Maison Villevert special report: a look back at 20 years of exploring the world of spirits with Jean-Sébastien Robicquet.
I) Welcome aboard the vessel Adona.
"Come in! You'll see, this is 2001 Space Odyssey!" The ambassador of Maison Villevert made several references to Stanley Kubrick's film during a visit to the production and packaging site Adéona in Salles d'Angles, near Cognac. It's a good thing, because I wanted to explore the world of spirits this afternoon and Erwan Tonner gave me the opportunity to do just that.
Indeed, Adona has all the attributes of a spaceship. Here engineering and ingenuity combine to give birth to an ultra-modern site when it is inaugurated in 2013.. The architecture is modular and scalable in the manner of new warships (the French stealth frigates of the La Fayette class are a perfect example). It is therefore possible to add functionalities as required. Thus everything is standardized and pre-positioned connections are placed on standby, ready to accommodate new distillation vessels or cellars if necessary. From then on, the successive expansions in 2016 and 2021 follow the increase in sales and turnover, which reaches nearly 60 million € in 2020.
Today, Maison Villevert Adéona consists of a living area to accommodate employees, a laboratory for analysis and quality control, a distillery, assembly cellars and several bottling lines. All of this will soon be spread over nearly 6,000m2 of floor space.
Maison Villevert's strategy is to integrate the entire production of its spirits, i.e. from creation to production and from marketing to distribution. The interest being to offer a maximum of guarantees in terms of security and confidentiality with the objective of controlling all the stages internally.
Because until 2012, production is outsourced to several subcontractors in the region, hence the desire to invest in its own production tool in order to pool know-how, while streamlining the process.
Adéona therefore has a special position within Maison Villevert: the site is resolutely turned towards innovation and the future. But its name, which is unusual for an industrial site, appeals to us: it is meant to be meaningful and benevolent for the whole group.
It refers to the Roman deity who protects travellers and children on their way home. It is often assimilated to the sister deity Abéona, who in turn protects travellers on their departure. Complementary, each one looks in the opposite direction to the other. It should be noted that they are also close to Juno, the goddess of marriage and fertility, who gives her name to the month of June, a reference that often recurs in G'Vine, June and Nouaison products because they incorporate the fragile and ephemeral vine flower that blooms in the sixth month of the year .
Note that Adéona is also the name of an asteroid which evolves between Mars (god of war and protection of the ground) and Jupiter (god of the sky and the earth, married to Juno) .
"My job today is to always anticipate, to be one step ahead, to fix the North Star"
(Grandes Ecoles et Universités Magazine - N° 72 - September 2016)
As our visit under the sign of exploration and travel comes to an end, it is time to meet Jean-Sebastien Robicquet who is waiting for us at the house where the roots of Maison Villevert are anchored.
II) Meet at Manoir Villevert where past, present and future meet.
We meet up with Jean-Sébastien Robicquet after a ten-minute drive from Adéona. There he is, camped behind the bar counter of the house, stretching out his arms towards all his creations arranged on a work surface at least three meters long with a protective gesture : "you see, here is Spirits Valley spreading out in front of you!" Indeed, from the Ciroc range to G'Vine through June, Nouaison or Excellia tequila, 20 years of innovation and creativity are stored before our eyes. Not to mention the latest acquisitions from the Celtic Whisky Company.
We hastened to choose our first spirits served by the master of the house in person, while realizing that the walls that welcome us are charged with more than 500 years of history...
Today the head office includes the administrative offices, the marketing department and the dwelling which make up a harmonious group of buildings firmly established on the Merpins plateau and whose foundations date back to 1528, when Jehan Robicquet, leather and feather merchant and valet to King François I, acquired the property.
A plunge into the archives reveals the pioneering role played by the Robicquet family in the organisation of the cognac brandy trade between 1580 and 1597 with Charlotte Robicquet. Then again between 1640 and 1690 with successively Jacques Robicquet and his son Michel Robicquet-Lescart, both mayors of Cognac. As a reminder, the House of Augier, reputed to be the oldest still in business, was created in 1643. Then the Villevert manor changed hands several times in the course of history to gradually escape the family memory, which is losing track of this heritage. At least temporarily...
As incredible as it may be, it was in 2008 that Jean-Sebastien Robicquet was informed by a phone call of the existence of a home that once belonged to his family and is now for sale a few kilometres away from his business!
Since then, Maison Villevert is ideally located on the plateau where the Grande Champagne vintage begins. It forms a peninsula advancing over the Charente valley on one side and the Canal du Né on the other, in the manner of Brittany, and marks the border between the two Charentes. It seems to be surrounded by water, especially in times of floods when the low roads become impassable, accentuating the impression of isolation.
The tip of this board is also known as 'Le Roc' in old maps. This is where the 'Le Roc' path starts, which runs alongside the house and whose name resonates curiously with that of Ciroc vodka. However, the word 'valise Ciroc' created in 2002 (well before the purchase of the 'logis Villevert') comes from the association of the words 'cime' and 'roche' in homage to the village of Cordes Sur Ciel, near Gaillac, where the grapes used in its composition come from.
Then in 2013 Jean-Sébastien Robicquet acquired the Pérat wine estate, located just opposite the house in Salignac-Sur-Charente. It comprises 40 hectares of vines established on the Merpins plateau in Grande Champagne. Thus all the means of production, from working the vines to the creation of new spirits, distillation and packaging, are grouped together in a 6 km sector. Not forgetting distribution with the Maison Villevert France network (launched in 2015 under the name Renaissance Spirits).
Rarely has such a young company had such a strong foothold. But this is not the result of a marketing strategy that was put together from scratch, nor is it the result of chance. Rather, it is the consequences of an alignment with oneself, one's values and one's products that changes the equation.
