* New CEO says United States is top priority
* Rolling out cancan-inspired bottle w/ designer Gaultier
* Says champagne sales are holding up despite weak economy
By Martinne Geller
NEW YORK, Oct 24 The new chief executive of
Piper-Heidsieck champagne wants the family-owned company to
increase its sales in the United States, a market dominated by
her former employer, French luxury giant LVMH (LVMH.PA).
Piper-Heidsieck, which changed hands a few months ago, is
the No. 3 champagne in the United States, behind Moet & Chandon
and Veuve Clicquot, both owned by LVMH. Yet with annual sales
of just 100 million euros ($139 million), it is a small No. 3
with lots of room to grow, said its new CEO, Cecile Bonnefond.
"The U.S. is certainly the No. 1 priority for us in terms
of implementing the brand," Bonnefond said in an interview last
week in New York. "While we're No. 3, we still have a lot of
potential to grow."
Bonnefond, who ran Veuve Clicquot for nine years, was hired
by the Descours family to run the champagne business their
company, Societe Europeenne de Participations Industrielles
(EPI), bought from French spirits group Remy Cointreau
(RCOP.PA) for an enterprise value of 412.2 million euros.
The family behind EPI, which owns several upmarket French
brands including J.M. Weston shoes and Bonpoint children's
clothing, has always wanted to be in the wine business and has
the long-term view needed for selling a product that must sit
in cellars for at least three years, Bonnefond said.
And while she greatly enjoyed her years working for large
corporations, she said that being family-owned gives the maker
of Piper-Heidsieck, and the smaller brand Charles Heidsieck, a
leg up on its bigger rivals' owners, who are publicly traded
and have to make public reports to investors.
"It allows us to have a longer-term view in terms of
building our future," said Bonnefond, who has also worked at
Danone (DANO.PA) and Kellogg Co (K.N).
That future will include a larger presence in the United
States, she said, with more employees, more marketing and more
frequent visits by the winemakers.
There will also be more attention-grabbing products, such
as the limited-edition "cancan" bottles of Piper-Heidsieck
hitting U.S. shelves now.
Developed in partnership with French fashion designer
Jean-Paul Gaultier, the cancan bottles are black and pay homage
to the French chorus line dance with a black fishnet. The brut
version will cost about $55, instead of the $42 to $45 for a
regular bottle. There is also a higher-end version -- a 2000
vintage that comes with a lacquered case that will sell for
Over the years, Piper-Heidsieck has had several fashion
alliances, including with red-soled shoe designer Christian
Louboutin and Dutch fashion house Viktor & Rolf. But most of
the partnerships have been outside the United States.
"You haven't seen much of that in the U.S.," Bonnefond
said. "You're going to see much more of it."
Even though the weak economy and a cut in Wall Street
bonuses this year stand to crimp sales of bubbly, Bonnefond
said her team was confident about the upcoming holiday season,
since overall U.S. champagne sales were up at double-digit
percentage rates in the first half of the year.
Recent earnings reports from Remy, LVMH, Pernod Ricard
(PERP.PA) and alcoholic drinks market leader Diageo Plc (DGE.L)
have helped cement the view that drinks makers have escaped
most of the economic gloom.
Bonnefond said champagne continues to sell in dark times
because it is seen as an affordable luxury.
"Between a bad drink and a good drink and a very good
drink, it doesn't cost you tons of money," she said.
(Reporting by Martinne Geller; editing by John Wallace)
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