December 15th, 2000
Philippine de Rothschild
The Mistress of Mouton
Three years ago, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild was vacationing on a ship off the coast of Greece when the vessel caught fire and the passengers had to be evacuated. As she waited to be rescued, Philippine turned to a friend in the lifeboat and said, "You see, there are moments when it doesn't help to be a Rothschild."
The anecdote sums up Philippine. "You can be a Rothschild, but in the end there is always a threat. There is this sense of vulnerability," says her companion of more than 25 years, Jean-Pierre de Beaumarchais, who added that the couple could have died in the ship's blaze. "There can be Nazism. There can always be a boat that catches fire. Drama can intervene even in the most solid situations."
Drama has affected Philippine's life since she was a baby, and it has shaped her in important ways. She was 10 years old when she witnessed the Gestapo arrest her mother, who later died in a concentration camp. Ever since, she believes, her life has been one long search for security. It has motivated her indefatigable drive in anything she undertakes, especially in expanding her wine empire.
As the only child of the late Baron Philippe de Rothschild, she inherited three estates in Bordeaux -- first-growth Mouton Rothschild and two fifth-growths, Château d'Armailhac and Clerc Milon -- as well as Mouton-Cadet, Bordeaux's largest-selling négociant brand. She could have led a life of leisure, but that's not her temperament.
Instead, Philippine, 67, is a rarity among female Rothschilds of her generation -- she's a powerful businesswoman. She has proven an effective ambassador for Bordeaux and has become one of the most visible players in the world of wine. Hers is the largest wine enterprise of the three Rothschild branches that have wine interests. She is chairman and majority owner of Baron Philippe de Rothschild S.A.; she owns the three aforementioned châteaus in Pauillac with her children, as well as a new domain in Languedoc.
Philippine's early years took her far from Bordeaux. She studied acting in Paris and was a member for a decade of France's prestigious national theater La Comédie Française, working with stars such as Catherine Deneuve. "I was an employee and got paychecks. Not many Rothschilds have received paychecks," she says.
She met a theater director, Jacques Sereys, and married him in 1961. They raised three children, Camille, Philippe and Julien. The couple is now divorced, but Sereys remains on the board of Baron Philippe de Rothschild S.A. Their sons Philippe, a 37-year-old graduate of the Harvard Business School, and Julien, 29, a university student, are also board directors. They are interested in joining the family business, though their sister, Camille, 39, is not.
In 1973, Philippine starred in Harold and Maude and toured with the production for seven years in Russia, Japan and the United States. "Acting was a vocation, and she wanted to do something on her own," says Hervé Berland, her sales director, who was also employed by her father.
Philippine entered the world of wine in the late 1970s when the aging Philippe needed help at Mouton. In 1981, she organized the first-ever exhibition of Mouton's famous "artist labels," a series that grew to encompass some of the most famous artists of the 20th century.
She isn't a femme d'affaires, a businesswoman, she insists. "She understands everything very well and is very quick, but she isn't a businesswoman in a standard sense; she doesn't spend her time reading balance sheets," adds her older son, who goes by the name of Philippe Sereys de Rothschild.
"Succeeding my grandfather wasn't an easy task because he had his people there, but my mom found the right balance picking the right people to assist her running the business," says Philippe.
Nevertheless, she gets results and runs a tight ship. She is a stickler for details, a perfectionist who says, "I'm constantly dissatisfied," and she is demanding of her staff. And Philippine's track record speaks for itself. When her father died in 1988, the company sold 1.3 million cases per year; today, it's 2.1 million cases. In the 12 years Philippine has led Baron Philippe de Rothschild S.A., sales have doubled to 1 billion francs last year ($155 million at Dec. 31, 1999 exchange rates).
"Everyone says that my theater life helped me in this business, but it helped me for one thing only: to understand people from different walks of life," she says. In becoming an actress, she didn't lead the sheltered life of a socialite, as might be expected of a Rothschild woman, but gained real-life experience that later served her well as a traveling saleswoman for the family wines. When customers got familiar, she wasn't shocked. "I accepted more easily the wine people who put their fat hands on my shoulder. It wasn't very pleasant, but at least I had seen this before, in my theater days."
