Heineken. Picture: BLOOMBERG/RON ANTONELLI
Heineken. Picture: BLOOMBERG/RON ANTONELLI

Had events taken a different turn, Jean-François van Boxmeer might have ended up as head of Unilever. The Anglo-Dutch multinational turned down the economics graduate for his first job. Heineken, however, hired him.

That was 33 years ago and for the past 12, Van Boxmeer has been CEO of the family-controlled Dutch brewer, arguably best-known for its 1970s and 1980s advertising tagline: "Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach."

Van Boxmeer said: "In those days, companies like Heineken and Unilever were aspirational; they were very international and that’s what attracted me."

Building on the heritage of Freddy Heineken, the legendary magnate who turned a Dutch brewer into a European one, Van Boxmeer has taken the company into parts of the world it had previously never reached.

The Belgian has spent more than $30bn on 65 acquisitions since taking over in 2005, which have expanded the company’s brewing operations from 39 countries to 70, and include China, Mexico, Brazil, Ethiopia, Vietnam and, most recently, Ivory Coast.

This strategy has served the company well — reducing its dependence on mature European countries and almost doubling its share of profits from emerging markets since 2009. Mexico and Vietnam alone have grown rapidly to account for more than a quarter of group profits, according to analysts’ estimates. The group’s beers include Amstel, Affligem, Sol and Tiger.

It is now the world’s second-biggest brewer by market share. A decade ago, it was fourth. Heineken’s eponymous brand is sold in more countries than any other beer brand, but that position is under threat from the global ambitions of Anheuser-Busch InBev for its own Budweiser brand.

Last year, Budweiser’s international sales by volume overtook those of Heineken for the first time in 30 years, according to Plato Logic, the consultancy. This was mainly driven by Budweiser’s expansion in a single country: China. Though Budweiser is sold in fewer than half the number of countries in which Heineken is available, AB InBev is set to give Heineken a run for its money in Africa once it starts introducing its brands there, following its £79bn takeover last year of SABMiller.

Van Boxmeer appears relaxed about the gulf that separates Heineken from its larger rival: Heineken accounts for 10% of the global industry’s profits but AB InBev takes 45%, according to Bernstein Research. "It’s not necessary to be the number one to be a successful company," he says.

The opportunity to rival AB InBev as the world’s joint-biggest brewer evaporated when the Heineken family turned down an approach from SAB in 2014, details of which were never disclosed. "The elephant in the room has always been SAB," says Van Boxmeer. "The offer was, in the condition it was presented, totally unacceptable for us."

Heineken describes itself as a "proud independent brewer". That independence is safeguarded by the family, now in its fourth generation and represented by Charlene de Carvalho-Heineken — Freddy Heineken’s only child — who sits on Heineken’s holding company with her husband, Michel de Carvalho and their son, Alexander.

In 2016, the family nominated Van Boxmeer for a fourth four-year term as CEO. His offices are in what used to be the Heineken family home, a five-storey townhouse that is now the group’s global headquarters. Family control has its advantages. "If the family has the same vision — which is the case — then you can build for the longer term."

There are "informal contacts which you build over the years because you have one particular shareholder who has been there for 154 years. I have to serve the company first, and then all the shareholders afterwards".

"Perhaps there is one more equal than the other, which is the family because of their longstanding holding," he added.

What happens when he and the family disagree? "I don’t know, I’ve never experienced it. Not really," he said. Certainly the family stood by him when Heineken and Carlsberg teamed up to buy Scottish & Newcastle, the UK brewer, for £7.8bn in 2008 as the British economy slid into recession.

"The day after, the company imploded — there were tax increases, a smoking ban, everything. We closed 15,000 pubs in the following four years. And of course I had these comments: ‘You’re the CEO, you must be stupid’. With hindsight, that’s easy to say. It was embarrassing, of course, but we changed the business model in the UK and made it the most profitable of our European operations."

S&N made Heineken the biggest UK brewer, gave it Strongbow and Bulmers cider, and a stake in United Breweries of India.

Heineken has been buying craft brewers, such as Lagunitas, though its small market share in the US means it has been less affected than other big brewers by the craft beer movement, which has taken 12% of the US market. Nevertheless in North America the Heineken brand faces pressure from AB InBev’s Stella Artois and has recently been losing share of the Mexican import market to Constellation Brands. In Europe, however, beer sales are picking up after a decade of falling volumes.

"For 10 years, I’ve heard: ‘Why are you in Europe? Total losers’; now, they’re all writing: ‘Fantastic’!" He has stopped listening to analysts. "We have to build the brands. What sustains our market is urban populations that have economic prospects and good demographic prospects. That is where the growth is."

Second opinion

Alan Clark was CEO of SABMiller, Heineken’s larger rival until its takeover in 2016 by AB InBev. He said: "Jean-François has that rare leadership ability where he can balance the past, present and future — appreciating the strength of brand and heritage and ever-steadily moving the business on.

"What a legacy he has built," he added. "There is no doubt that the family and public shareholders of Heineken must be very pleased."

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