As a reminder, when he created EuroWineGate in January 2001, it was an ambitious Internet portal designed to distribute French spirits in the USA. The funds were raised and the teams were already trained when the bursting of the Internet bubble and the World Trade Center attack thwarted his plans.
It is at this point that he decides to focus on what he masters and his passion, namely oenology, the vine and creation, in order to draw the resources of resilience from them.
In fact, the Ciroc vodka launched in 2003 and then the G'Vine gin (2006), both grape-based, are the first tangible results of this pivoting. Other creations follow with the June gin liqueur (2008), the Excellia tequila aged in Sauternes and Cognac barrels (2011) and the Quintinye Vermouth Royal (2013). However, the results of this alignment are not only visible at the product level: sometimes unexpected consequences are revealed to anyone interested in symbolic structures, such as this astonishing alignment of Maison Villevert's Charente production sites...
"It's important to be close to your roots: the family, but also the vine, the wine, the land [...] It surprises our visitors, but it's so much in tune with the products we develop, and who we are."
(South West, January 27, 2011)
III) Leadership interview with Jean-Sébastien Robicquet
1- What is your favourite personal or professional activity?
Commitment and Action in full awareness and deep respect for one's environment to create opportunities for oneself and others. This is the starting point of my way of being. Learning, discovering, being surprised, understanding, interpreting and giving a chance...this is what guides me on a daily basis and gave birth to the creations of Maison Villevert. It is also an activity that I have always sought to share, with my family, my children, my collaborators, my friends... And beyond that, of course, to pass on... Transmit the fruit of these discoveries, some of which will become passions.
2- Which book influenced you the most?
It's a big question because there are many important authors for me and they vary according to the mood or the season, but there are two books that I never tire of rereading. Patrick Süskind's Le Parfum, because each page is an olfactory wave, a miracle of words and verbs to transcribe emotions and smells. The second is the Gospel according to Saint John because the words are very simple and we never stop discovering their complexity and depth.
3- Which mission has impressed you the most?
Probably the mission I set for myself in 2001: that of creating my company to affirm my vision and ideas and to support my family, then my first circle, then the second, etc. Today there are about a hundred of us and the mission is not over. In a more pragmatic way and more recently, that of confronting and protecting our employees and assets during the health crisis of 2020. A year on a rollercoaster ride, with the responsibility to move forward despite the storm, to reassure and help, to believe in the strength of our fundamentals, to believe in people, in our capacity for resilience.
4- Do you have a method to facilitate decision making?
Winston Churchill said that "success is to go from failure to failure"... To decide is to accept the risk of making a mistake, but above all, it is to learn from one's mistakes. So my method consists in trusting my instinct, then consulting, comparing, contradicting, synthesizing and deciding... and, above all, accepting the idea of making a mistake in order to better start over and move forward.
5- What is your most formative failure (your best failure)?
2001, when the company was launched, I wanted to create an e-procurement platform for French Wines and Spirits for the USA, with dreams and ambitions in my head... but quickly the internet bubble burst (June 2001) then that same year there was the tragedy of the World Trade Center in NYC (Sept 11th 2001) and everything stopped for the initial project... It was necessary to start everything from scratch, from the teams to the financing, to implement the famous swivel strategy, to redefine a new blue ocean and that's how Maison Villevert was born as it is today.
6- Can you share a secret about your discipline as a business manager?
Knowing how to work in networks, respecting your partners and collaborators and, above all, being an opportunity for the ecosystem to which you belong is key. I keep repeating that in order to have opportunities, you must first and foremost be an opportunity for others!
7- How much of your time do you spend on strategic intelligence?
Strategic intelligence means being curious all the time. It's tiring, I admit it, it's also sometimes tiring for my entourage and my collaborators, but that's how we (because I'm not the only one, fortunately, to work like this at Maison Villevert) stay attentive to market developments, to consumer expectations and that's even how, sometimes, we create trends.
Our creations are in the hands of consumers in more than 60 countries, if they want them, if they like them... The competition is fierce, the offer is plethoric. When I created G'Vine in 2006, there were about 700 gins on the market. Today, fifteen years later, there are 7,000. Why do consumers choose our products over others? Why are our creations often "one step ahead"? This is the answer to the essential point of "strategic intelligence": we must be constantly on the alert to seize the "weak signals" before the others and transform them into products that meet the most current consumer expectations.
8- What is the constitutive vision of Maison Villevert and what are its medium and long term challenges?
In 20 years, we have created a genuine French innovation sector based on grapes, the equivalent of what the Anglo-Saxons have been doing for a very long time with grapes. This sector, set up since 2001, beyond its economic role, aims to highlight the French spirit and the culture of wine (as we have been practising in France for centuries), on products originally made from cereals (vodka, gin, liqueur)...
For Maison Villevert alone, this sector now represents nearly 30 million bottles produced and exported each year throughout the world. It has now overtaken us to irrigate the entire Charente valley, through the Spirits Valley, our example having been widely followed by others since then, and I can only be delighted about that...
In the long term, we still need to develop, strengthen and promote this sector (and the products that have been and will be born from it).
9- What advice(s) would you give to a young entrepreneur starting a new business in 2021?
Already, I am very proud of one young entrepreneur in particular, my son Alexandre, who for the last 3 years has created his company in the United States, in San Francisco in Artificial Intelligence.
I believe that in order to get started, you have to be insolent, think outside the box, have an idea and believe in yourself while listening to others and your environment. It also requires a certain amount of rigour, discipline, hard work, courage and constancy in the effort... In the end, I will tell him this: you have no idea what you are capable of until you have tried!
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