Indian-born Ivan Menezes, who steered global drinks giant Diageo for a decade and was hailed as one of finest business leaders of his generation, has died in London at the age of 63 following a brief illness.

Menezes, who was awarded a knighthood in March in King Charles’ first New Year Honours list, was a graduate of Delhi’s St Stephen’s College and the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad.

He had been chief executive since 2013 of the FTSE 100 company, which owns a string of big-name brands from Gordon’s and Tanqueray gins, Smirnoff vodka, and whiskies, including the world’s top-selling scotch Johnnie Walker, Lagavulin and India’s best-seller, McDowell’s.

Menezes was credited with driving the company’s global growth and positioning it as a top premium drinks’ leader.

‘True gentleman’

Aside from being respected for his business acumen, Menezes was hugely popular among Diageo employees and the corporate community at large. “We are truly privileged to have had the opportunity to work alongside such a thoughtful and passionate colleague and friend – a true gentleman. He has built an extraordinary legacy,” said Diageo chairman Javier Ferran.

Menezes’ particular genius was to spy early the opportunity for “premiumisation of the drinks industry”, betting that consumers would migrate to pricier liquor brands as living standards rose not only in Western countries, but in India and other rapidly developing emerging markets.

After graduating from IIM-A, Menezes worked for Nestle in India and later got an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Illinois. From there, he went to work for the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton in Chicago, then went to Milan with Whirlpool Europe. Afterward, he joined Guinness as a strategist in 1997, helping oversee its merger with Grand Metropolitan that led to Diageo’s creation.

A canny strategist, Menezes engineered the revival of the Johnnie Walker whiskey brand, considered at the time an older person’s drink. Developing the now iconic ‘Keep Walking’ advertising campaign that’s still in use today, he turned Johnnie Walker into a drink consumed by young and old alike.

“Diageo was in poor shape when Ivan took over; now, it’s one of the most impressive companies,” said RBC Capital Markets.

While a formidable business leader – Diageo’s share price almost doubled during his tenure – Menezes was no slouch on the environmental front. Diageo became one of the top one per cent of firms worldwide to earn a Double A rating from CDP – earlier known as the Carbon Disclosure Project – for climate change and water security.

Among the other achievements of which he was proud of was Diageo’s inclusion and diversity projects that made the company No 1 in Britain and No 2 globally in Equileap’s 22023 Gender Equality Report. His services to business and his track record on inclusion and diversity were cited by Buckingham Palace as the reasons for his knighthood. Women now occupy over 40 per cent of Diageo’s senior leadership positions globally while 37 per cent are ethnically diverse. “Culture [at Diageo] has been the biggest transformation,” said Menezes.

“Aside from being a consummate professional, one of the most successful business leaders of his generation, he was a warm and caring human being,” said Mark Kent, chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association.

Menezes, who leaves behind his wife Shibani and his two children, Rohini and Nikhil, was born in Pune. He was the youngest of four children. His father, Manuel Menezes, was chairman of the Indian Railway Board while his mother, Nina, was a music and French teacher.

Ivan’s elder brother, Victor, served as chairman and chief executive of Citibank. An enthusiastic cricket fan, he followed the Indian Premier League closely. Diageo owns the Royal Challengers Bangalore or RCB, called after its Indian whiskey.

Menezes, who died in hospital after developing complications following emergency surgery on an ulcer, has been replaced as chief executive by former Reynolds American tobacco boss Debra Crew, 52. Crew, a former US army officer, is expected to continue Menezes’ legacy of persuading consumers to switch to costly spirits from wine and beer.