The House That Freddy Built
Alfred H. Heineken died in January, 2002, at age 78, but the influence of "Freddy" at the company remains pervasive. Heineken CEO Anthony Ruys can feel it every time he opens the door to his office -- it weighs a ton. That's because Freddy, after being kidnaped in 1983, ordered that the executive suite be bulletproofed. Luckily, the Dutch beer baron survived the three-week ordeal with his humor intact. "They tortured me," Freddy told Sir Frank Lowe, chairman of former Heineken ad agency Lowe & Partners Worldwide. "They made me drink Carlsberg!"
Although he was born into wealth, Freddy proved early on that he was one tough rich kid. Heineken was built by his grandfather, Gerard Adriaan Heineken, who in 1864 bought out a four-century-old Amsterdam brewery. But by 1942, debt, divorce, and bad management had deprived the Heineken family of majority control. By secretly buying up shares, 30-year-old Freddy regained control in 1954. "I wanted to prevent strangers from doing strange things under my name," he said at the time.
When it comes to the golden brew, Freddy was a visionary. He realized that beer can travel and expanded into countries such as France and Italy, turning Heineken into Europe's biggest brewer. "He saw much earlier than others that Europe was going to be a continent," says Heineken biographer Barbara Smit. In partnership with distributor Leo van Munching Sr., Heineken became the leading imported beer in the U.S. Then, in 1968, Freddy engineered the takeover of Dutch rival Amstel. While Heineken remains the flagship brand, middle-market Amstel and its sister Amstel Light have carved important niches in places like Greece and the U.S.
A bon vivant who piloted his own plane and hosted the Dutch royal family aboard his yacht, Something Cool, Freddy had an adman's pizzazz. It was he who decided to dress Heineken in green -- rather than the customary brown -- and tip the "e"s slightly, to give the label a more friendly look. Yet the Netherlands' richest man was also famously tightfisted. Nico Nusmeier, who heads Heineken's operations in Poland, recalls how the boss cracked jokes and high-fived workers during a visit to a new bottling line years ago. "At the same time, he knew bloody well whether we had overinvested or not," says Nusmeier.
Freddy gave up his post as chairman of the company's management board in 1989 but continued to live a few doors down from Heineken's headquarters and speak frequently with his successor, Karel Vuursteen. When Heineken had a chance to buy South African Breweries PLC in the late 1990s, Freddy nixed the idea. That may have been a mistake: Last year, SAB acquired Miller Brewing Co. in the U.S., overtaking Heineken in global sales.
After Heineken's death, majority control passed to his only child, Charlene de Carvalho-Heineken. Charlene, who studied law in college, clearly takes a keen interest in the company but is not involved in day-to-day management.
That may be a good thing. Freddy was insistent on preserving the integrity of the Heineken brand -- perhaps too insistent. Since his death, "people feel freer to play around with the brand," says Smit. That extra maneuvering room could be essential as Heineken struggles to attract younger beer drinkers.
By Jack Ewing in Amsterdam