Vietnam and Chivas Regal: A Salesman’s Story

A Journey to Open a New Market in 1994 (A True Story)

Ted McDonnell was a top-notch salesperson in the Asia-Pacific/Global Duty-Free division of Seagram Spirits and Wine Group. (SSWG or ‘swig’ as it was referred to.) Ted had spent his career living in Australia, Hong Kong, and Guam as a regional director fixing problems and building brands all over Asia-Pacific.

Then one day an outstanding opportunity came his way in the form of a job with Chivas Brothers. He no sooner got settled in London when he was told that among his first assignments was to go to Vietnam to do sales training on behalf of the brand. President Clinton opened the market to trade and management was anxious to expand opportunities in the emerging market.

His excitement was palpable and, as he waited for his visa, he gathered point of sale and training materials. As he scurried about making preparations—including attending a companywide meeting—he was not able to get his ticket and visa until the last minute.  He ended up collecting five boxes of gifts and items that the sales and marketing people could use. You can imagine the effort he put in to get the right stuff and when the week’s wait was over, he ran to his office and collected the visa and plane tickets.

While hoping to stay awake on the flight to see the approach to the country, he instead fell asleep and awoke as the plane landed in a dark and ominous looking airport surrounded by what appeared to be machine gun towers. As he disembarked he felt a bit of relief, when a Vietnamese man tapped him on the shoulder and asked, “Are you an American?”

He quickly said, “Oh no I’m British, I’m here with Chivas Regal Whisky.” The man smiled and said, “Would you please tell your American friends we wish they would come back, we’ve missed them.”

With this surprising start to his journey, he collected the five boxes, breezed through customs, and left the terminal to find his colleagues who were to meet him.

Hello Vietnam

Two problems got his immediate attention. Here he is at the airport of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and it’s basically an open-air cement building—hardly what he expected from the biggest city in the country. Second, there were well over 200 people waiting to greet deplaning passengers but no one was there for him. He waited and worried.

“You need taxi? My name is Tran,” said the young man who approached him. “No, I’m waiting for my friends to pick me up,” was Ted’s reply.

A few hours passed while he stopped people to ask if they knew where the Seagram office was in the city. After a while, Ted noticed Tran hanging around the terminal again. He decided to approach him.

“Tran, bring your car, I think we will go to the city. My friends forgot about me.” So, Tran is very happy, and goes to get his car. As Ted describes it, “The car is a little more than a shoe box and I had a hard time squeezing in with the five boxes, my computer bag and the one piece of luggage I had with me.” But off they went.

Tran is very quiet as they drive along a very dark road without much lights. As they are crossing a bridge, Tran stops the car and says, “I go back and get my friend. I go back and get my friend.” Ted nervously replies, “no, no, no… I’m paying you to take me to the city.” To which Tran says, “Yeah, I know I take you to the city… but first I go back and get my friend.”

The next thing Ted knows, Tran turns the car around and heads back to the airport. Only this time the road is deserted and no cars are on the highway.

Ted starts to get very nervous

“How come there are no other cars… how come I’m the only one on the highway and there is the airport… it’s getting dark…only the lights are on out front of the airport with three men standing there and I’m thinking this is it for me. I’m getting kidnapped, you’re never going to see me again and there’s going to be a letter to my family of some sort… I’m thinking I’ve got to get out of the taxi when we reach the airport. But before I can get my hand on the door this guy jumps in the front seat and smiles and says, ‘Hello Joe. How are you Joe?’ I said, ‘Uh, uh, good’ and we’re driving back toward the bridge.”

Picture this—Ted is stuck in the back street, wedged in among the 5 boxes, computer bag and luggage while Tran and his friend are getting angry and arguing with each other. The friend suddenly reaches into the glove box, turns around and points two things at Ted, one in each hand. He can barely see what it is but is sure it looks like a gun. Ted thinks, “Why the hell did I put myself in this fix?”

After a second or two, Tran’s friend says, “Richard Marx or Air Supply cassette player?” Ted starts laughing and so does Tran and his friend. He puts on Richard Marx and he says, “You sing, you sing for us.” Ted’s thinking, “I don’t sing, but if I don’t I may end up in a ditch so sing your friggin’ heart out.”

