Forgive my grief for one removed,
Thy creature, whom I found so fair.
I trust he lives in thee, and there
I find him worthier to be loved.
– From Lord Alfred Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’
Every year on the Saturday before TFWA Exhibition in Cannes, The Moodie Davitt Report hosts a small golf tournament for our friends and supporters. It’s called, appropriately given the standard of some of the participants, the MIS-HIT (Moodie International Superstars Honorary Invitation Tournament).
It’s good fun and despite the industry eminence of many of the players, no-one is spared from some gentle leg-pulling when it comes to the prize-giving ceremony. Over recent years those prizes have always included what seems like a warehouse full of Chabot Armagnac, courtesy of ‘Monsieur Armagnac’, John Gentzbourger.
That was typical of John’s generosity. A keen golfer for many years (he played off 18 until recently), he has been a constant figure at the MIS-HIT, ever since I struck up a close friendship with him soon after launching The Moodie Report in 2002. John was always supportive, helpful and knowledgeable in equal measure. He’s underlined those qualities with me over the past two years, helping immensely with a biography I am writing, giving selflessly of his time, memories, anecdotes and documentation.
And now, terribly, he’s gone. Last week he passed away in a Monaco hospital after a short illness with his loving wife Irène and daughter Ariel (DFS Group Executive Vice President Merchandising) by his side. Another victim of a damned disease that took his son Marc in 2015 and which has claimed so many industry friends.
Where to start in talking about John, a gregarious bear of a man; a bon vivant, a story-teller and the most loving and proudest of family men? John invited me to the family home near Cannes in January 2008, wanting to finally tell the story of his life in the duty free and travel retail industry, and to relate Marc’s great success with his firm MG Cellars and with Chabot Armagnac.
Over two enthralling days, he told me his, and his family’s, tales. John Edward Gentzbourger was born in 1938 in Strasbourg, France. When war with Germany broke out the following year, John’s parents moved to western France, where his French father, later killed in military service, bought a 36-hectare vineyard. After the war, mother and son relocated to Menton on the French-Italian border, and then to Monte Carlo in Monaco, the principality that was to shape John’s professional life.
After spells at a Jesuit boarding school and a small business school in Monaco where he learned to type “and do a little accounting”, the young Gentzbourger was drafted into the French military in 1958 and served 30 months during the Algerian War of Independence. He returned to Monte Carlo in late 1960 to live with his English mother (hence the anglicised spelling of his first names, John Edward), Enid, and took a job as a truck driver for a wood company.
John entered the duty free world in 1961, when a chance meeting in the streets of Monaco led him to working with DFS Group founders Robert (Bob) Miller and Charles (Chuck) Feeney, for their Tourists International and Cars International businesses – the forerunners of the duty free empire that also took root that same year.
John, viewed as the company’s local minder or gérant, played a key role in driving DFS’s most pivotal brand relationship of the pre-LVMH 1961-1996 era. In 1963 he sourced a then little-known Cognac brand called Camus for the company’s tourist shops in Paris and Rome, as the major houses’ selling prices to the tiny retailer were deemed prohibitive.
As the initially modest DFS business at Hong Kong and Honolulu airports flourished after the liberalisation of Japanese travel in 1964, Camus came to the fore again, offering attractive prices and extended credit terms to the fledgling duty free retailer. The bonds between the two companies subsequently led to the DFS owners creating a worldwide distribution business called Camus Overseas Limited, which John Gentzbourger ran from 1972 until 1985. He was so successful with Camus, and so synonymous with it, that it was widely thought he was the owner, hence the sobriquet Jean Gentzbourger Camus, by which he became known all around the world.
He returned to the role from 1992, when his successor Norberto Herrero left, until 1996, when three of the DFS partners, Feeney, Alan Parker and Anthony Pilaro sold their interests in the retailer and exited the Cognac business. Camus Overseas Limited was eventually returned to the Camus family, without a single French franc changing hands, in December 1998
As the Japanese business boomed in the 1960s, John had also sourced DFS an Armagnac, discovering an obscure and no longer produced brand called Chabot, which had no stocks, vineyards, or distillery. Within years it was selling well over 50,000 cases, part of an extraordinary 400,000-case+ business with Camus and other French brandy, most of it through DFS stores. Today, still in the hands of the Gentzbourger family and part of the MG Cellars portfolio, Chabot remains the world’s best-selling Armagnac.
John is survived by his wife Irène, daughter Ariel (DFS Group Executive Vice President Merchandising) and daughter-in-law Kathleen, plus four grandchildren whom he adored. But he’s also survived by the love and memories of many who worked with him, including the DFS co-founders Bob Miller and Chuck Feeney and their later partners Alan Parker and Tony Pilaro and so very many people in travel retail. Including me, the beneficiary, like so many, of John’s kindness.
Farewell John Edward Gentzbourger, Jean Gentzbourger Camus, Monsieur Armagnac. We will mourn you and remember you fondly.
Footnote: John’s life will be celebrated in a family-only farewell on 19 January in Cannes at Crematorium de Cannes, Chemin de la Plaine de Laval 06150, Cannes, France. Flowers are welcome.