Pernod Ricard CIO primed for acquiring Absolut

As French wine and spirits giant Pernod takes on Absolut, CIO Beatrice Leon no doubt is absolute-ly ready.

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The news Monday that Pernod Ricard SA, the French wine and spirits giant, had won a hard-fought bidding war for Vin & Sprit AB, maker of Absolut vodka, made a splash in the liquor industry.

Beatrice Leon
Beatrice Leon, CIO, Pernod Ricard Americas
The $8.34 billion (5.6 euros) acquisition expands Pernod's presence in the U.S., said managing director Pierre Pringuet, and allows the company to compete head-on with British behemoth Diageo PLC, distributor of Smirnoff, the world's leading vodka brand. But the rich bid also sent shares of Pernod down sharply.

Whether the deal pays off or not, one of the selling points for V& S was Pernod's experience in integrating acquisitions. That must have pleased Beatrice Leon, CIO for Pernod Ricard Americas, the company's subsidiary in Purchase, N.Y.

Leon joined Pernod in 1999 to oversee the IT segment of the integration of The Seagram Co. Ltd. Seagram had three times the revenue of Pernod at that time. The challenge "was not so much to integrate the IT to our environment," Leon recalled, as assembling the right team of technology talent from the two companies.

"Being the small guy, we had to be smart enough to choose the right people for the job," Leon said.

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Not to mention, brave. At meetings, Leon's group of four was often surrounded by 10 to 20 Seagram people and 30 lawyers. On selection day, she learned in the morning that she would have to "give a big speech in the afternoon" to make her case, so she did. Her lesson: "You have to stay open and get ready for anything to happen in an acquisition."

When Pernod acquired Bristol, U.K.-based Allied Domecq PLC in 2005 the wine and spirits maker was the "big guy," Leon said, and sorting out the people issues was, if anything, more challenging. Indeed, Leon said that in retrospect she would have "gotten more help" from the human resources department.

Leon was one of four CIOs who spoke at a recent event held by the New York chapter of Women in Technology International (WITI) about leading change at their organizations. Sponsored by Columbia University's Center for Technology, Innovation and Community Engagement, the panel also featured Harriet Edelman, who recently retired as CIO at New York-based Avon Products Inc. after 29 years at the beauty products company; Candace Fleming, CIO of Columbia University since mid-2005; and Sandra Brandon, CIO of Easton, Pa.-based Crayola LLC.

You have to stay open and get ready for anything to happen in an acquisition.
Beatrice Leon
CIOPernod Ricard Americas
The panel members dissected how and why they embraced change during their successful careers, from navigating mergers and acquisitions and re-engineering IT infrastructures, to changing the perception of IT at their corporations. One theme that ran through all their tales of change was the importance of discovering and nurturing employees' strengths and cultivating a workplace of mutual respect. Indeed, the panel was adamant that meaningful change cannot occur without the consent and cooperation of its people.

The leadership styles of female CIOs have been give a lot of attention this past year, including in our exploration of the topic in the April 2007 issue of CIO Decisions magazine. Studies by consulting firms such as Gartner Inc. have made much of women's superior communication and listening skills, and the importance of these qualities for leading change in a global economy.

But superior communication skills are not sufficient. A survey in 2006 conducted by consulting firm Compel Ltd. and WITI found that overcoming hurdles and seizing opportunities -- common CIO traits -- were as true for female CIOs as for their male counterparts.

Building trust

Leon is a big believer in building trust. Given the round-the-clock demands put on IT, employees need the option of working flexible hours or remotely to get the job done, she said, but that flexibility cannot work out unless group members trust each other.

Leon said she learned about the power of trust firsthand as she ascended from basement cubbyhole to corner office at Pernod.

When Leon arrived at Pernod, the IT department, including the executive suite, was housed in the basement. The company did not trust IT to help the company. Even the help desk was not working, she said. So before Leon could show Pernod what IT could do for the company, first she "had to make it work,"

"We went from fixer to what IT can bring to the organization," Leon said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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