Diageo’s new chief executive Debra Crew has taken up the position a month earlier than expected after the company said outgoing leader Sir Ivan Menezes was in hospital recovering from emergency surgery.
The drinks group said on Monday that Crew would commence as interim chief executive with immediate effect, ahead of her planned July 1 start date in the permanent role, following setbacks in Menezes’ recovery from medical conditions including a stomach ulcer.
“Our thoughts are with our much-loved colleague, Ivan, and his family,” the company said in a statement.
Diageo announced in March that Menezes was stepping down after 10 years running the group. During his tenure he prioritised a push into high-end brands and expanded Diageo’s portfolio with big-name acquisitions.
The appointment of Crew makes the producer of Johnnie Walker whisky and Smirnoff vodka one of a handful of FTSE 100 companies with a woman at the helm.
Before her appointment to chief operating officer last October, Crew ran Diageo’s operations in North America, the company’s largest market, and has previously held positions at consumer goods groups including PepsiCo, Kraft Heinz, Nestlé and Mars.
Crew, who has also served as a US military officer, takes over at a rocky time for the drinksmaker. In a January trading update Diageo reported slowing growth in North America, raising concerns that a coronavirus surge in expensive spirits sales was beginning to abate.
Diageo’s revenues have, for the most part, been resilient in the face of record inflation as consumers continue to spend money on higher-end alcohol despite trading down to cheaper food and household products. But Menezes warned that the “operating environment remains challenging”.
Last week, a drinks company owned by Sean Combs, known as P Diddy, sued Diageo for alleged racial discrimination, arguing the company had not adequately invested in brands associated with the rapper and that it had “treated Mr Combs and his brands worse than others because he is black”. Combs’s brands include Cîroc vodka and DeLeón tequila.
Diageo categorically denied the allegations, describing the differences between the companies as a “business dispute”. It said: “We are saddened that Mr Combs has chosen to recast this matter as anything other than that.”
Diageo has fuelled growth in recent years with brand acquisitions such as its $1bn deal to buy George Clooney’s Casamigos tequila and its purchase of Don Julio tequila in 2014. Tequila has been an important profit driver for the company, making up more than half the group’s growth since 2018.
At the time of her appointment, Crew said she would focus on “continuing Diageo’s extraordinary record of building world-leading brands”, while seeking to enhance its reputation as a “responsible business”.