THE BIG INTERVIEW

The Big Interview: AB InBev's Jason Warner

By Daniel Woolfson

- Last updated on GMT

Jason Warner: "beer is the most social category in the world"
Jason Warner: "beer is the most social category in the world"

Related tags: Brewery

Given the way certain craft brewers talk about Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI), you’d expect the brewing giant’s new(ish) Northern European boss to cut a Darth Vader-like figure.

But Jason Warner, who stepped into the high-pressure role just 10 months ago, is warm and diplomatic - if predictably firm on the party line.

ABI’s ‘megabrew’ deal is finally over: after a year of negotiations, the company has successfully acquired rival firm SABMiller, leaving ABI in charge of roughly one third of the world’s beer.

It hasn’t exactly been an easy ride since it announced its bid for SABMiller back in 2015. On 26 July ABI was forced to raise its offer to approximately £79bn to satisfy the demands of  UK investors following the drop in sterling.

There was also the matter of compliance with EU regulators. Brussels approved the merger on the condition that SABMiller brands Peroni, Grolsch and Meantime were sold within 18 months of the acquisition to ease regulators’ concerns over competition. Japanese brewer Asahi bought the trio, leading to the creation of Asahi UK.

Now ‘megabrew’ – one of the largest ever corporate takeovers – is finally over and 43-year-old Warner has set his sights on the UK on-trade, identifying several key categories where he sees serious space for ABI to make inroads.

Major focus

“The on-trade is going to be a major focus for us, absolutely,” he says. “Part of making this work is us investing in this very important part of the business which we haven’t historically – but now is the time.”

He pinpoints two major opportunities he believes competitors are not taking ad-vantage of: low-alcohol and alcohol-free beer, and innovation in beer packaging and serving formats.

ABI is so convinced of the potential for low and non-alcoholic beers that it has set targets for the category to encompass 20% of its total business by the end of 2025 as part of its Global Smart Drinking Goals initiative.

Warner says: “It’s going to manifest itself with much more choice when it comes to non-alcoholic beer. Remove the alcohol and you expand the occasions and opportunities.”

When asked if this could put ABI’s non-alcoholic brands in conflict with established soft drinks and juices, which are arguably the current go-to drinks for designated drivers and non-drinkers in pubs, Warner is quick to assert otherwise.

Meeting the occasion

“[Other companies] are not turning up the way they should be in that space, so it’s not that we would be sourcing volume directly from them, I just don’t think they’re meeting that occasion,” he says.

“Should they? That’s the choice for them – but we will. Twenty per cent of the beer we sell will be lower than 3.5% ABV – it’s going to be exciting for the industry.”

Warner doesn’t see low and non-alcoholic beers as having value only to those who can’t drink for the evening. Rather, he believes they have mass appeal to consumers who are placing more and more importance not just on their health but on the quality and simplicity of ingredients their drinks are made with.

“I think there’s an unmet need in the market and we have the opportunity to meet it,” he says. “People are craving reassurance about what they’re consuming and they want simple ingredients that they understand.”

The second area of focus Warner believes has not received the attention it deserves is beer packaging and serving format.

“There is a huge opportunity there,” he claims. “Beer is the most social category in the world – we’ve done everything as an industry to make the bottles one way and the serving experience individual.

“I think we need to be working harder to serve in social ways – I think sharing formats will become more and more important. Like with wine, there’s no reason why beer can’t be served in a carafe and to complement food. “There are certain food occasions where wine just isn’t appropriate.”

Buyouts criticised

Warner talks with all the enthusiasm and gusto of the kind of bearded beer fanatic you find lecturing punters on the wonders of milk stout in hip Shoreditch bars.

So much so that, listening to him speak, it’s easy to forget ABI has repeatedly drawn sharp criticism for its aggressive buyouts of craft brewers.

For many of ABI’s detractors, true independence and “craft”, the argument goes, is fundamentally incompatible with being owned by a multinational. But brewers who did “sell out” to the company have spoken highly of the autonomy they have retained post-acquisition.

When ABI bought Camden Town Brewery in 2015, the ever-controversial BrewDog boss James Watt was quick to delist Camden beers from BrewDog’s estate of bars, tweeting that his company would “not stock AB InBev beers.”

Degree of autonomy

In a scathing post on BrewDog’s website, Watt condemned “Global beer mega corporations, the ones who destroyed, bastardised and commoditized beer”.

