• April 21, 2024

New pastures

 New pastures

Retiring from Mane, industry icon Roger Penn will continue to serve tobacco companies and others as a consultant.

By George Gay

“When I got back, Mom asked how the exams had gone, and I said, ‘The lunch was great.’”

There is something about this sentence that seems at first sight to encapsulate the person who uttered it: Roger Penn, who recently semi-retired after a distinguished career in the tobacco flavors business to go out on his own as a part-time consultant. The whole sentence, spoken in response to a question about his early education, suggests, correctly, that he is never too far away from a flippant aside, while the reference to lunch is a pointer to the love of flavors and tastes that has guided him throughout his professional and personal lives.

But the sentence is also misleading because it conceals the tenacity with which Penn, who was born near Wolverhampton, England, eventually pursued his education, which culminated in his obtaining a doctorate in teratology and medicinal chemistry. After the examination hiccup that the opening sentence implies, the teenage Penn mixed work and study to pass—with high merit—the exams that would allow him to take a degree at Hatfield Polytechnic in what was known as a sandwich course: two years at the polytechnic followed by one working in industry and a final year back at college. After gaining a Bachelor of Science with honors in medicinal chemistry, he was invited to stay on to work on his doctorate and be part of a new medicinal chemistry group set up by the polytechnic’s chemistry and pharmacology readers, where he studied toxicology/teratology and where his interest in toxicity was awakened.

Illuminating experiences

The opening sentence is misleading, too, because it belies the seriousness with which Penn discusses matters that are important to him, such as regulation. “I have been totally consistent over the years,” he said in response to a question about increasing tobacco industry regulations. “I am totally for regulation—informed regulation, but not the sorts of laws that are made without any scientific validation or substantiation. Certainly I welcome the provisions within the TPD2 [the EU’s most recent Tobacco Products Directive] that seek to oust the cowboys operating in the e-liquids area. And the same can be said about the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] in the U.S. But unfortunately you also get the uninformed stuff.”

Regulation is one area where Penn might work as a consultant, though this would possibly involve operating outside the tobacco industry, which he hasn’t ruled out. “You have to ask yourself what you can take to other industries, and one obvious answer has to do with regulation because we’ve already been through the regulation mill,” he said.

No doubt, however, his long career in the tobacco industry included experiences that other industries might well find illuminating. For instance, he has seen and been part of the massive drive toward consolidation in respect of tobacco manufacturers and their suppliers, so he is well-versed in the new ways of working that such consolidation has brought about. And he, along with the rest of the industry, has had to navigate often hostile regulatory and social environments—a navigation that in recent times, with the advent of reduced-risk products, has seen the tobacco supertanker turn 180 degrees and head for calmer waters.

Penn has been part of an industry that has gradually worked to stricter standards, with many of those standards being self-imposed. And he has worked with manufacturers whose production speeds rose to heady heights when long-run cigarette brands were all the go, and he has worked with them as those speeds have come down as the focus has turned toward niche products and, especially, next-generation products. Finally, his has been a truly international career, during which he was closely involved in the opening-up to Western influences of the tobacco industries of the USSR and China.

But almost certainly most of his consultancy work will be linked with the tobacco flavors business, in which he has specialized almost since finishing his doctorate.

“With the experience I have had working with tobacco companies around the world, I think I can offer a range of services or inputs,” he said. “The first one would be evaluations of R&D projects and products. I could help with policy decisions, in particular with those concerning emerging technologies. I could mediate in management policies in respect of R&D programs. And finally, I could bring an outsider’s perspective to companies’ brainstorming sessions.”

That is quite an offering, and it is hard to avoid the idea that Penn is going to have his work cut out not winding up with a full-time job in consulting, though he is adamant that he doesn’t expect his door to be broken down. At the same time, he cannot be blamed for being curious about where the consultancy might lead. “If you’re working for a company,” he said, “you find out what you’re worth when you leave that company.”

But he should have no concerns in that regard. His qualifications are impressive, as are the range of collaborative projects he has worked on. He was involved in what was the first heat-not-burn product, Premier, which was developed by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco in the U.S. in the 1980s. And while the product was not a success, it had at its base an idea whose time would come and for which Penn was already primed.

Adding value

But Penn sees as one of his biggest contributions to the tobacco industry the work he did in providing, through the application of flavors, consumer satisfaction in respect of low-delivery products. And while low-delivery products have attracted controversy because of what some people see as their unwarranted link with ideas of “lower risk,” these products have been embraced enthusiastically by consumers. Low-delivery cigarettes have become part of every market and the mainstays of some markets.

Penn has collaborated in many commercial undertakings, but he has also given his time over many years to noncommercial collaborations within the scientific bodies, such as Coresta. And he has provided much input also into events that, while they include science, are also about regulations and policies, such as TMA conferences and the annual Global Tobacco & Nicotine Forum.

