Big Interview

From bombs to beer – AB InBev’s new UK head of on-trade talks pubs

By Nicholas Robinson

- Last updated on GMT

Attention: Ryan Fritsch outlines his plans for BBG's future
Attention: Ryan Fritsch outlines his plans for BBG's future

Related tags Ab inbev Budweiser Brewing Group Ryan Fritsch

Yes that’s right, from bombs to beer. As it turns out, Budweiser Brewing Group’s (BBG) recently appointed on-trade sales director for the UK and Ireland Ryan Fritsch has an extensive background in bomb defusal, a skill he’s hopefully unlikely to need while in his current job.

The leap from bombs to beer though isn’t that unusual, Fritsch – who had a career in the US Navy in Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) before joining the brewing industry – assures The Morning Advertiser ​over a video chat. “It’s a very natural transition, even though it might seem a little obscure to outsiders."

Many ex-military service people leave the forces, go on to business school and then find themselves working for an international business – it just makes sense, since such personnel have experience dealing with large teams as well as global travel, he coolly explains.

But was there a particular draw towards beer? Well, yes, actually. Fritsch is from St Louis, Missouri, which incidentally is where Budweiser’s owner Anheuser-Busch (now AB InBev) was founded. “That’s the place to work where I’m from, it’s like the coolest place to work where I was raised,” he says.

Quick Q&A with Ryan Fritsch:

Q: How do you encourage consumers to drink BBG products in pubs when they’re cheaper in supermarkets?

A: “It’s an interesting question and the way we look at our products is we want them to be available wherever people have the occasions that the want to have a beer, and this is not just at home or in the on-trade, it’s all of these because people aren’t siloed into these respective areas.
“It’s our job as a beer company to make sure that people can enjoy  our products wherever they have the occasion and the perfect example of pushing in the on-trade is the Corona draught, the new fonts feel very unique and luxurious and it’s made the beer more of an occasion.”

Q: Has the name coronavirus affected Corona sales?

A: “It was quite interesting when Covid happened, people thought the  brand would be damaged, but there were a lot of articles from scholars saying it wouldn’t and it was ridiculous to make that parallel.
“The brand was growing very well pre-Covid globally at around 21% growth in 2019 and it’s continued that momentum with ease.”

Q: How were on-trade sales prior to coronavirus?

A: “Pre-Covid we were growing incredibly well and our portfolio leans on the premium end of the market, so growth has been incredibly strong. Obviously with Covid, things were paused but I’m expecting, in terms of market share, that we will continue capturing the market share growth that we were seeing at the backend of 2019 into the beginning of 2020.”

Q: Main long-term focuses for the UK on-trade?

A: “Our dream is to be the number one brewer in the UK in terms of total trade, which we’ve been able to successfully do in the last few weeks, however, to maintain this status we need to have a more dominant presence in the on-trade.”

Q: Is AB InBev/BBG looking to make any acquisitions in the near future?

A: “In terms of how we operate in an acquisition, it’s quite confidential, even for me. I would find out not long before the  public would.
“We have an acquisition group that looks at these opportunities, but right now, I apologise to say, there’s nothing exciting to announce in that sense.”

“I always figured I’d end up working there one day if I could make it, so leaving the military, if I wasn’t going to get into business school, my hopes were to move back home [to St Louis] and try to find a job at InBev.”

Although it’s not just the fact that AB InBev is the ​place to work for most in his hometown. No, Fritsch also happens to have a deep passion for beer and brewing, describing himself as a keen home brewer.

“I’ve been a home brewer for years, almost a decade, and quite passionate about beer since I was old enough to drink it, throughout my time in the military and now in my corporate career” he explains.

Those hoping to hear of home brewing disasters will be disappointed, however, as Fritsch has none to offer. There are no tales of brews gone rancid or exploding fermentations – perhaps down to is EOD training. Or, if there are, then sadly Fritsch remains tight-lipped when it comes to disclosing such details – maybe another hangover from his military training.

“Something that’s quite interesting as a home brewer is you usually focus on ales, because it’s a lot easier in terms of [getting] room temperatures right,” he says. “Ales are a lot more forgiving of mistakes in the brewing, so you end up spending a lot of time brewing things like IPAs, pale ales and I brew a lot of stouts.”

Quite easy to brew

Surprisingly, although perhaps not when he explains, Fritsch shies away from making his own versions of beers Budweiser is famous for, lager. “What I don’t spend a lot of time doing is making lagers, because they are not forgiving enough.

“People think that because they have very smooth profiles, they must be quite easy to brew, but it’s actually the complete opposite. The forgiveness in brewing a lager is so small that if you do anything wrong in the brewing process anyone can taste it.”

