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Pierre Viarnaud, one of duty free’s finest and most experienced executives, has bid farewell to the sector after an outstanding 32-year career.
Until his retirement at the end of September, Pierre was Director Russia and CIS for Gebr Heinemann. But that’s just the final chapter of a long and enthralling story.
He began his career in the drinks industry with then-sector giant Seagram (remember them?) in 1985, covering Eastern Europe and Greece and enjoying frequent visits to the Eastern Bloc before the domino-effect demise of the communist regimes across the region.
“I travelled there until 1990 and witnessed various government officials denying that Gorbachev’s ideas would have any impact over the political situation in their countries,” Pierre told me on the eve of his retirement. “It was surreal and fascinating.”
In 1990, he moved to London to take over European duty free operations (including the Middle East), reporting to the renowned Dan Daly (whom I am pleased to still be in touch with), who ran the company’s then-powerful centralised duty free division. One of the highlights of that stint was helping to reintroduce previously banned (due to their Jewish connections) Seagram products in Middle East duty free.
In the mid-90s Seagram underwent a ‘re-engineering’ (translates as nonsensical and short-sighted restructuring) resulting in the disbanding of the global duty free division. As a result, Pierre took over what the company called its “development markets” – Eastern Europe, Turkey the Middle East and Africa. “I did that for a couple of years. Survived the first plan and cost-cutting exercise but not the following,” he recalls wryly, the familiar refrain of so many good and talented executives in our industry over recent years.
While Seagram “disintegrated”, Pierre set up his own consultancy business, which he ran until Gebr Heinemann co-Owner Claus Heinemann and Managing Director of the time, the great Harry Diehl, called him in 2000 to speak about the company’s new joint venture operation in Greece. He duly moved to Athens, working as Purchasing and Logistics Director for Hellenic Duty Free, reporting to an Irish (Aer Rianta International) CEO, with the support of the Heinemann Hamburg buying team (Kay Spanger and Adi Paschek).
“I got immersed in the retail part of duty free which served me well later,” Pierre recalls. “I was confronted also by the schizophrenic environment of a Greek state-owned company on its way to privatisation.”
At the end of 2001 he moved to Heinemann headquarters in Hamburg to take on the key responsibility “for a couple of years” for Russia and the CIS – pivotal markets for the German retailer and wholesaler. “Back then it was all about vodka and taking a chance to back up entrepreneurs on the strength of a handshake,” Pierre remembers. “Claus, in particular, was willing to take some risks and gave his full support.” One of these entrepreneurs was Alexander Baev [Founder of RegStaer], for whom Gebr Heinemann had an exclusive supply contract [the company is now majority owned by Dufry].
“Heinemann changed strategy about ten years ago and we went about methodically eating up market share and finding very good partners in Russia and Ukraine and setting up a few joint ventures in Sheremetyevo, Domodedovo, St Petersburg, Ekaterinenburg and Kiev and Odessa,” Pierre recalls.
“I have been replaced jointly by Bernard Schlafstein and Oleg Zhytomyrsky, both as Sales Director Russia/CIS, who joined my team more than 12 years ago and know both the company and the region inside out,” he continues. “I have no doubt they will continue to grow the Heinemann presence in a region that has become an important component of the company’s growth.”
Pierre now plans to offer some consultancy services while spending most of his time in Italy with his wife. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Footnote: I have known Pierre since the late 1980s and – in common with all who have known him well – can testify that he is one of the truly good guys of travel retail.
Good in all senses: as a human being, as a professional, as a man of impeccable integrity. 32 years in the business, many of them spent in tough emerging markets is a heck of a legacy. One suspects he won’t be giving up work altogether but let’s hope he takes a well-earned break to enjoy his family, smell the roses, and enjoy a drop or two of good Italian and French wine. No-one deserved it more.