Graham Mackay, Creator of Global Brewer SABMiller, Dies

Graham Mackay, the executive who built SABMiller Plc into the world’s second-biggest beermaker, has died. He was 64.

He died this morning with his family at his side, the London-based company said in a statement.

The native South African stepped down as chief executive officer following surgery for a brain tumor on April 22. He resumed his role as non-executive chairman on Sept. 5, before again stepping back last month.

“Graham was a titan in the brewing industry,” Trevor Stirling, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein in London, said by phone. “He was at the helm in the formative years when the company transformed from being leader in one emerging market to become the global number two brewer.”

Widely regarded by investors as a measured, cerebral and “forward-thinking” company leader, Mackay held a number of senior positions in the group, including executive chairman, and oversaw a period of growth and expansion in the U.S., Eastern Europe, China and South America.

“Graham was one of the most inspirational and successful leaders in international business by any measure,” John Manser, who was appointed chairman today, said in the statement. “Everyone in the SABMiller family has been blessed by his vision, his loyalty, and his friendship during his 35 years with the group. He will be deeply missed.”

Africa Upbringing

Ernest Arthur Graham Mackay was born on July 26, 1949 to James, a farmer and former World War II pilot, and Mary Mackay. One of six children, he was raised in South Africa, Swaziland and the former Rhodesia.

“My father was shot down at El Alamein, then in POW camps, and not in great condition physically and mentally by the end,” Mackay said in an interview in 2006. “He went off to find his soul in the African bush on plantations. To say it kindly, we lived from hand to mouth.”

Mackay was educated at St Andrew’s College, Grahamstown, South Africa. It was, he said, “more than my parents could afford -- we were not among the moneyed. I suppose that did affect my outlook on life.”

He graduated from University of the Witwatersrand with a BSc in Engineering in 1972 and a B.Com from University of South Africa in 1977. A year later he joined the then South African Breweries Ltd. to help the company sort out its computer systems.

Global Brewer

He was named managing director of SAB in 1997, two years before becoming CEO and leading the company’s expansion outside South Africa by listing it in London in 1999. He then went on to tap the U.S. market by buying Miller Brewing Co. in 2002.

Mackay oversaw a slew of acquisitions that helped build the maker of Grolsch and Peroni into the world’s biggest brewer after Anheuser-Busch InBev NV.

The takeovers included Colombia’s Bavaria SA and Italy’s Birra Peroni SpA. SABMiller now has a global footprint spread over major fast-growing markets including Latin America, China and Africa, as well as across Europe. It amassed group revenue of $34.5 billion last year.

“He had the foresight to see what the future held for the industry” Meyer Kahn, who retired as chairman of SABMiller last summer, said of Mackay in an interview in 2012. “He had the courage to join what we called the dance of the elephants.”

Mackay, who said his favorite of SABMiller’s beer was Pilsner Urquell, also engineered the A$10.5 billion takeover of Foster’s Group Ltd. in 2011, inking the deal for the Australian brewer without even having to visit the country. Since 1999, SABMiller’s share price has risen more than sixfold.

Bridge Player

Mackay also served as a senior independent non-executive director of Reckitt Benckiser Group Plc and a director of Philip Morris International Inc. Between 1995 and 2003 he was deputy chairman and then chairman of Standard Bank Group Ltd.

Mackay had been due to take the position of non-executive chairman in July 2013 at SABMiller’s annual general meeting. His surgery meant the planned promotion of Chief Operating Officer Alan Clark to CEO was brought forward. SABMiller said today it will make a further announcement on the appointment of a new chairman “in due course” and that Manser will defer his previously expected retirement date until 2015.

The company, which said it would keep Mackay’s position “under review” pending the outcome of his treatment, announced on June 6 that Mackay had been granted medical leave “to focus on his continuing treatment.” On June 12, Reckitt Benckiser Group Plc said Mackay “has expressed a wish to reduce his business commitments” and was resigning as a director.

Mackay, who was a keen squash and bridge player, was married twice, and had six sons. He enjoyed the music of Verdi and Puccini, according to the South African newspaper.

“He was an understated chief executive, but nevertheless clearly able to inspire great things from his team and was loved and admired by them,” said Bernstein’s Stirling.

(Updates with analyst comment in fourth paragraph.)
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