Panos Sarantopoulos is not a man you are likely to miss. At six feet, six inches, and big with it, he seems to fill the room. We meet in an elegant lounge of a sleek chateau in the Anjou province within the Maine-et-Loire department of France just outside Angers, the home of Cointreau.
Last summer Rémy Cointreau announced the promotion of Sarantopoulos, former LVMH boss, as chief executive of its liqueurs and spirits division. As is well documented, the French drinks giant, publicly quoted but still controlled by the Heriard-Dubreuil family, has had a difficult time due primarily to the clampdown by the Chinese government on extravagant entertaining and spending. As a result, sales of high-end expressions of cognac and scotch in particular plummeted. According to industry estimates, 80% of RC’s operating profit comes from cognac sales, 40% of which were generated in China. As a result of the downturn, the then new chief executive, Frédéric Pflanz, resigned after fewer than 100 days in the post. Then to add to the uncertainty, the chief executive of the Rémy Martin division, Patrick Piana, resigned less than a month later.
On top of all of that there have been rumours swirling that Rémy Cointreau could be a takeover target, with Brown-Forman cited as the likely protagonist.
But Sarantopoulos is on a mission. For the purposes of this visit and interview, he is chief executive of Cointreau, the famous triple sec orange liqueur. That is the hat he wishes to wear. He does not want to talk about either himself or what is going on with the parent company. “Cointreau is the hero,” he says several times.
Nevertheless, the 47-year-old Greek national, married with two teenage children, is interesting. At 18 he went to the US to study management science. He then came to France to do a course that involved working in various places, one of which was Hennessy in Cognac.
At the end of the programme there was a farewell dinner. He received a fax from Hennessy offering him an internship. “I did not speak French – I could just about order a baguette,” he quipped. The offer was too attractive to turn down. He took it, French or no French. Sarantopoulos worked in logistics, sold Hennessy in the US and moved around the organisation, gaining experience.
He then moved on to Veuve Clicquot, one of the jewels in the LVMH Moët Hennessy stable of luxury brands, as senior vice-president for sales. Then, after six years, he was promoted to president and chief executive for the House of Krug.
Everything appeared to be going swimmingly at LVMH, but then in 2011 Sarantopoulos joined rival Rémy Cointreau to become chief executive for Metaxa. At the time of his latest appointment Rémy said Sarantopoulos, with his team, had brought about the turnaround of the Greek brandy to international growth, thanks to “bold premiumisation and a series of award-winning innovations”.
Sarantopoulos’s enlarged responsibilities within Rémy Cointreau include responsibility for the House of Cointreau, for the number one French brandy St Rémy, for liqueurs Passoa, Izarra and Ponche Kuba, and for whisky Guneagal, as well as for the distribution activity of Rémy Cointreau Gastronomie.