Now they’re tooling down the muddy roads and all singing Richard Marx and Air Supply in a bizarre (yet frightening for Ted) karaoke event. After a while, they slow down next to a house, the friend gets out and tells Ted to do the same. Ted protests; Tran’s friend is most insistent and mutters something about needing gas to get to the city.

Ted reluctantly leaves the car and is standing on the side of a dark road with all his gear, dressed in a blazer, gray slacks and white shirt. His fear has just gone up a notch or two.

Ted recollects: “But there, next to the little house were three little kids and an old lady that comes out the front door. She takes my hand and leads me inside, sits me down on a small stool. Now that could only be a small stool because if I stood up I think my head would have gone through the roof.” It turns out to be Tran’s family.

What follows is Vietnamese hospitality as Ted is served tea and some food as he begins to relax a bit. He even starts playing with the children and making duck and animal sounds while he waits for Tran to return. All the while he’s thinking that this is the craziest kidnapping ever.

At long last Tran appears and announces, “Okay we go now.” Ted is relieved and delighted and can’t wait to get to Ho Chi Minh City, a shower, and a comfortable Marriott bed. Goodbyes, smiles and happiness is shared all around. In fact, Ted is so happy, he lightens his load by opening one of the boxes and handing out Chivas Regal shirts.

Welcome to the city

“It’s the city, we’re coming to the city,” Tran joyfully announces.

So again, Ted is getting a little nervous being an American in Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City. He says, “Tran, ahh what street are we going to?” Tran answers, “I don’t know. I ask the policeman.” Before Ted can object, Tran is out of the car with my paper written in English. The officer looks at Ted and asks, “You Yankee?” he says.

Ted decides that it might be best to claim he’s British and puts on his bad English accent. To which the officer replies, “Ahh too bad … I love baseball, I love the Yankees.” He goes on to inform Ted and Tran that the street they need is too small for the car and they need to take two nearby tricycles. The officer offers to watch the taxi while they head off.

So, they get into the tricycles, with the boxes and other gear, ride down narrow roads, just barely missing other bikes and Ted is thinking what the hell is going on. There are bright neon signs but all are in Vietnamese. Finally, they pull over to a really dark and dingy building and over the doorway it says Marriott Hotel.

Ted is elated but still a bit worried. He goes inside, finds the desk clerk, who fortunately speaks English and asks about Seagram, the colleagues he’s supposed to meet, and Chivas Regal. The man replies no—he has no idea who these people or companies are. Ted says, “I’m looking for the Marriott, maybe it’s a little bigger than this.” To which the desk clerk replies, “Ooh you want the other Marriott.” He writes down the address for Tran in Vietnamese. They collect his stuff and put it in the tricycles, go back through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and find their taxi and the policeman. Once again Ted opens a box and hands out more t-shirts to the smiling policeman.

Off they go to the address and twenty minutes later they arrive at a decent looking hotel but certainly not a Marriott. It doesn’t take long for him to learn that it’s the wrong place and they need the Marriott by the water. He is assured that it’s close by. Off they go.

As Ted describes it:

“I was happy when he said, ‘Not far from here.’ Okay. We’re so close I can almost taste the Marriott air. It was hot, it was steaming. I was so tired, it was like 24 hours since I last slept. It had to be about 11 o’clock by then. So here I am, we’re back in the car we’re driving to the next place. Nearly half an hour passes—not five minutes—and we finally pull up to another hotel but something didn’t feel right.”

Ted goes in and asks about Seagram, his colleagues, and Chivas and receives no, no, and no in reply. By now he’s questioning his sanity, his belief in God, and thinks that he’s still sleeping on the plane and this is a dream, or worse, a nightmare. And, things get interesting.

He asks the clerk for a phone so he can call one of his colleagues. He gives the man and Tran the number and they look at each other quizzically. They speak animatedly in Vietnamese. Finally, Tran turns to Ted and says, “Your friend is not here.” To which Ted replies, “I know you already told me he’s not here.”

Tran explains further, “No, your friend is in Ho Chi Minh City… in the south.” “Well where am I”, asks Ted.

“You’re in the North, you’re in Hanoi,” he learns from Tran.

Ted, takes out his plane ticket and looks at it. Sure enough, the ticket and documents he grabbed at the last minute say Hanoi, but the phone number is for Ho Chi Minh City, 700 miles away.

