The Fabric of Legacy: Maurice Hennessy on Growing Up in the Family’s Cognac Maison
Instilling a business with a founder’s vision, values and philosophy is an important aspect of generational success—something that both Maurice Hennessy, the eighth generation of his family in the illustrious Cognac maison, and Judy Spalthoff, head of UBS’ Family and Philanthropy Advisory team, know quite a bit about. Both recently joined Jim McCann, chairman of Worth and chairman and founder of 1-800-FLOWERS, along with Worth CEO Juliet Scott-Croxford, for the inaugural session of our Families of Worth series, where we discussed what it takes to create a lasting legacy.
As part of a family business that dates back to 1765, Maurice didn’t always plan to follow in his ancestors’ footsteps. “When I was an age to go to university, the last thing I wanted to do was to be in Cognac and have anything to do with the business,” Maurice, whose father was a nuclear scientist and “not too interested in business” said. “I wanted to be a farmer…what you would call a rancher.” Nonetheless, Maurice still felt the weight of his family’s legacy, growing up in Cognac and watching his grandfather run the maison for decades.
“The ancestral home of the Hennessys was purchased, I think, in 1791. So, it’s full of Hennessys, and it’s still full of Hennessys,” Maurice explained. “There are stories in the stone, there are stories in the garden, there are stories everywhere—they are living. Plus, the fact that when I was young, my grandfather was a bit my master for everything to do with Cognac, although he didn’t convince me so much before I sort of decided to join in. But he…there was this sort of sense of honesty and courage and generosity and interest in modernity and courage. My grandfather probably ran the firm, more or less, since the end of World War I until 1965. So, he had to face prohibition in your country, the devaluation of the pound sterling and the worst, World War II with the Germans at home. So, you know, when you face someone like that, he would have things to say, but he told me a few tricks.”
It’s stories like these Spalthoff says is so important for the legacy of family businesses.
“The story is the fabric of our legacy and the fabric of our family,” Spalthoff added. “And, you know, if we don’t hold on to that and talk about it and talk about it and retell those stories, we lose it a little bit.”
After an internship with Hennessy’s distribution company in Paris, Maurice spent two years in Africa before returning to France to start his career with Hennessy in 1975. Today, he serves as an international brand ambassador for the Cognac empire and, although technically retired, continues to work on his farm, which is among the approximately 700 suppliers of Hennessy.
“It’s not really about what you do, or how you do it. It’s why you do it,” Spalthoff explained. “Why does 1-800-FLOWERS exist, right? It’s to bring joy and bring beauty and things like that. And I’m sure, creating Cognac isn’t just the end game, right? It’s for people to gather and things like that. It’s the same thing at UBS. We invest people’s assets for preservation, but if that’s all we cared about then it would be really hard to motivate and to get out of bed and sort of be excited for that every day. Really, it’s about helping people achieve their short-term, long-term and legacy goals through their wealth preservation and through their wealth growth. So, it’s in that partnership and that relationship-building, it’s all about, you know, how you make people feel…versus just the what and the how you do it.”