If you believe Benedictine is made by monks, that's quite all right with Alain Le Grand, the 35-year-old president of Benedictine, S.A. The Le Grands have taken pains to associate their liqueurs with the labors of holy men, since Alain's great-great-grandfather founded the company in 1863 near the ruins of the famous Benedictine Abbey of Fecamp on the Normandy coast. In fact, Benedictine and its companion product, Benedictine and Brandy (B & B), do have the blessings of the Benedictine order in Rome: The order is a minority shareholder. But Benedictine, S.A. is strictly a secular enterprise. In the last fiscal year, it produced 20,000 bottles a day, earning $2.2 million on $17 million in sales. It maintains a growth rate of 10%, has almost no indebtedness, and last year paid out more than half its profits in dividends.
Much about this colorful company is fabulous. Its founder, Alexandre, was married twice and had 19 surviving children. Faced with a horrendous succession problem, he simply willed control to his four oldest sons and their descendants. Today the descendants number over 3,000. (A thousand of them actually turned up for a family reunion a few years ago.) But no more than 40 of the 3,000 are shareholders; descendants of the four sons own 60% of the stock and, by tradition, only they work actively in the company. (See "Family Affairs: The Benedictine Succession," below.)
Alexandre's descendants see the past not as a burden but as an asset to be preserved and exploited. It helps them create the image of a fine product that's a symbol of elegance, epitomized in the current B & B slogan, "Living well is the best revenge." At $15 to $20 a bottle, the good life does not come cheaply.
But then Benedictine, S.A. continues to make its products by hand, according to the founder's original formula, in stills set up at the turn of the century. Neither the bottle nor the label has changed in the 118 years since Alexandre carefully registered them.
"Our challenge is to sell an unchanging product in a changing world," explains Alain Le Grand in almost accentless English. "There's a whole new generation that has to learn the unique taste of our products. So we change our marketing approach. But we never change the product. It cannot be improved on."
Just what is Benedictine? It's a variation on the liqueurs that first appeared in Europe in the 16th century. Easily made by steeping herbs, plants, seeds, and fruit, then mixing the concoction with spirits, cognac, or brandy, these liqueurs were used as elixirs -- health potions said to have magical and healing properties. Monasteries, as centers of education, were logical places to experiment with these brews; the monks would offer them to guests and sell them locally.
Alexandre Le Grand was familiar with this monastic tradition. A wine merchant in the little fishing port of Fecamp, he was fascinated by the ruins of the local abbey, a 12-century-old monastery that had been destroyed during the French Revolution. As a hobby he collected the sacred objects and books that the Normans had acquired from the fleeing monks.
While browsing in an ancient text one day, he came upon a recipe for an elixir that had been a favorite of Benedictine monk Dom Bernardo Vincelli in 1510. Perhaps, he thought, Vincelli's recipe could rival Grand Marnier or Cointreau, liqueurs produced by French family-owned firms.
Alexandre experimented with the formula in a small pot that's still on display to company visitors. The elixir had a medicinal taste. He sweetened it, and fiddled with the recipe, until he arrived at a brew calling for 27 ingredients, including hyssop, myrrh, lemon rind, aloe, and Angelica seeds. These he steeped and distilled with brandy in five batches, then aged it two years in oak casks. The formula today is known only to Alain Le Grand; his father, Pierre, who's chairman of the board; and a production supervisor.
Next Alexandre designed a bottle and a label bearing the initials D.O.M. above a faint cross and affixed the red wax seal of the House of Normandy.
Filling a few bottles, he traveled to Rome with a tempting proposition for the Benedictines. In exchange for exclusive commercial exploitation of their name, the order would receive a royalty (now paid as dividends on the shares the order received when the company was incorporated in 1886).
To Alain, this history is not just an amusing narrative. "It established three policies that we maintain to this day," he explains. "First is image. A good product can't sell itself. You need an image -- in this case identification of the product with the heritage of our local abbey. Alexandre spent a fortune to establish the connection, and we continue to spend a lot of money keeping this story alive.
"His second policy was to register the name, label, and bottle in every market he entered, making it legally impossible for anyone else to use them for any product whatsoever. We have continued this practice and registered Benedictine everywhere except the Soviet Union. The Russians simply expropriated it after the Russian Revolution and now use the name for a miserable brandy of theirs. But over the years, our attorneys have beaten back over 800 attempts to counterfeit Benedictine.
"The third policy of Alexandre's was to export. He was the first of the liqueur makers to do so. Now only 15% of our output is sold in France. We have 213 markets abroad."