Ted asks, “Tran why didn’t you tell me that when you had the paper?”

Tran replies, “I don’t read English.”

“So why did you have the paper, Tran?”

“Because you gave it to me.”

Ted sits down in the lobby, is about to cry but decides he might just as well laugh. Then realizes what he has to do next.

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Join us next time for the continuing saga of Ted McDonnell, Chivas Regal and the trip south to Ho Chi Minh City, aka, Saigon.

By the way, Ted is the CEO of Liberty Lighthouse Group an international alcohol sales and marketing agency. Their mission is to help develop new brands or to further support established brands throughout Asia/Pacific and other Global markets.

Ted McDonnell in full Chivas Regal attire
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Chivas Regal and Hollywood Friends

Lauren Bacall, Gregory Peck and Frank Sinatra

Back in the day when Seagram was alive and well, there were many sponsored events, particularly when Universal-MCA was in the picture. It Chivaswas not unusual, therefore, for the company to be front and center, underwriting the event (or parts of it) in exchange for publicity and press. In addition to the “Step and Repeat” backdrop, the sponsoring brand received widespread exposure and linkage to celebrities.

Some events were strictly sponsorship (e.g., Crown Royal and the Rodeo) and many were charity events that a particular brand supported and even underwrote.

I’d like to tell you the story about one such charity event that involved Lauren Bacall.

The Event

It was in the late 1990s, and the Design Industries Foundation Fighting Aids (DIFFA) and the Motion Picture & Television Fund (MPTF) organized the fundraising dinner. Since it was held at the Cipriani in lower Manhattan, you can be sure it was way beyond a rubber chicken dinner. Chivas was the sponsor and other Seagram spirits and wines were served.

Based on the cause and the Universal-MCA connection, the attendees were all ‘A’ list. I remember stars of stage, screen and the fashion world in attendance, including Lauren Bacall, Michael Douglas, Richard Gere, Vera Wang, to name a few. It must have been a harrowing experience to organize and execute the event and photo shoots. But the Seagram corporate PR folks, led by Karin Timpone, had it under control.

The Request

Lauren Bacall
Lauren Bacall

I wish I could find the photo that included yours truly, Lauren Bacall, and a number of others, whose names escape me. But, trust me when I say it was a hoot to pose with the legendary Ms. Bacall, a Tony and Golden Globe winner as well as Academy award nominee. I’m guessing that she must have been in her late 70s at the time and still extraordinarily classy and  impressive. I’m not particularly star struck but, come on, she starred with (and was married to) Humphrey Bogart, was in films with Kirk Douglas, Gary Cooper and, all in all, an icon of theatre and film.

Lauren Bacall and Gregory Peck in Designing Woman
Lauren Bacall and Gregory Peck in Designing Woman

 

The photo shoot ended. I thanked her for coming, for the opportunity to pose with her and expressed gratitude on behalf of Chivas Regal. Her response was a courtly nod and she said, “I like Chivas Regal, can I get some sent to my home?” “Of course Ms. Bacall” I replied and asked Karin to have someone arrange for a case of Chivas to be delivered to her.

I no sooner got the words out when she said, “You know, my friend Gregory Peck also likes Chivas Regal, can you get a case to him in Palm Springs?” Gregory Peck? Holy cow, her co-star in the film Designing Woman and among my favorite actors. I couldn’t get these words out fast enough either – “Certainly… absolutely… we’ll take care of it.” She thanked me and the session was over.

The Aftermath

I totally forgot about the incident. Sometime later in the spring of 1998, I received this letter from Gregory Peck:

Dear Arthur,

Our thanks for the beautiful gift of a case of Chivas Regal. I am a great admirer of this beverage.

Contrary to popular belief, our friend Frank Sinatra did not partake exclusively of Jack Daniel’s. In his desert retreat, he sometimes joined me in a Chivas and Perrier, with perhaps a lemon twist, or a dash of bitters.

With appreciation and best regards,

(Signed)

Gregory Peck. 

The letter was dated May 26, 1998 and Frank Sinatra died on May 14, 1998 hence, the reference to Sinatra.

But, I was puzzled. Did Lauren Bacall get her case of Chivas? I was assured that it had been delivered but no acknowledgment was received. Oh well, that’s show business. I didn’t give it another thought.

