Farewell To Don St.Pierre Snr; China Wine Expat Extraordinaire
By Chris Devonshire-Ellis
Don St.Pierre, the legendary China expat and source of multiple well-known business legends in China and the United States, has died at his home in Thailand.
Don featured prominently, if not in name but certainly in reputation in China. His was the story that lit up the early ‘How not to do business in China’ in the tale of ‘Beijing Jeep‘, which he was instrumental in setting up as a JV in Beijing. (Note to Paul French: John Mann was the book’s ghost writer, not an employee or investor.)
With Chrysler’s Lee Iococca: St.Pierre set about plans to manufacture Jeep kits in China, in one of the very first China-US JV’s. Needless to say, with a lack of foreign investment experience on both sides, the business soon ran into difficulties, both cultural and financial, as China was emerging from the Cultural Revolution and the United States was the world’s premier auto-capitalist economy. Ergo, the headline “We should never have invited our Chinese partners to Las Vegas” where a sheepish Chinese CEO admitted they’d blown US$1 million of the company money on the gambling tables. American corporate business development policies meanwhile crashed into a lack of China’s state development policies at the time, woefully under-prepared in handling the needs of marketing, distributing and selling cars at a time when most Chinese travelled by bicycle.
After that, St.Pierre (although not mentioned by name, due to fears of lawsuits being issued) was a key component in the story of ‘Mr. China‘ in which Tim Clissold describes the goings on at another US venture, ASIMCO. Headed up by Jack Perkowski, (Mr. China) and funded by US$400 million of Wall Street money, St.Pierre was a fundamental part of the investment management team, along with Clissold, who essentially blew the lot. Perkowski had to go hand in hand back to Wall Street and ask for more. (Eventually he succeeded in China, with that story contained in ‘Managing The Dragon‘).
St.Pierre’s involvement in ASIMCO’s initial splurge, brought in to provide expertise, was in some ways a continuation of the Beijing Jeep scenario and the US corporate approach of ‘Throw enough money at it and it’ll stick’ attitude at the time. For people who had been through a revolution, that was a recipe for disaster. Even the Chinese government failed to deal with the multitude of inventive ways local Chinese ‘businessmen’ could come up with to part cash from its owner, an issue that was never effectively bought under control until the later years of President Hu Jintao’s leadership.
St.Pierre eventually got out of cars and factories and into wines when he set up ASC Fine Wines, along with his son, Don Junior, and a couple of trusted local employees he’d worked for in the past. ASC started out working with Great Wall Wines in China, then gradually began tentative imports. At the time, wine drinking wasn’t part of Chinese culture at all. Expensive dinners were drunk with French Cognac, and lesser ones with Baijiu, Tequila’s bad ass Chinese cousin.
Don caught the market as tastes were becoming refined, with ASC beginning a rapid climb to become China’s top wine importer. He and his son worked extremely hard on their distribution and sales channels; and began scooping up fine wine distributorships from around the world, where bemused high quality vineyard owners, unaccustomed to the potential of China’s huge market, awarded the St.Pierre’s their China distribution rights. It was a strategy that paid off handsomely.
I have many fond memories of Don during this time, some which will remain unpublished (at least for now) with fun evenings at the Beijing Capital Club, Maggies and the internal audit I did to prepare ASC for sale to a fortunately understanding corporate auditor being just a few. Those who were there will recognise those days and raise a glass.
The St.Pierre’s eventually sold ASC, with some equity retention, via the Swarovski Family Trust, and later to one of Japan’s largest alcohol distributors. Don spent the last decade retired, playing golf near his luxury villa in Phuket. It is the development and success of ASC that remains Don’s true legacy – the man who single-handedly changed an entire nation’s drinking habits – and brought fine wines to China.
Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the Founding Partner and Chairman of Dezan Shira & Associates.
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