The baroness is a combination of charm and flair, theatricality and just plain warmth blended with hard-knuckled street smarts. She's a natural at working a crowd, and wherever she goes she is greeted as a celebrity. The bankers in the family are full of praise for her achievement. Switzerland-based Baron Benjamin de Rothschild says it's refreshing to see a Rothschild woman who demonstrates such gumption in business. "She is the person I like the best in the family," he adds.
The kudos and respect from her relatives surprise and please her. "I think the Rothschilds overall consider that the only true business of the family is banking and finance. [But] wine is becoming a global product, and if you succeed in that global environment it must mean that you aren't so bad," she says.
Philippine thrives on juggling many roles -- mother and grandmother, Parisian (she also has a house in the capital) and Bordelais, corporate chieftain and accomplished hostess. "I am a kind of hermaphrodite," she volunteers out of the blue in an interview held at Mouton this summer. She refers to what the patriarchal Rothschilds consider to be her gender-spanning roles at Mouton: corporate leader and charming hostess.
"Working men use women to do the menus for them," she says to illustrate her point. But even when she is away, she plans all the meals at Mouton, which hosts events three or four times a week and 1,500 guests a year. "She is hostess and CEO," says Nicole Voisin, who oversees the hospitality activities at Mouton. "If Madame was in Japan, I'd call her there to make the menus. She takes care of a multitude of details."
She isn't slowing down either, and the company seems to announce a new product or venture regularly. "I've not yet thought of retirement," she says.
What makes her run? Why does she push herself so hard? "Deep down it's linked to insecurity," she says. "Now we enter psychoanalysis, and I've never done psychoanalysis because I've dominated this stuff -- at least I think I have dominated it, after all you never dominate everything. But, yes, there is a feeling of insecurity and it has created a certain dysfunctional behavior and all this comes from my childhood. I know from experience that tragedy can happen. You can be arrested. Your freedom can be taken away. Things happen."
But when she does retire, she expects her two sons to take over the business. "They are different in temperament. One [Philippe] is a businessman, the other one [Julien] is an artist, and they should work admirably well together. They have different fields of activities. Philippe is into finance, Julien could be into the labels, the [Mouton] museum, and why not, the winemaking. They can complement each other."
Paris-based Philippe, who manages a software company, has been involved in the selection of a new estate started this year in the Languedoc, Domaine de Lambert, currently undergoing restructuring. "I like the wine business because I like wine and I like business in general. But my mother runs it tremendously well and there are no need to be 20 people in the same seat," says Philippe. "What I've done is to stay close to her and the business."
Expansion will continue in the company's traditional, "two-speed, complementary" négociant and estate-bottled businesses, predicts Philippe.The project in Chile is a case in point: Baron Philippe de Rothschild S.A. makes a négociant line there, Maipo Chile, and Almaviva, an estate-bottled superpremium wine, both with partners. "The idea is to expand with that same vision; using the image we have today and expand carefully and methodically into new countries and develop new projects," says Philippe.
But the dynamic Mouton Rothschilds won't let growth get out of hand. "I want to stay a family enterprise," says Philippine. She knows there are some heirlooms that must always be kept in the family.
-- Per-Henrik Mansson
Philippine's Major Wine Interests
HOLDING / ANNUAL CASE PRODUCTION
Château Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac, Bordeaux / 25,000
Château d'Armailhac, Pauillac, Bordeaux / 18,000
Château Clerc Milon, Pauillac, Bordeaux / 15,000
Domaine de Lambert, Languedoc (in development) / NA
Baron Arques, Languedoc (in development) / NA
Baron Philippe de Rothschild S.A., France
Mouton-Cadet, Bordeaux / 1,050,000
Other French négociant brands / 950,000
Opus One, Napa Valley / 30,000
Vina Almaviva, Chile / 12,000
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