound the past two years, which is a way to measure our progression compared to pre-Covid times, it’s a slight negative at minus 2%,” says Gourgues. 

That is solely down to the collapse of the travel retail channel. Traveller numbers have plummeted during the pandemic, all but wiping out this vital route to market, which is often dubbed “the seventh continent”.

“The Scotch business is heavily exposed to global travel retail,” says Gourgues. “If we take out travel retail, the growth last year was 16%, and on a compound basis for two years we are 5% higher than pre-Covid levels.”