And this is where the conversation segues smoothly into talk about his current role, as he states: “Consumers probably thing it’s really easy to make a pilsner and things like that, but no it’s not. I leave it to the experts and I would say the company I work for has mastered that quite well.”

After leaving military life Fritsch, as already stated, went to business school for an education that would help him during the next stages of his life. He then achieved his dream of working for "mothership" – AB InBev.

He joined the company as an MBA in its Belgium office a few years ago where he worked in revenue management, pricing and portfolio strategy, which was his big break. He oversaw sales analytics in Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany, studying their sales data. Then an opportunity to become Luxembourg country manager was snapped up, before he transitioned to the UK as sales director for the on-trade.

In all, he’s moved nine times in as many years and is looking forward to settling into a longer-term role where he can lay down some roots and make a big impact in what will be his largest corporate role to date.

So surely we should be expecting some big changes in the UK on-trade market from BBG. “Change? Not so much,” he slowly says, considering what the aims of the business are. “We’re on a good trajectory, but improvement is an absolute.”

The focus of the improvements will be in the on-trade, as Fritsch admits BBG has predominantly focused on the UK off-trade over the past decade. “But we have been growing quite successful in the on-trade pre-lockdown.”

He continues: “My big focus is to continue that on-trade growth momentum, particularly within our premium beer portfolio.” One of the premium beers focused on will be Corona draught, following the recent launch of the new high-impact font. And no, sales of Corona haven’t and won’t be impacted by the outbreak of a deadly namesake pandemic: “customers are more intelligent than that”, he says.

“By launching a draught Corona offer, we’re solidifying that it’s not just a bottle brand, but something that people recognise and really claim as something they’re interested in in the on-trade.

“But it’s also improving our customer image as an on-trade supplier, to be the beer supplier for the on-trade for all of our customers, and not only a brand, but a true supplier and a company that pubs can lean on,” he adds, explaining BBG launched its own large dispense team on 1 April this year.

Obviously the function of his team had less of an impact after the on-trade closed its doors in March in a bid to stem the spread of the coronavirus in the UK - a subject it feels Fritsch isn’t willing to dwell on, especially as we’re talking shortly after pubs were given the go ahead to reopen.

“Covid changed everything, we were on great growth,” he explains. “Corona was growing and our brands were doing really well, but with the lockdown, focus went very dramatically onto how we support our customers.

“So yes, our brands were doing great, but then it was all about how we become an even better supplier?”

A simple concept

And then came BBG’s Save Pub Life campaign, which raised over £1m in support of the UK on-trade following its launch shortly after lockdown.

“We launched it when lockdown started to try and smooth the cashflows of our pub operators, because they didn’t have any cash coming in," Fritsch explains. "It was a simple concept, allowing consumers to buy gift cards for their local pubs.”

rona font

The cards were acquired and BBG also put in additional funds to help support the trade, which has been used, he says, to help pubs during reopening. “It’s customer focused, to make sure the customers in pubs feel safe. So, buying hand sanitiser for the pubs and facemasks and putting in place various programmes for the pubs,” he explains.

“We’ve also partnered with a start-up called Slurp that not only does digital menus for people sitting in pubs, but also delivery and click and collect for takeaway. We knew pubs would be at a limited capacity when they reopened, so we wanted to help expand their exposure to beyond the people who are sitting in them.”

Much of BBG’s focus once pubs were able to reopen was on getting more feet through the doors of venues, pivoting its gift card scheme onto the next phase. “A big thing that we’re doing is understanding what our operators need,” he continues.

“There needs to be a drive on footfall and saving the operator cash. A perfect example of this is we partnered with energy supplier Opus Energy, which reduces a site’s energy bill if you sign up for renewable energy.

“The other piece is we’re partnering with BT Sport and have agreed an initiative with them to provide incentives for a discount on an operator’s BT bill and, of course, we know that sport drives footfall because people want to go and watch football in a pub.”

Coronavirus aside, what does this well-travelled American think of the British pub culture? “I have to say that the pub culture in the UK is nothing like I’ve seen anywhere else.

“I’ve lived in Europe for a couple of years and I’m from the mid-west, but pubs here are like the epicentre of local communities and although there is a little bit of that where I’m from in the US, it’s honestly not to the same heights as here or as pivotal and interesting as it is in the UK.”

So, a huge compliment for the great British pub from him, but also the people within them as he continues: “It’s also interesting to see that people aren’t – and I’ve not seen this before – just passionate about missing the pub at the moment, but the publicans themselves. People are missing the operators and the relationships they have with them, which I think is something quite special.”

However, it’s worth noting that such comments have been made countless times by many of Fritsch’s predecessors. That said, with the recent launch of Budweiser Drinks Dispense and the expensive new Corona font, perhaps Fritsch is ready to drop a bomb of his own in the sector. Only time will tell.

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