When the storied Irish stout maker Guinness merged with hotel and catering conglomerate Grand Metropolitan in 1997, Indian-born marketer Ivan Menezes was the man tasked with integrating the two companies and their disparate stable of brands. The result of the merger was Diageo, the premium drinks giant behind Johnnie Walker whisky, Tanqueray gin and Smirnoff vodka.
Sir Ivan Menezes, who has died aged 63, was a towering figure in the drinks industry. He led Diageo for a decade, during which time he overhauled the company’s portfolio to focus on high-growth premium brands, made a string of star-studded acquisitions and championed diversity and inclusion at the company and across the sector.
Paul Walsh, who Menezes succeeded as chief executive in 2013, and who had worked with him since Diageo’s inception, described him as a man who combined intellect and human empathy. “To succeed at that level of course he had the brights, but he also had the human touch. He saw trends and jumped on them,” said Walsh, now chair of McLaren, the supercar and racing group. “He wasn’t afraid to challenge things the previous leadership had put in place.”
Ivan Menezes was born in 1959, in Pune, western India. He attended St Mary’s School in Mount Abu, followed by St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, where he studied economics and maths and met his wife, Shibani. He then went on to gain a postgraduate degree in management at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad.
The drinks boss began his career at Nestlé in India in the early 1980s, leaving to do a further postgraduate degree in marketing and finance at the JL Kellogg School of Management in Illinois. He was hired as a management consultant by Booz Allen Hamilton in 1985, before joining Whirlpool Corporation as vice-president, group marketing. Following the merger that created Diageo, Menezes held a series of senior roles at the drinksmaker, before he was appointed chief executive in 2013.
Menezes’s tenure got off to a rocky start as Diageo sold off less profitable parts of the business, and struggled to grow sales in the US and emerging markets. The group made a chunky £191mn loss when it disposed of much of its wine business in 2015. But the focus on premium brands such as Johnnie Walker and Guinness paid off. During the past decade, Diageo’s share price has doubled.
As Menezes’s leadership progressed, he boosted growth with a series of high-profile acquisitions such as Don Julio tequila in 2015 and George Clooney’s Casamigos tequila, bought in 2017 in a deal worth up to $1bn. The purchase was met with scepticism at the time, but proved successful. Casamigos was the fastest-growing tequila brand in the US at the end of 2022 and Diageo is now the number one tequila player globally.
Menezes couldn’t pick a favourite drink, said his colleagues, but he had a particular passion for Johnnie Walker and Guinness. He was rarely seen without a lapel pin, either of the Guinness shield or the Johnnie Walker striding man. The father of two had “a huge sentimental attachment” to Guinness, said Trevor Stirling, analyst at Bernstein, who also worked with Menezes at the start of his career.
A longstanding council member, and eventual chair of the Scotch Whisky Association, Menezes poured more than £1bn of investment into Scottish whisky, reopening two long closed ‘ghost distilleries’ in Brora and Port Ellen, as well as a Johnnie Walker visitor experience in Edinburgh.
Karen Betts, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, and former boss of the Scotch Whisky Association, said, “What really changed during his time was responsible drinking. He was a big advocate and understood that the spirits sector needed to take responsible drinking seriously to survive.” Diageo’s commitment on this aligns with its long-term premiumisation strategy, designed to encourage consumers to “drink better, not more”.
Betts added that Menezes did a huge amount to bring young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into the Scotch industry through Movement to Work, a collaboration of businesses committed to tackling youth unemployment. Menezes felt strongly about diversity and pushed for greater inclusion internally: over 40 per cent of Diageo’s leadership positions globally are held by women, while 37 per cent are ethnically diverse.
Colleagues at Diageo and across the industry describe Menezes as a humble and courteous man, the antithesis of a flashy CEO. When he was working from the London headquarters, he would eat in the staff canteen and sit down and chat to employees on their lunch break.
Menezes was also an avid cricket fan, and a prolific theatre goer, attending plays with his wife up to twice a week when he was in London. He was awarded a knighthood for services to business and to equality in the 2023 New Year honours list.
Unilever chief executive Alan Jope said that when he was first appointed, Menezes reached out to share his wisdom. “It was a characteristically kind and generous act by a true gentleman and leader. Unnecessary but deeply valuable and appreciated.”
“He was enormously approachable, he had a joyful life, a sense of energy and optimism,” said Diageo chair Javier Ferrán. “We’ve lost a great leader and an outstanding colleague — and for many of us a dear friend.”