Alliance Boot's Yves Romestan, the mega-merger marriage counsellor

Alliance Boots' group comms director will need all his experience during the firm's mega-merger with Walgreens, finds Alec Mattinson.

Long shelf life: Romestan's priority is to make its brand truly global
Long shelf life: Romestan's priority is to make its brand truly global

To lead comms through one sector-defining mega-deal would be enough for most; to be in the middle of a second looks like it is becoming a habit. The merger of European-based pharmacy giant Alliance Boots with US contemporary Walgreens will create the world's first truly global pharmacy group, with 400,000 people and 20,000 stores in 40 countries across the globe.

Yves Romestan is at the heart of the operation to ensure it all goes according to plan. Alliance Boots' French-born group comms chief is under no illusions as to the task.

Walgreens took a 45 per cent stake in Alliance Boots in August 2012 and subsequently the two parties have established a joint venture, with Boots' flagship No 7 products now sold in Walgreens' stores. However, a fully realised merger between the two brands is still two years away, with the partnership 'still at its beginning'.

'It's like a relationship,' Romestan explains. 'You meet, you go out, discuss your future, get engaged and then finally you get married.'

He jokes that the French translation of 'equals' sounds rather like 'egos' (egaux) and has proven unfortunately appropriate in many so-called mergers of equals in the past. He points to the disastrous DaimlerChrysler union as a warning, noting: 'Sixty to 70 per cent of mergers fail.'

Romestan speaks from experience, having led comms during Alliance Boots' creation - when British-listed high street institution Boots merged with his Alliance UniChem in 2006 - and other major deals he has worked on throughout his career.

'Yves is exactly the kind of diligent, detailed, dedicated communicator you need in a big and complex organisation,' says Jayne Mayled, owner and MD at retail and brand agency Jupiter, who led corporate comms on the Boots side of the merger with Alliance UniChem. 'And he does it with steely and charming Gallic flair,' she adds.

When it comes to the merger, Romestan talks of the importance of tearing down any Chinese walls that exist between the two firms. 'If you have a huge partition between the two entities, you will struggle to create a shared culture,' he says. 'If internal business life is dominated by power games and politics, you can unconsciously develop a civil war. New shared culture is not based on one culture above another; it must be fuelled by the best of each.'

Such a process, he admits, has its problems. After the initial Alliance Boots merger, he remembers that the walls remained and internal politics reigned. Just a year later, chairman Stefano Pessina - someone he has deep admiration for - felt the only way to address this was to take the firm private.

The new regime took effect in July 2007, when Romestan recalls driving back from Boots' Nottingham HQ in the middle of severe flooding. 'Rainy weddings make happy marriages,' he jokes.

It has not been completely plain sailing since. Notably, the firm found itself the target of UK Uncut in 2011, with protesters forcing the closure of the firm's flagship store in Oxford Street amid accusations that the group was headquartered in Switzerland to avoid paying corporation tax in the UK. He says it took many months to explain fully how the group was structured and how the Boots brand fits into the wider activities of a truly international firm.

Romestan, unlike many, did not enter the profession by coincidence. Looking for a job that combined his interests in law, journalism and the civil service, he chose to enter the nascent corporate comms industry in 1979 and a sector right at its heart.

'The development of PR and corporate comms was really boosted by oil and gas companies in the 1980s,' he says, recalling his time with French oil giant Total. 'They were confronted with so many issues (the second OPEC crisis) that they had to be equipped with the right strategies and people to overcome those situations.'

After almost 35 years in top comms roles spanning oil, energy, banking, construction and pharma, Romestan sees communicators as having to embrace contradictory qualities: fast but reliable; adaptable but resolute; focusing on the big picture, but paying attention to detail.

However, there are few contradictions with his current focus. Everything comes back to international growth and expansion of the group through mergers and acquisition.

'The top priority is to make our brands and services truly global during the next few years,' he says, with the firm's sights trained specifically on emerging Latin American and Asian markets. Romestan does not just pay lip service to this - he speaks Thai and is learning Mandarin.

Fittingly, Romestan is the epitome of the internationalist. He splits his home with his wife and children between London and Paris, but he dismisses that significance as 'almost nothing'. After all, his team is drawn from ten nationalities.

He has found that in some ways Britain is more accommodating to his tastes than his native land. 'I believe there are a higher number of fans of Bordeaux wine here in Great Britain,' he says.

Even his love of vintage cars is satiated in Surrey, as he talks excitedly of seeing two 'immaculate' Citroen DS cars in a petrol station in Cobham. Whether the Chinese or Americans share his passion for French vineyards and automotive expertise remains to be seen, but one senses Romestan will enjoy finding out.

CV

2007 Director of group comms, Alliance Boots

2003 Director of group comms, Alliance UniChem

2000 Director of external relations, Bouygues Construction

1998 Director of corporate comms, Brandt Group

1993 Director of external comms, Lafarge Group

1992 External comms general manager, Groupe Banques Populaires

1990 Head of PR, CEA Group

1979 Head of media relations, Total Group

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

Joining Alliance Boots and relocating to the UK to design and develop a comms strategy that has contributed to the expansion of the firm. Working for Total and Lafarge was also very stimulating.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Within the business, clearly Stefano Pessina and Ornella Barra (CEO of the pharmaceutical wholesale division of Alliance Healthcare) for their outstanding and inspiring leadership.

What advice would you give people climbing the career ladder?

To be driven by a genuine desire to contribute and make a difference, with an approach made up of modesty and integrity.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

Team spirit, appetite, energy, enthusiasm, commitment, courage, creativity and extensive agility. But more importantly, good common sense and a sense of humour are essential.

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