12 August 2013, 12:49
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The King of Caviar

Petrossian Company - the largest distributor of the Russian sturgeon caviar in France and in the U.S. – controls more than 15% of the global market. The general manager, Armen Petrossian, a Frenchman of an Armenian descent fondly known as “the King of Caviar,” talks with us about the specifics of his business.

For centuries caviar was considered a Russian product, and yet today there is talk of French, Chinese, American, and even Israeli caviar. What do you think is the cause of the trend of “globalization”?
In order to give you an answer to this question I have to tell you about the three periods of the development of the caviar business. The first was the Russian Tsar’s period – when the entire trade was in the hands of five Russian families including the Mailovs, to whom my mother belongs. The second period, the Soviet era, was when everything that was related to caviar was controlled by the state. During that period the caviar business expanded first into France, and then throughout Europe. Incidentally, the first exporters of Russian caviar were my father and my uncle. Finally, we are in the third period, the post-Soviet era. This period began when each of the former Soviet republics took direct control over the sturgeon and caviar fishing industries in their territories. Because the industry was not completely developed or controlled by the government, smugglers soon came to dominate the trade in caviar using gray markets. The sturgeon was soon at the brink of extinction. To prevent that 165 countries signed the Washington Convention of 1998, including Russia and other countries of the Commonwealth. The important outcome of the Convention was the decision to establish strict control over the sturgeon and caviar industry.
As a result of the Convention, sturgeon is now farm-raised, and the new “cultivated” caviar is produced. This is why caviar can now be Chinese or French or Israeli. According to statistical data, in 1998 only 500 kg of black caviar was raised through aquaculture worldwide. Today that number is 60 metric tons per year. Although the cultivated caviar is of generally good quality, it will never have the same taste as the natural. These differences in quality also explain the price variations in the market, which offers many types of caviar from various types of osetra (sturgeon).

You are considered a world class specialist of caviar, but which one is your personal favorite?
For me caviar represents much more than just a food product. The sales process for me is not just a transaction; it also is a creative process. Aside from the caviar business, I also manage the importation of a complete line of other culinary products and spices. I am very interested in anything that is related to the culinary arts, starting with the soil in which a product is grown and ending with the recipes in which it is featured.

You are a gourmet!
I am more than that, a gourmet enjoys the food that is already on the table, but I enjoy the food long before the it is served. I am right at the beginning of the food chain: I am interested not only in the product itself, but also how it came into being, who identified the culinary value of a product, where it was originally discovered, etc. My clients buy the history of the product from me, and I take great pleasure in all these associated factors.

You are a very successful businessman. What qualities does one have to possess in order to achieve for success in business?
I believe there can be no business without honesty. A lot of people think that a successful business requires the ability to step over everything and everyone, attaining material wealth for himself. But in reality, a good business is an establishment of long-term goodwill relationships between the salesman and the client. For that, one has to take into consideration interests of all the parties in the transaction and respect them. Of course, starting a business one also has to correctly assess his own capabilities – excessive ambitions without a real foundation will always lead to a failure.

The curtains in your store are reminiscent of the colors of the Armenian flag.
That’s right. This year France celebrates the Year of Armenia, and I wanted to emphasize my ethnic background. I was born and raised in France, and in some sense I am more of a Frenchman than an Armenian, but this doesn’t mean that I have forgotten where I came from, and where my roots are. I have never lost my connection to Armenia, although it wasn’t an easy task at times. The Diaspora has always supported Armenians in our Historic Motherland, although this support was not always overt or official, because during the Soviet era this kind of support was banned. We wanted to help, but we did not want to get involved in politics, as open support of an independent Armenia would complicate the business partnership with the USSR. This why everything was done secretly, without publicity.

Last year you visited Armenia with Jacques Chirac. Was it your first visit to your historic Motherland?
No, actually I have been in Armenia before, but this time it was my first visit to the independent State of Armenia. I have to confess that the change was staggering. It’s a completely different country.

Do you perceive yourself more of an Armenian as it is today than you did with the Armenia of the Soviet era?
Objectively, modern day Armenia is closer to me spiritually. But I should say that even before, we were happy that there was an Armenia bound to the USSR. Also we now have our own territory, we have Karabakh.

Are you in business partnerships with Armenia?
We have undeniable business partnership perspectives. But first of all, the mentality of some Armenian businessmen should change. This relates to their attitudes to the quality of the product. For example, the potential partner offers you potatoes, and you are saying that the offered potatoes have spots on them, and this is why you don’t want the potatoes. He responds that, yes, the potatoes have spots, but that is why he is offering them for a lesser price. Unfortunately, in the market I serve, I don’t want anything for a lesser price; I prefer to pay more in order to have an Armenian product of perfect quality, which would sell out immediately in France.
Nevertheless, I am actively looking for Armenian products that could be of interest to the French consumer. With that in mind I have visited Armenia, criss-crossing its regions many times over. I covered one thousand, five hundred kilometers, which, you will agree, is not an easy task considering the quality of roads in Armenia. All of my travels were conducted to study the quality and variety of products that my motherland had to offer. The problem may also be in difference of tastes. For example, people in Armenia like the jelly made of sweet kinds of apricots, but in France people prefer it made of less sweet types. It means that from the whole range of various types, as businessmen we must choose the one that is in demand in France. That is time-consuming, but it’s a task that brings me pleasure, and believe me, not just for the money. I want to sell in my store true Armenian products and not, for instance, Australian apricots, although frankly, I like them a lot.

You took part in financing of the exposition and the catalogue publication of the “Holly Armenia” at the Louvres, within the context of the Year of Armenia. Are you a religious man?
I have faith in Good and Evil, and God’s fairness, but I don’t believe in miracles. For me the highest creature is an abstract idea, more of a philosophical nature. But I know one thing – there is no Armenia without its Church. It is a unifying link between all Armenians, particularly to the Armenians of the Diaspora. That explains my participation in the project.

In your opinion, how successful was the “ Year of Armenia” in France”?
I salute any positive initiative. Amazing work was done by all participating parties - the Armenian government, the Commission of the Year of the Armenia in France, and the Armenian Diaspora. Each of us had a special connection to the event, and experienced it in our own way. Was everything organized perfectly? It is easy to criticize, but I will refrain from it. Most importantly, it served to improve the image of the modern Armenia, and brought all of us, Armenian citizens and the Armenians of the Diaspora, together. The Days of Armenia in France are already a good tradition, and I would like to make every year in France a Year of Armenia.

Yerevan Magazine, Winter, N3, 2008

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