Among the deal mementos in Alexander Hecker’s New York office sits a Gibson Les Paul guitar. For Hecker, co-head of investment bank Lazard’s consumer and retail practice, the instrument hasn’t offered much respite from the pressure of deal making. “Actually, I’ve had no time to play it,” he admits, adding that it needs fixing.
No wonder. For the past year Hecker has been consumed by the second-biggest cross-border merger of all time, advising Belgium-headquartered brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev on its $105 billion takeover of U.K.- and South African–listed rival SABMiller. The monster tie-up, announced in October 2015, faced countless regulatory hurdles and had to be recut following Britain’s June vote to leave the European Union.
In late July, AB InBev raised its offer after the pound’s dive in the wake of the Brexit decision threatened to derail the merger. Having won shareholder approval and clearance from regulators, the revised deal closed on October 11, creating the world’s No. 1 brewer.
For asset allocators eyeing the beverage market, the winners of the future will be big global brands that can respond to declining alcohol consumption among younger people in developed countries. Carlos Brito, CEO of AB InBev, told investors in April that no- and low-alcohol is one of the fastest-growing trends in the drinks world.
But as companies in search of growth keep pursuing cross-border unions, they and their investors can expect more pushback from governments. Although AB InBev succeeded, other recent megadeals, such as Pfizer’s attempted $160 billion purchase of fellow pharmaceutical giant Allergan, have been thwarted.
“Companies are more global than they used to be, so deals like this involve regulators from across the world,” says Hecker, 42, who has held his current post since 2011. “Interaction between regulators in different jurisdictions continues to increase.”
Lazard ranked ninth in announced global M&A for the first nine months of 2016, according to Dealogic, working on 167 deals worth a total of $197.7 billion. That’s a drop from seventh place for the same period last year, when it advised on 173 transactions with a collective value of $366.6 billion.
On the AB InBev–SABMiller deal, Hecker worked with Lazard chairman and CEO Kenneth Jacobs and U.K. head William Rucker to mobilize Lazard’s expertise across the world, including a Paris-based team covering Africa. The merger hinged on AB InBev winning over SABMiller’s two biggest shareholders — U.S.-based Altria Group and Colombia’s Santo Domingo family — by giving them a cash-and-share alternative to the all-cash offer for other investors.
“Alex has an exceptional ability to navigate through the largest and most complex transactions, which is one of the principal reasons he shows up on so many of the major transactions in the consumer and retail space,” says attorney Scott Barshay, a partner at law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison who worked with Hecker on the deal.
Born near Cologne, Germany, Hecker earned a law degree from Goethe University Frankfurt and was the only member of his class not to enter the legal profession. Drawn to Lazard because a friend worked there, he joined in 2000 for a six-month stint working on mergers and acquisitions but decided to stick around.
Then–managing director Antonio Weiss, who went on to lead the firm’s global M&A business before becoming an adviser to the U.S. Treasury Department last year, came to Frankfurt and asked Hecker to work on a pitch to Belgium’s Interbrew, a highly acquisitive brewer that was looking to become a global force. Soon Hecker was working on the team that helped Interbrew acquire Germany’s Brauerei Beck & Co., a deal that not only kick-started his career but turned into one of Lazard’s longest and most fruitful relationships.
In 2003, when Weiss asked him to join a Paris team he was building to specialize in cross-border M&A deals, Hecker jumped at the chance. During his six years in France, he was promoted to vice president and began working with other Lazard consumer clients such as food and drink multinationals Danone and Nestlé. In 2008 he advised InBev, the product of a merger between Interbrew and Brazilian brewer AmBev, on its $52 billion all-cash acquisition of Anheuser-Busch Cos. before moving to Lazard’s New York office the next year.
Although the M&A market slumped in 2009 following the global financial crisis, Hecker kept busy by working on eight separate disposals arising from the Anheuser-Busch–InBev merger. Then in 2010 he advised 3G Capital, the Brazilian private equity firm established by billionaire Jorge Paulo Lemann, formerly AmBev’s biggest single shareholder, on its $4 billion privatization of Burger King Holdings. Three years later Hecker counseled the firm on its $23.5 billion acquisition of U.S. food giant H.J. Heinz Co., the largest-ever buyout in the consumer sector. “My clients are among the best investment bankers I’ve ever met,” he says. “They just happen to also sell beer and hamburgers.”
Despite growing regulatory scrutiny and the challenges posed by Brexit, Hecker remains bullish on M&A. “As uncertainty in Europe and developing countries begins to be resolved over the next year or so, cross-border activity should continue to increase,” he says. “I expect to see well-managed segment leaders continue to support their equity story through M&A to further distinguish or transform themselves.”
Hecker may not have time to get that guitar fixed.