(Refiles to fix headline to read Ricard)
* Ricard family man to become company Chairman and CEO
* New boss seen balancing needs of family, outside investors
* China and the United States pose challenges
By Dominique Vidalon and Pascale Denis
PARIS, Feb 9 (Reuters) - Alexandre Ricard becomes head of Pernod Ricard on Wednesday, putting the founding family back in charge of the world’s second-largest spirits maker when growth in its two key markets has slowed.
Investor expectations are high, with the company’s shares outperforming rivals and having hit a record peak last month.
To live up to those hopes, Ricard must pep up the performance in the United States and China and has only limited firepower for acquisitions.
Ricard’s grandfather Paul launched the company in Marseille in 1932 when he created the aniseed-flavoured Ricard spirit. With 14 percent of the capital and 20 percent of voting rights, the Ricard family remains the company’s largest shareholder.
Alexandre Ricard’s appointment as chairman and chief executive puts the family back in charge of day-to-day management for the first time since 2008.
It will be rubberstamped by a board meeting on Wednesday on the eve of the release of first half results.
The new boss made his mark as chairman and CEO of Pernod-Ricard subsidiary Irish Distillers Group in 2008-2011, where he doubled sales of Jameson whiskey.
Despite his heritage, some analysts believe Ricard, 42, will strike a better balance between the family interests and those of a broader shareholder base thanks to his international background and banking experience.
“I think it will be a new era,” said one, contrasting Ricard’s vibrant personality with the more distant old-school French style of former CEO Pierre Pringuet, 65.
In China, the group’s big sales and profit engine, economic growth is slowing and a government clampdown on extravagant spending has hurt premium spirits demand. In response, Pernod Ricard has launched the less expensive Martell Noblige cognac.
In the United States, the world’s biggest spirits market, Absolut vodka, the group’s largest brand, is struggling, as trendy drinkers turn to brown spirits like bourbon and niche vodka brands like Texas-based Tito’s Handmade Vodka.
“The two biggest challenges Alexandre Ricard has are seeing China through growth again and sorting out Absolut in the United States,” said Bernstein analyst Trevor Stirling.
Ricard who also has Chivas Regal scotch whisky and Martell cognac also in his portfolio, summed up the task last November. “Top line growth is the mother of all battles,” he told shareholders.
Fortified by a decade long acquisition spree that turned a French family business into a global giant with 8 billion euros ($9 billion) of annual sales, Pernod-Ricard’s ambition is to knock Britain’s Diageo off the top spot.
But debt of 8.4 billion at end-June 2014 after the 5.7 billion euros 2008 purchase of Sweden’s Vin & Sprit, owner of Absolut, limits further big M&A moves.
Pernod is focused on small bolt-on deals, notably in the U.S., where it lacks a big-selling brown spirit, and in emerging markets. Analysts peg its firepower at 1.5-2.3 billion euros.
Family-controlled groups are a feature of the drinks industry. France’s Remy Contreau, U.S. drinks company Brown Forman, and the beer giants Anheuser-Busch InBev, Heineken, and Carlsberg are other examples.
“The succession was well prepared. His arrival at the helm will mean a continuation of the strategy,” said Emeric Preaubert, portfolio manager at Sycomore Asset Management.
Ricard earned an MBA at University of Pennsylvannia’s elite Wharton school and joined the group in 2003 after stints with consulting firm Accenture and in takeover banking with Morgan Stanley. He was named deputy CEO in August 2012 after the sudden death of his uncle Patrick Ricard, then chairman.
Despite the enthusiasm his appointment has generated, Ricard has his work cut out keeping up the momentum after heady growth in the four decades since Ricard merged with Pernod, another aniseed brand, in 1975.
It snapped up brands around the globe, including Irish Distillers, home to Jameson whisky, in 1988, Seagram Co. Ltd. in 2001, Allied Domecq Plc owner of Mumm and Perrier Jouet champagnes in 2005, and then Vin & Sprit in 2008.
“He is going to be very exposed and observed, including by his family in a more and more challenging economic climate with a stock price at a high,” said Ian Gallienne, Managing Director of the Groupe Bruxelles Lambert, which with a 7.5 percent stake, is one of the main non-family shareholders. ($1 = 0.8839 euros) (Reporting by Dominique Vidalon, Pascale Denis,additional reporting By Alexandre Boksenbaum-Granier in Paris and Martinne Geller in London; Editing by Andrew Callus and Keith Weir)