Frank Sinatra, Barbara Sinatra and Gregory Peck
Frank Sinatra, Barbara Sinatra and Gregory Peck

That is, until a few months later.

I was having lunch with a good friend and principal of an ad agency. I told him the story and my thrill at the Gregory Peck note and surprise at the lack of response from Lauren Bacall. He laughed and said that he had an interesting comparable experience to share.

It turns out that his agency had hired her to be the voiceover for a cat food commercial. It was undoubtedly a 7-figure deal. After the day’s shoot she told a production assistant that she’d like to have a case of cat food sent to her home. The agency decided to send a case of each of the varieties, perhaps 3 or 4 cases of cat food.

“Did you hear back from her?” I asked.

“Nope, not a word… and here’s the strange part… we found out she doesn’t even own a cat.”

But I bet she drank the Chivas Regal.

(Thanks to Karin Timpone for refreshing my memory.)

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Seagram, Bronfman and Chivas Regal

“Edgar M. Bronfman, Who Brought Elegance and Expansion to Seagram, Dies at 84” is the headline from the The New York Times obituary.

I didn’t know Edgar Sr. (or the Chairman as he was known) very well but interacted with him on a number of occasions, mainly when Edgar Jr. was off doing his Hollywood thing.

A number of stories come to mind, particularly about his pride and joy, Chivas Regal.

On one occasion, when I was running US marketing, I was summoned (along with my new products guru, Sam Ellias) to his office to tell us about a new product idea for Chivas Regal. Apparently, on a trip to Europe to survey the state of the business there, a young brand manager suggested that Chivas needed to be more contemporary and she had just the idea for how to do it – a line extension with a more intriguing and youthful brand proposition.

Chivas Regal had been losing market share for years and any ideas to drastically change the brand’s fortune were usually rejected somewhere along the line. That the Chairman should be willing to embrace a new scotch brand under the Chivas banner was very welcome news.

Danu 2
Chivas De Danu

The brand manager in Europe suggested that we introduce a product called Chivas De Danu, named for a Celtic goddess who spent eternity with her youthful  followers living a life somewhere between bacchanalia and debauchery. (Not exactly right but close.) I suppose the idea was that if you drank Chivas De Danu, you would stay young forever and always get laid.

The Goddess
The Goddess

The problem was, the Chairman referred to it correctly when I first got summoned to his office, but kept referring to it in our meeting as Chivas Duna, as in Charlie the Tuna. Sam and I were perplexed and looked it up online (this was the late 1990s and even then, the world was at our finger tips). Sure enough it was Danu (as in Danube) not Duna.

Now, the hard part. We needed to tell him that while he got it right originally, a product named Chivas de Duna was not going anywhere in the market, after the laughter stopped. The product needed to be called Chivas De Danu.

Sam and I nervously set up a meeting with Edgar. Surprisingly, neither of us got our heads chopped off and he listened attentively to our information but remained a bit skeptical. He had a brand new computer in his office and was in the process of learning how to use it, so he challenged us by rushing to his computer to look it up.

He attempted to turn it on but nothing happened. He grew frustrated and angry and yelled for his secretary, Maxine, to “get that asshole from IT, or whatever they’re called, here immediately.”

Within moments (most of us waited days for help), someone appeared and sheepishly asked what was the matter. I recall the IT person had a look on his face akin to a prisoner going to the gallows and his knees were shaking so much, he could hardly stand. Before the Chairman could turn his palpable anger on the poor guy, Maxine interrupted and told Edgar he had a call. With a wave of his hand as he walked off, he indicated that we should work with the IT person to fix the problem and learn the answer.

The two of us hovered over the poor IT fellow as he tried to fix the Chairman’s computer. It took one second. He leaned over and tugged on the electric cord and showed us the computer wasn’t plugged in. “I thought so,” he said, “that’s what the problem was last week when I went to his home to fix the computer there.”

Computer fixed, information retrieved and there was the irrefutable evidence that the brand should be called Chivas De Danu. When Edgar returned and saw it for himself, there was a shrug. None of us had the courage to tell him what was wrong with his computer.

By the way, the brand failed miserably.

I blamed it on Sam Ellias.

(Another story about Edgar Sr. and Chivas Regal can be found elsewhere on this blog – August 7, 2011, titled “Chivas Gin?”)

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