The experience he has brought to these collaborations is immense partly because his working life has been spent almost entirely within the tobacco industry. His first job, however, the one at which he worked for three years while studying part time for the exams that would get him on to his degree course, was at the family-run firm Manders Paint, which at that time was an international paint and printing ink company. And on obtaining his doctorate, he went to work for Unilever’s flavor company, Food Industries, which tasked him with setting up a laboratory but where he worked also on food additives toxicology.

After three years at Unilever, he moved to British American Tobacco’s (BAT) Group R&D division in Southampton, England, which at the time was looking for a flavor specialist with a toxicology background. “I was there for six and a half years,” said Penn. “I had this wonderful mentor or trainer, Ted Aulty, from the BAT Liverpool factory who basically trained me over five years as a tobacco flavorist—who trained me in the 1,000 raw materials that you had to know and use in those days. So there was the research side with the analysis, there was the flavor creation side—that’s where I really got into it—and also the manufacturing of flavors for BAT operating companies around the world.”

Penn’s next move, to Firmenich, saw him take on a more commercial role within the tobacco flavors business. “Firmenich at the time were doing a lot of chemical synthesis and tobacco analysis in order to build up their sales of tobacco flavoring,” he said. “But while they had brilliant chemists, they had nobody much to show their products to potential customers or to discuss with customers what they needed and then retrofit them. So I was taken on in the marketing department in Geneva to commercialize the fruits of all of their research work.”

The move to Geneva meant, of course, a move to a French-speaking city, though this was more of an upheaval for Penn’s young family because he was to spend much of his time traveling, mainly to the Americas. At that stage, U.S. manufacturers were spending a lot of money on what they considered to be expensive oriental tobacco, and what they wanted to do was to reduce that cost using liquid flavors.

Penn stayed in Geneva for seven years and then moved to the U.S. when Firmenich decided it wanted to beef up its operation in Princeton, New Jersey, where he spent 4 1/2 years. “It was a great time for the kids,” he said. “Princeton was a great school area, and they were in their early teens. It was the American experience. Everybody should spend at least one year in an American industrial environment. It is totally different to Europe, mainly because of the scale. Everything is 20 times bigger than in Europe.”

Penn left Firmenich when the company decided to pull out of the tobacco business and joined International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) in what was a natural move. Whereas his journey to Firmenich had involved him leaving his house, turning left and driving 20 miles down Route 1, his journey to IFF involved leaving his house, turning right and driving 20 miles up Route 1. Not that he was to make the journey to IFF very often during the early part of his time with that company. “IFF had this guy called Carl Richter, who I’d known from a few meetings and who was an icon in the tobacco flavor industry worldwide, and especially in China,” said Penn. “So I spent three days in my new office in East Brunswick and then left with Carl for a six-week trip in China.”

“That was quite an event,” he said. “It was at least 23–24 years ago, at a time when Beijing international airport was still in the hands of the military, as was the tobacco industry, which comprised about 165 factories. It took four hours to get from the airport to downtown Beijing, sometimes driving on farmers’ crops that had been laid on the road so that the traffic that passed over them helped with the winnowing.”

Penn was with IFF for only two years before that company too pulled out of the tobacco industry, at which time he moved to Mane Fils, which had been trying, with only limited success, to move into the tobacco business. “They had a flavorist in the south of France and a technician, but the contacts and the products weren’t sufficient for the world market,” said Penn, who, as director of flavor marketing, set about changing that situation. Later, he became director of the group tobacco business unit, a position that he took with him when he moved to Mane SA in Switzerland.

Moving on

Penn was successful in helping to make Mane one of the top tobacco flavor companies, but he believes that now is the time to hand things over to somebody else. “I’m at the legal age of retirement, my family is increasing, and I want to see a bit more of the world without working,” he said. Penn will spend some of his spare time walking in the mountains near his home in the south of France, though his exertions will be limited to what he calls “the more horizontal faces,” not the vertical faces that he used to tackle as a teenager in Wales and Scotland. And he will also spend a lot of time cooking, the business he says he would probably have gone into if he hadn’t been taken with the flavors industry.

Although it’s a wonder that his enjoyment of food wasn’t spoiled by an experience he had in one of the countries that were behind the Iron Curtain when he visited with a colleague. In a dimly lit restaurant in a dimly lit hotel, he recalled, the two of them had scoured the menu and chosen one of the few things they thought they recognized—sheep chop with vegetables. “We waited for about 20 minutes, by which time we got onto the second bottle of wine—because we were hungry,” said Penn. “Then the waiter came along with two silver platters with domes on them, and I thought, this is a bit pretentious. But then he put them on the table and lifted off the covers to reveal a sheep’s head cut in half—oh right, I thought, sheep chop. It still had grass in its teeth, and the eyes were still in the head. I sat there thinking, get another bottle of wine—quickly.”

Roger Penn will operate his business based in south France as La Casucha Consulting; email: penn.roger@outlook.com; telephone: +33 769502797.