He wrote: “Let’s be honest, the intentions of these big companies are completely clear: they cut costs, they cut people, they cut corners and they take pride in doing so – their god is market share and their stock market valuations; they act accordingly.”

But Warner doesn’t believe the definition of craft is as binary or as black and white as commentators would like to believe, suggesting that it is still possible to be a craft brewer and be owned by AB InBev and maintaining that acquired brewers are treated as partners rather than subsidiaries.

“Look at any of our craft brewers and they have a degree of autonomy. In the instance of Camden, Jasper [Cuppaidge, founder] is running the business very autonomously,” he says.

“He’s got access to the bank – so we’re building capacity just down the road from where his current brewery is and that’s going to help get his beer into people’s hands. I just see [ABI] as an enabler.”

In an interview with The Morning Advertiser​ (MA​) following the buyout, Cuppaidge moved to assuage fears that the buyout would lead to job cuts or a drop in quality for Camden’s beer.

He told MA​: “There are many examples of great companies that have partnered with larger businesses and have been successful in making their great brands and quality products more widely available to more people, thereby ensuring the company’s future sustainability and growth.”

Besides, Warner says: “Every beer started off as a ‘craft’ beer. Budweiser started off as a craft beer at one point in time. Then all beer goes on its journey.”

Are there any brewers ABI currently has its eyes on? Warner doesn’t name names but he does point to “an obvious gap in the portfolio” when it comes to session lagers like Fosters, Carling and Carlsberg.

“I can tell you there is a huge opportunity for disruption among sessionable beers where we don’t already play,” he says. “I think consumers are looking for something new and I think we have it.”

Desire to succeed

A glance at Warner’s impressive (and slightly intimidating) CV hints that this is a man who doesn’t shy away from an opportunity when he sees one.

It reads like a “who’s who” of the biggest names in F&B. Before joining ABI in 2009, he clocked up long stints at Coca-Cola and Nestlé.

But before embarking on his career, Warner’s life was marked by tragedy. His sister died of leukaemia at the age of 18 when he was just 21, which drove his desire to succeed.

“She was told she had two weeks left to live. It was absolutely horrible,” he says. “But her strength of character and her courage, especially the way she dealt with [the diagnosis] left an indelible imprint on me.

“At that stage in my life it made me question everything. Everyone asks those questions at some point in their lives, but I did it at 21. I just asked myself: when I’m 80, what will my life be like? What will I be proud of?

“I think everyone’s answer to that is very different but for me, I wanted to grow. I wanted to challenge myself and test my capabilities. In life, when you’re challenged the most, that’s when you develop your muscle and capability,” he says. “That meant when I started my career, I was very hungry.”

So when the opportunity arose for Warner to join ABI as global vice-president for Budweiser, he was quick to accept.

Popularity waning

“It’s one of those iconic brands,” he says. “You get to a point in your career sometimes when you succeed, but you don’t actually get to do what you love doing. So I was 36 at the time, I jumped at the chance and moved to St Louis [Missouri, USA].”

Taking on the beer was no small challenge – its popularity was waning considerably at the turn of the decade. But Warner and his team managed to spur growth in only six months. This, he explains, was somewhat remarkable given that it had been in decline for a quarter of a century.

“Why? It required some very interesting analysis,” he says. “When you look at the rhythm and cadence of the decline, it didn’t happen naturally. It’s engineered. And it was largely down to choices that we were making in terms of investment strategies within the business historically.”

Problems

He believes one of the problems was a lack of internal youth recruitment and, not coincidentally, a lack of focus on young consumers.

“We had to ask ourselves how you take a brand where 80% of your footprint is in the US and globalise that? The hardest challenge at the time was freeing up resources to globalise when you’re managing a brand that’s declining in the home market.”

In 2008, two major acquisitions sent shockwaves through the beer trade. Heineken and Carlsberg acquired Scottish & Newcastle; and AB InBev, in its most recent incarnation, was formed when InBev bought Anheuser-Busch.

These developments are widely understood to have set brewing – historically considered something of a local industry with few companies gaining significant international traction – on course to its current state.

Turning Budweiser around convinced Warner of two things: that beer could be ‘globalised’, and that it was a cause worth dedicating himself to.

“We were confident in our approach,” he says. “You have to remember that 2009 was the year of the big conversation for brewers about whether you could globalise beer.”

Seven years on, with ‘megabrew’ done and dusted, and ABI’s dominance assured, the answer to that question appears to be a resounding “yes”. 

Related topics: Beer

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