Felicity Carter: Female management and the transformation of wine

In celebration of International Women’s Day, we have chosen to publish the following article by Felicity Carter on female management and the transformation of wine. The article looks at the changing rights of succession over the years, the impact of recent ownership changes on management styles, along with what this might mean for the future of the wine industry.

When Vitalie Taittinger became president of Champagne Taittinger in late 2019, the media exploded with the news. Many of the articles referred to her beauty, or her blonde hair, and they called her an ‘heiress’, as if the role had just fallen into her lap—when she had worked in the business for over a decade.

Saskia De Rothschild got much the same treatment in 2018 when she took over Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), whose portfolio includes Château Lafite Rothschild. While media reports did note that she’d worked as a journalist for the New York Times, they mentioned her MBA less often.

On International Women’s Day 2021, it’s worth reflecting on this. In one sense, it’s no surprise that people are captivated by the glamour of accomplished young women taking over aristocratic estates. But it is surprising that women at the helm are still seen as noteworthy—because the Taittinger and Rothschild succession stories are emblematic of a much wider trend, now gathering pace.

Across Europe, enterprises of all kind are undergoing a feminine makeover.

Rites of succession

 

There’s a reason that wine’s most famous woman, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, is known to history as the Widow Clicquot. As her biographer Tilar J. Mazzeo says, “As a widow, Barbe-Nicole was entitled to manage her own affairs.”

But as a married woman, she could never have run a Champagne house.

For almost all of Western history, property passed to male heirs. If there wasn’t one handy, the heiress’s husband was expected to run the estate. Married French women couldn’t even have a bank account in their own name until 1965.

Today, however, parents can choose to leave their businesses and estates to their daughters if they choose—and we’re beginning to see what that looks like en masse. What’s been called “the greatest transfer of wealth in history” is underway, as baby boomers exit their businesses and leave them to their GenX and Millennial children. Many of whom are women.

This trend began around 2015 and was expected to take decades, but Pew Research report that the pandemic has accelerated it. Family businesses account for 75% of all businesses in France, Germany and Italy, and 85% of all businesses in Spain. This includes publishing, manufacturing, fashion, agriculture and retail, as well as wine.

Europe is on the cusp of an entrepreneurial and financial revolution.

What does this mean?

 

There’s a plethora of research that claims that female managers have a more “transformational” style of leadership, as compared to the more “transactional” approach of men. Women, it is claimed, are more empathetic, more democratic and more willing to mentor, and so are better able to release the talents of the people working for them.

The evidence for this isn’t always straightforward, it has to be said. It’s genuinely hard for women to be autocratic, even if that’s their natural tendency, simply because people around them won’t tolerate it. So the research may be capturing the way women are forced to behave to get a result, rather than any intrinsic gender difference.

On the other hand, there is some robust research that suggests that teams and companies with more women perform better than those that are male-dominated. Fine wine think tank ARENI recently did a fascinating interview with French cognitive scientist Emile Servan-Schreiber, who said groups with more women outperformed other groups, because of the way women change group dynamics. “In groups with more women, more people can express themselves and more people listen when they do, and that’s what makes the group smart,” he said. “Everybody gets to take part.”

When people spend time listening to one another, good ideas don’t get lost. At an individual level, this could mean companies will make continuous small changes that lead to incremental improvements. At the European level, however, a collaborative style of management could be transformative; Europeans have, historically, shied away from the kind of collegiate approach to information sharing, and the willingness to promote one another that has turbocharged the success of many New World regions.

And this new approach to management would run alongside a second striking trend.

Global in outlook

 

The people now rising to management and executive positions—both male and female—are typically more highly educated than their predecessors. They are fluent in English, and international in outlook. They not only understand their own land and history, but have also walked the streets of their export markets and spent time in wine regions elsewhere. This is also going to have an impact on European businesses.

While future forecasting is generally an exercise in futility, some trends are clear. The future of wine, including investment-grade wine, is going to be more collaborative, more open and more professional.

And anyone writing profiles of the next generation of CEOs should pay a lot less attention to hair colour—because, otherwise, they will miss the major transformations underway.

 

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