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SABMiller’s Alan Clark Has Big Plans for Beer

After its failed takeover of rival Heineken, the world’s second-largest brewer is focusing on emerging markets and premium beer.

They say that every great bartender is part psychologist. Which, by way of analogy, should make Alan Clark just the person to run SABMiller, the world’s second-largest brewer.

A clinical psychologist by training, Clark was doing corporate consulting on the side when the former South African Breweries asked him, in the dying days of apartheid in 1990, to find ways to help black employees break into management. He met Graham Mackay, then the group’s visionary managing director, and was offered a job as head of training and development. Clark said yes, and the two men never looked back.

Mackay saw foreign expansion as a lifeline for SAB and, starting as MD and later as CEO from 1999, went on an acquisition binge that included the $5.6 billion takeover of Miller Brewing Co., the No. 2 U.S. beer maker, in 2002, and the $10.2 billion purchase of Australia’s Foster’s Group in 2011. Today, SABMiller is the world’s second-largest brewer, behind Anheuser-Busch InBev, with nearly 10 percent of the market and brands that include Miller and Coors Light in the U.S., South Africa’s Castle Lager, Grolsch and Pilsner Urquell in Europe and Foster’s in Asia. It also owns 49 percent of China Resources Snow Breweries, whose Snow brand is the world’s biggest-selling beer.

While the company was growing like gangbusters, Clark climbed the ladder, running Alrode Brewery in South Africa in the ’90s, heading up SABMiller’s European operations in 2003 and becoming COO in 2012. When Mackay was diagnosed with a brain tumor in April 2013, Clark succeeded him as CEO. Mackay died in December.

The go-go days of the Mackay era are over, leaving Clark with the challenge of sustaining growth. SABMiller is a behemoth, not an upstart; beer consumption has flattened in developed countries, and small craft brewers are grabbing market share. The group’s sales slipped 1 percent in the financial year ended March 31, to $34.1 billion, reflecting declines in emerging markets currencies, while net income grew 4 percent to $3.4 billion.

Clark, 56, set the industry abuzz in September by approaching Heineken about a possible takeover, an approach the Dutch company rejected. That move reignited speculation that Carlos Brito, CEO of AB InBev, could seek to take out SABMiller. Such talk is a major reason why SABMiller’s shares have risen 9.4 percent this year, and stand at a multiple of 20 times expected 2015 earnings.

Trevor Stirling, a brewing analyst at Bernstein Research in London, says that rich valuation is probably Clark’s best defense. He estimates it would take AB InBev eight years to recoup its cost of capital on a deal. Still, takeover talk is unlikely to go away. “This is an industry where everybody’s spoken to everybody at some stage,” says Stirling.

In the meantime, Clark has other growth levers to pull. The company gets more than two thirds of sales from emerging markets, where demographics and rising incomes are pushing up beer consumption. It’s going further upmarket in developed countries by promoting premium brews like Blue Moon and Redd’s Apple Ale in the U.S. And Clark aims to cut annual costs by $500 million by streamlining his supply chain and back-office functions.

The South African executive discussed the outlook for SABMiller recently with International Editor Tom Buerkle in New York.

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Institutional Investor: Why is M&A speculation at such a fever pitch now in the beer industry?

Clark: Until maybe two, three years ago, there was a lot more activity, some bigger deals being done. In the recent past, actually, it’s been slower. And I think frankly that going forward, we’re going to see that there are fewer deals to be done. They might be more complicated, given the ownership structures. So, there will be ongoing consolidation and SABMiller will play its part in that, but it’s unlikely to be as active as it was.

Is this the final wave of consolidation, given how concentrated the industry has become?

Yes, I do think so. We’ve got maybe another five years or so of kind of large-scale consolidation going on. There are now four major players. They all have very different strategies. From our point of view, the focus has been on emerging markets and emerging market expansion. We’ve done mature market deals, but in reality the only two really big ones were of course Miller in the U.S. many years ago and then Carlton & United and Foster’s a couple of years ago in Australia. Our focus has been in emerging markets. For us, that’s going to continue to be a priority. What we can achieve and when we can achieve depends on manufacturers, including are there willing sellers out there and what is the level of competitiveness towards the price.

You triggered the latest speculation by approaching Heineken. Why Heineken?

I prefer not to comment on the specifics of that deal. More generally, there’s this overarching perspective that we would want to look at emerging markets. We’re interested in large markets, high-growth positions and when we can get leadership positions in those markets. Latin America will be very interesting for us over time. Africa will be very interesting for us; Asia, where we’re not, relatively, a big player.

So, it’s geography and then it’s the security of position. And it’s what brand portfolios do they have, because the major market in M&A is still in national markets and national brands.

Graham Mackay talked about beer being a local business, but you don’t have a global brand. Is that a handicap?

I don’t believe it’s a handicap. It’s a reality, and we knew that when we started out. The first phases of this expansion of SAB, emerging from southern Africa in the early ’90s, was a people-led strategy. It was a view around the beer industry and how to run beer assets better, a belief that we could move into developing and emerging markets and develop the foundations for the beer culture.

I think the advantage for us is that we have built very strong local portfolios and across the price points. We increasingly are supplementing that with regional brands, so brands like Castel in Africa are spreading throughout Africa; Kozel in Europe is in more than ten countries now; Miller Lite is doing well in Latin America.

How do you get into the craft beer space?

We found it hard to turn our attention to it. It’s a space that was ignored for quite a long time by the major brewers. Having said that, we have some of the larger craft brands. Blue Moon is one of the largest craft brands in the States. Leinenkugel Summer Shandy has grown very rapidly.