But at first, Alexandre's approach to his business seemed anything but rational. To the consternation of his family, he spent large sums on enlarging his collection of plaster and wooden saints, tapestries, enamel reliquaries, and ancient chests and keys. He then announced plans for a vast Renaissance palace, a Victorian concoction of pinnacles, arcades, and vaulted halls topped by a tall spire. One end would house all his medieval folk art; the other end would be the distillery.
The "factory palace" was completed in 1876 at a cost not to be paid off for a generation. But it did the trick. The Benedictine Museum became a tourist attraction reinforcing the notion of mystery, antiquity, and piety embodied in Benedictine liqueur. One of its stained glass windows portrays Alexandre in a frock coat beneath a trumpeting angel bearing a bottle of Benedictine.
Last year 120,000 visitors trooped through the museum for a modest seven francs each (about $1.25), sipped glasses of Benedictine, and watched a 10-minute film about the product. They bought posters and postcards and listened to taped tours in eight languages. Even today, well-educated Frenchmen, after a visit to the palace, will assure you that monks in Fecamp gather herbs for the liqueur.
Even before the castle was completed, sales of the new liqueur were brisk. By 1900, Benedictine was established as one of the leading liqueurs of the Belle Epoque and had built a thriving foreign trade, which was badly damaged by the loss of the Russian market and by American Prohibition. During the Depression, the company bounced back when it launched B & B in the United States to conunter the American habit of cutting Benedictine with cheap brandies. Americans liked the excellent brandy used in the company's mixture, and B & B was soon outselling Benedictine two to one in the United States.
Postwar sales boomed, but by the early 1970s, lack of aggressive marketing had the company in the doldrums. In 1975, the board persuaded 29-year-old Alain to join the family business.
Alain's qualifications to run a liqueur company were not obvious. Raised in Paris by his divorced mother, who was a surgeon, he earned master's degrees at the elite School of Mines and the Institute of Political Science, dabbled in theater, and worked as an engineer. Surviving the competitive world of the "grandes ecoles" helped Alain quickly adapt to business; in three years he was named marketing director. He became president in 1981.
"There's a new spirit in the company since Alain took over," says a spokesman for Julius Wile Sons & Co., Benedictine's U.S. distributor. Alain built a more efficient bottling plant, created separate profit centers, and cut costs considerably by replacing the handsealed cork with screw-on caps. Then he focused his attention on marketing, particularly in the United States, where Benedictine does 45% of its business.
"We want to sell as much Benedictine in the United States as B & B, so we're repositioning Benedictine as a drink, not just for after dinner, but for any time," Alain says. "We now call Benedictine 'the near-perfect mixer,' to be served on the rocks, with soda, and in cocktails."
Pierre's second cousin, Bruno, 45, in charge of domestic operations, will soon help promote a liqueur little known in the United States: Pippermint Get (pronounced Jet), a creme de menthe that has doubled sales in France in the past three years, and promises in five years to challenge Benedictine abroad, particularly in Asia.
Export manager Bertrand Deren has succeeded in getting Benedictine into China. The liqueur is popular in the Far East, where it's promoted as an elixir and is said to restore health.
Americans, Alain maintains, trail behind Europeans in export know-how. "That's probably because your internal market is so huge," he says. "But when your market goes off, exports can help keep you on an even keel. The American tendency is to export without studying the market sufficiently."
Alain makes final decisions about export policy as he does about most management issues. His 60-year-old father, Pierre, limits his attention to financial matters and the personnel policies affecting the 300 employees. Bruno is on the board, and a younger cousin, Francois, is in charge of research. Alain rarely finds the family presence a liability.
"I think we may be more willing to take risks than mere managers," he says. "But it's important to listen to outsiders when you have a family business. We have on our board a champagne manufacturer, a financier, a personnel director of a textile firm, and a lawyer. We meet monthly and the input of these men is taken seriously."
Family tradition doesn't hurt employee relations either. As in many French industries, sons succeed fathers in many jobs at Benedictine. They've never had a strike.
France's new Socialist government could change all that, but Alain isn't worried. "The Socialists are no threat to smaller enterprises," he says. (See "French Foreign Exchange," at left.) Besides, Alain thinks that the Socialists are naive in thinking they can banish human acquisitiveness, and that they will eventually be forced out of power.
Should he prove wrong, what then?
With the typical French shrug, he says, "Benedictine could easily be made abroad." There might be a problem, though, finding a plant site near an abandoned abbey.