Some argue the deal that created the world’s largest brewer changed the company for the better.
ST. LOUIS – Five years ago this week, Anheuser-Busch Cos. agreed to be acquired by Belgian brewer InBev, creating the world’s largest brewer and setting off ripples of worry as uncertainty loomed over one of St. Louis’ most revered homegrown businesses.
In the years since the $52 billion deal was announced on July 13, 2008, much has changed at AB’s corporate offices at One Busch Place.
The Busch family that ran AB for more than a century would ultimately exit the company whose beers had become iconic symbols of Americana, marking an end of an era.
And to help pay for the massive merger, Busch Entertainment was cut loose. In 2009, AB sold Busch Entertainment’s 10 theme parks, including Sea World, to private equity firm Blackstone Group.
But doomsday scenarios of St. Louis losing its place as the epicenter for the company’s U.S. operations failed to materialize. St. Louis is the North American headquarters for the combined AB InBev, responsible for U.S. and Canadian operations, and the company’s world headquarters is in Belgium. And in 2011, AB said it planned to invest more than $1 billion in its U.S. facilities from 2011 to 2014, including upgrades to modernize operations at its St. Louis brewery.
AB InBev remains the largest brewer in the country, with its market share accounting for close to half of all U.S. beer sales. Bud Light remains the bestselling beer in the country.
This year, the brewer marked the 80th anniversary of its iconic association with Clydesdales, and the company says it’s exploring ways to extend the horses’ visibility internationally. “There was a tremendous amount of concern that something bad for St. Louis was going to happen, like them closing the brewery or getting rid of the Clydesdales,” said Glenn MacDonald, an economics and strategy professor at Washington University’s Olin Business School. “The fear was that AB would be downsized to oblivion, and that clearly hasn’t happened.”
MacDonald said some of the changes made after the sale have helped solidify the company’s long-term viability. “It had the trappings of a family company before, and AB clearly did become a trimmer, more modern company,” he said.
After the merger, the combined companies went through an integration period followed by what executives call “optimization.”
One of the changes after the merger included adding elements of Six Sigma — a management philosophy that uses data to cut waste and make improvements — throughout AB, even in human resources.
“It’s a new company,” said Tom Pirko, president of Bevmark, a food and beverage industry consulting firm in Buellton, Calif. “The culture’s changed. The philosophy’s changed. The psychology’s changed. It’s a more disciplined company now and more a philosophy of a global company. We’ve seen a sea change. I hardly recognize it.”
The change in ownership also has made AB less risk-averse, executives say. Faced with competition from craft beer and lower consumer spending during the economic downturn, AB’s innovation pipeline for new products and packaging has been in overdrive.
In 2010, AB added red, white and blue stars and stripes to Budweiser cans. During the summer months, the packaging has helped spur Budweiser sales, which have been declining each year in the United States since the 1980s.
The year after the red, white and blue cans debuted marked “Budweiser’s best summer in the past 10 years,” said Rob McCarthy, vice president of Bud Light brands, who oversaw Budweiser from late 2009 until January.
So far this year, its U.S. product launches include Beck’s Sapphire, Budweiser Black Crown, Bud Light Lime Straw-Ber-Rita and Stella Artois Cidre, in addition to the bowtie-shaped Budweiser can. Those new additions followed the launches of Bud Light Platinum and Bud Light Lime Lime-A-Rita last year, which helped AB InBev’s beer volume in the U.S. grow in 2012 for the first time in four years.
Under CEO Carlos Brito, AB InBev has set out to grow Budweiser and other brands to a broader worldwide audience. Budweiser volume grew 6.4 percent in 2012, boosted by Latin America and Asia, despite declining U.S. sales.