* 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 (Reuters) - 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.
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 $630.
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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