Consumers are fragmenting, they’re expanding their repertoires, they’re looking for more interesting beers, more complex beers. It’s moving away from core lager as the be-all and end-all of our business. We’re moving into this more kind of indulgent space.

You’ve talked about raising your share of the premium market to 20 percent. How are you going to do that?

We have existing brands, like Blue Moon and Leinenkugel. Redd’s Apple Ale, which has done fantastically well. We’ll continue to drive those brands. But of course, it’s new brands that we need to introduce. A brand like Peroni is something we’re focusing on quite carefully in the U.S. and seeing if we can replicate the success we had in the U.K. Then there would also be an assessment of acquisition opportunities on a brand basis, targeting brands that we think are of high value in selected spaces. So it’s not one strategy.

You’ve been perceived off and on as being a target of Anheuser-Busch InBev. Does that bother you?

It’s something that we are aware of because there’s all the chatter out there. From a business point of view, though, we focus on understanding what we can change, what we can drive, what our strategy should be. Do we believe we have a growth strategy? Can we execute against that strategy? So, we’re much more focused on our business, our customers, our consumers. This is noise out there, if you like. And it’s been around for five years, so frankly it’s just kind of something you get used to. It’s like the weather.

Growth has slowed in many emerging markets. You took a foreign exchange hit last year. Is this a new emerging markets environment?

Emerging markets are always interesting. They’re always changing. The reality is that we have over 70 percent of our business exposed to emerging markets, so 70 percent of our revenue and our volume. That’s a great position to be in because we are exposed to growth. Look at Africa, for example, where the per capita consumption is sitting at the nine or ten [liters a year] level. That’s got decades of growth. Africa’s getting toward about 20 percent contribution to our profit. If you look at that part of your portfolio and say, well, I’ve got more than a decade of growth ahead of me, that’s fantastic.

If you flip across to Latin America, very much the same kind of population dynamics and very much the same economic dynamics. Per capita consumptions are higher. They’re between 30 and 40 [liters]. But again, no reason to believe they can’t get to the 60, 70, 80 level over time. So, again, a long trajectory of growth. In Asia, we are big in China, and China’s got a long way to go. Plenty of growth coming in from China. Lots of growth in profit margins over time in China.

Can you turn Snow into a regional or global brand?

It’s possible. Snow’s not known outside of China. The focus of the management team, correctly, is to build Snow and to get to a scale position. Snow has around 23 percent market share. We’d like to see ourselves move up from that point; that’s the primary focus for that business. We’re now beginning to think about as Snow becomes so widely known, and in particular as you see more Chinese traveling outside of China, is this an opportunity to begin building a global Chinese brand? No firm decisions. To build an international brand takes a long time.

SABMiller is identified with Graham Mckay. He personally hired you. How challenging was it to take the reins from him?

In some respects, it’s not possible to answer that question. Having said that, I did come in as chief operating officer for a year and then it was 18 months ago I was appointed into a CEO role, so I had time to experience what it would be like. And frankly, what I saw was exactly the same experience that I had with Graham all my life working for SABMiller: Someone who made sure you had a shared understanding of where you were trying to get to, lots of challenge, lots of questioning about the decisions that you were making, and then he steps away and allows you to get on with it.

There wasn’t a sense of coming in and saying, ‘well, what I want to do is change everything because it’s been going so badly wrong.’ It was a case of saying, how do I move this business forward. This concept of category strategy is something very new and different. There’s much greater emphasis on leveraging our scale, the expansion of procurement, entering supply chain, where we’re thinking about that. Very different in its tone and activity for the organization. I’m convinced that even if Graham had been here, that would have continued anyway. Of course it’s tragic that he couldn’t see the continued growth of the business.

There’s a lot of concern about inequality, has capitalism gone off the rails. Are there wider obligations the company needs to fulfill?

We aspire to be in the top quartile of our peer group on total shareholder return over a rolling three-year basis. That’s the ultimate measure. But, of course, we recognize that to achieve that, it’s not only about the beer we make and sell and the number of consumers that we can get and how much price we can take. There’s a wide range of stakeholders and employees.

Where I think we are unique, we tend to be very close to the communities in which we operate. In emerging markets, we would very often be the major taxpayers. In Africa, we employ somewhere around 20,000 people. Issues like sustainable development are integral to our business strategy. In Africa we’ve developed casaba beers, sorghum beers, built local supply chains with subsistence farmers.

The point I make to the leadership team often is that we are a global company, but when we operate in Colombia, we are Colombian. If you talk to the employees in the Czech Republic, they’ll talk to you about Plzensky Prazdroj, our local business. I think it’s one of the reasons why we’ve been able to find our way around the world with relative ease. We’re accepting of cultures, we’re accepting of diversity.

So, sell to me, not to Carlos Brito?

That’s it.

In five years’ time, what will be the most significant difference people will see in SABMiller’s marketing?

Transformation in the way that we express beer to modern consumers in developed markets. What does it mean? Beer, through the actions of major brewers, has targeted itself at males almost exclusively for a very, very long period of time. Not only has it ignored women, it has often been insulting to women. And I think that’s robbed us of a major opportunity.

That does not mean you will not have beer brands for men. But we need to change beer so that it is not excluding women and not disparaging women. The ability to access a much wider range of occasions ­— to be more natural, less laddish — is just a very important shift in our business. • •

Follow Tom Buerkle on Twitter at @tombuerkle.

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