To get Heineken NV growing in the U.S. again, Dolf van den Brink first gained control of some of the imported beers Americans were drinking instead of Heineken.
Since becoming the third head of the Dutch brewer’s U.S. business in two years, Van den Brink has found a path to growth with imported Mexican brands including Sol and Tecate to meet changing American demographics and tastes for beer.
“We weren’t in a good position in 2008, 2009,” said Van den Brink, whose predecessor Don Blaustein left in August, 2009 saying he had a different view over how to expand Heineken in the U.S. during the recession. “For 45 years, we were a single-brand operation. We were set in our ways.”
After two years of declining volume in its Heineken brand in the U.S., the Amsterdam-based brewer bought Mexico’s Fomento Economico Mexicano SAB’s brewing unit early in 2010 for $7.4 billion, adding Dos Equis as well as Sol and Tecate to its Dutch-led portfolio. He’s now focusing on reviving the company’s namesake brew with new bottles, increasing advertising behind the Heineken brand and tripling the sales force to get consumers excited about James Bond’s beer again.
Progress in the U.S. mirrors the rest of the world, where the 148-year-old brewer is increasingly realizing that drinkers want more than its namesake ale. The company bought control of its Asia Pacific Breweries Ltd. venture this year to maintain control over brews including Tiger beer, which it said it will develop internationally.
“They’ve had a lot of false starts trying to get it right in the U.S.,” said Ian Shackleton, an analyst at Nomura in London. “We wondered if Van den Brink would be going in like Streetfighter with a machine gun to get things done. He does appear to have revitalized growth in the Heineken brand.”
The brand grew 3.2 percent in the past 12 months, according to Nielsen data cited by Van den Brink, outpacing market growth of 1.8 percent. According to Nielsen, Heineken’s U.S. market share is growing faster in volume terms than competitors Anheuser-Busch InBev NV and MillerCoors LLC in the past three months. The brand’s U.S. market share fell to 2.2 percent in 2011 from 2.7 percent in 2007, Euromonitor research shows.
The recent improvement is partly reflected in the company’s shares. Heineken has risen 42 percent this year in Amsterdam trading, more than the 25 percent gain for SABMiller Plc, co-owner of MillerCoors and its closest rival, and just trailing AB InBev’s 44 percent advance.
“Heineken is, remains, will be the number one choice and priority of the company, and needs to grow -- and thank God, it is,” Van den Brink said in an interview in his office in White Plains, New York. Still, “you can’t just stand on one leg these days; you need a portfolio.”
The Heineken brand still represents about 42 percent of the Dutch brewer’s volume in the U.S., where the company gets less than 10 percent of profit, according to Nomura estimates.
Van den Brink, who joined in 1998, is used to tough challenges. Before taking the U.S. job, he spent four-and-a-half years helping double Heineken’s market share in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, despite operating amid militant uprisings in the African country.
His latest test hasn’t been much easier as Heineken has fought head on with the likes of AB InBev, created four years ago in a $52 billion merger, and the financial crisis has roiled U.S. beer sales. Other brewers were more agile in selling their beers, from creating new products to new packages, Van den Brink said, leaving the smaller Heineken, which sells about 4 percent of U.S. beer by volume, behind.
To halt the decline in sales of the Heineken brand, the executive has tripled the number of people selling the beer to bars and restaurants, particularly in Heineken’s urban U.S. heartlands such as New York. He’s also overseen a “significant uptick” in advertising spending, and sought to capitalize on what he sees as “headroom” in the draft beer market compared with the crowded space for bottled beers.
The next step is the introduction in early 2013 of the new bottle with leaner, taller packaging that Van den Brink says will help make the brand look more modern.
Getting more from the company’s U.S. employees has also been key to Van den Brink’s plan. All staff are trained to be certified beer servers, from the CEO to receptionists, requiring knowledge of storage and serving as well as beer styles and history. The executive is also keen to empower employees to speak up and take responsibility.
Meeting rooms in the White Plains office contain a set of brightly colored laminated cards with captions like “All In -- Ask Me Why!” and “Challenge -- Have Another Solution.” He’s remodeled the offices, making them lighter and more open-plan, with glass doors and walls to aid an open culture, which he says makes the company more agile and forward-thinking.
The results of Van den Brink’s work on the Heineken brand are starting to become visible in an improving U.S. performance. Selling quantities were “broadly flat” in the three months through August, according to analysis of Nielsen data by Sanford C. Bernstein. In the month through Nov. 3, the lager’s volume in the country rose 5 percent, the brewer has said.
Still, the executive isn’t placing all his eggs in one basket. In addition to the resurrection of the flagship label, the brewer needs the other brands to grow sales at between 20 percent to 40 percent a year, he said.
Brands such as Sol and Tecate are proving popular with booming “multicultural” consumers in the U.S., he said, particularly second- and third- generation Mexican immigrants. In the three months through September, volume of the brands rose 9 percent from a year earlier, according to Nielsen data. The Mexican brands represent about 50 percent of Heineken’s volume and growth was improved primarily as mainstream beer brand Tecate returned to growth.
To gain Hispanic customers, Heineken has introduced the Tecate Michelada, a pre-mixed drink mirroring a popular Mexican beverage of beer, lime, spices and a hint of chili.
“Mexico represents parties, fiestas,” said Nomura’s Shackleton, giving the brands an edge over conventional brews.
Still, the U.S. may in future represent a smaller piece of Heineken’s profit as the company expands in regions such as Nigeria and southeast Asia, where it spent S$5.6 billion ($4.6 billion) in September to gain control of Asia Pacific Breweries.
That won’t loosen the resolve of Van den Brink, who describes himself and his staff as having “green blood,” the Heineken company color, according to Fortune Magazine, which named him in a “40 under 40” business stars list this year.
“My main focus is, How do you keep people hungry?” he said. “You don’t want complacency to step in.”