One woman's path to the top of the champagne world

Cecile Bonnefond, CEO of Piper-Heidsieck;
Courtesy Piper-Heidsieck

After starting her career with such mainstay brands as Danone and Kellogg, Cecile Bonnefond quickly made a name for herself in the luxury food and wine sector, serving as CEO of Grand Metropolitan Food France from 1995 to 2000 and later as the chief executive at Veuve Cliquot. In that capacity, she was one of the champagne industry's few female CEOs.

Now, she's taking her vast experience to another set of bubblies, Charles Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck, with the goal of raising their global profile. We spoke to her about her plans for these brands -- and her strategy for her own career.

MoneyWatch: What is your focus with Charles Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck?
Cecile Bonnefond: My strongest focus is on building these two champagne houses into iconic names. The brands'  patrimony (vineyards, cellars, wines, histories, stories and all their craftsmanship) was passed down from their founders and expanded by many generations of great family entrepreneurs [the Descours]. One of the greatest challenges that I encounter is to ensure that the organization makes the right things happen today and dedicates enough resources for reinventing tomorrow.

From a female perspective, have you noticed a different organizational culture in the U.S. versus Europe?
CB: Keeping the right balance between professional, personal and family life is a constant challenge and aspiration for European women. I have observed that American women are sometimes more forceful about  their career. However, I am not sure there is a "European" organizational culture as I still see a lot of organizational differences between the European countries.

France is one country where most women work outside their home and where state support provides some facilities to allow that. Equal opportunity laws, our health system, our school system in particular. Still lots to do ... but already pretty advanced.

What advice do you give to young women looking to enter the business world?
CB: If you want to have a career, be ready to work hard, be consistent in your choices (for example, it's hard to have time and money at the same time, over a long period!). Don't be afraid of change, movement, or to take a risk. And if you can, choose your organization and certainly, your boss! And finally, trust yourself and enjoy.

Do you have any thoughts on how you maintain a life/work balance?
It is hard, a constant challenge, and never won forever ... but it is doable. It certainly takes very good health, a great partner and an expectation that life is not perfect. It also requires regular check-ins, to verify that you know where you stand, and if where you are is acceptable now -- or that it will be -- under certain achievable conditions in time. 

What's the greatest misconception women have when it comes to success?
It's hard for me to say, and I'm not sure I can answer. I do think women need to try to work to achieve their goals for themselves, and really strive for it, because it is obvious to no one. It takes sacrifices, and you need to be ready for them and certainly enjoy the effort.

If success does not come , or come immediately, one should not automatically attribute this to the men/women "thing," but have an objective analysis of what it takes to be successful in their environment. Sometimes the environment is hostile, sometimes it could be  something else.

If you could change one move you've made during your career path (big or small) what would it be? What, over the last 30 years, would you have done differently? And why?
I wish I had been better with my work/life balance and still have as much fun, passion and success as I have had in my career. As many others do, I guess ...  Dream or regret? Cannot choose! But frankly, I'm so happy with the life I have had.

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