You’d be mistaken in thinking that navigating Boris Johnson’s post-lockdown roadmap would be a simple journey for someone who has racked up air miles across 30 different countries during a 10-year stint at AB InBev.
Yet despite approaching the task with an “ambitious attitude”, Budweiser Brewing Group’s new UK on-trade sales director, Jean-David Thumelaire, reveals that his team’s plans are changing “all the time”.
"Planning is becoming a sport, or an art – I don't know, so obviously we need to be agile,” he tells The Morning Advertiser (MA).
Despite covering most of Europe and Africa over the past decade, Thumelaire – or ‘JD’ – believes that successfully spreading Corona and the brewing giants’ other brands in the UK’s post-pandemic pubs would be among his biggest achievements.
His move to the front Budweiser Brewing Group’s efforts comes off the back of a successful spell in South Africa, during which he led a team in establishing a foothold for AB InBev’s premium portfolio.
“I was basically in charge of a small start up with a team of five people,” he explains. “We started to do things very differently in the market in South Africa – we were obsessed about quality execution and building experience for consumers.
“Building that business from two or three million net revenue to $150m in three to four years with organic growth has been transformative for me and something I'm very proud of,” he adds.
“It's not just the number, it's everything around it,” Thumelaire continues. “This changed the game for us. It changed an industry and was a win-win situation for a lot of people – including our partners in the trade, but also suppliers.”
Thumelaire joined AB InBev as a trainee fresh from a business engineering hybrid diploma and a bachelor’s degree in political science – "nothing to do with beer, nothing to do with business, it was just something I loved,” he says.
Yet, in his ten years at the company he’s proven that beer and politics can mix, and now directly manages a near 300-strong on-trade team, taking over from predecessor – and US Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal veteran – Ryan Fritsch.
Though racking up an impressive number of air miles on his way to the top job at AB InBev’s UK operation, Thumelaire’s flight plan has been somewhat circular, describing being flown to Wales in his early days as a trainee as a “defining experience”.
"I'm from Belgium originally and we also have a strong on-trade and beer culture, but the UK is very unique,” he explains. “My first experience was in Magor, where there is a pub called the Old Barn Inn.
“Working at AB InBev in Belgium was my first job out of university as a trainee, but after a few weeks they sent me to Wales where my mission was to save water for the brewery there.
“It really gave me the basics of what we do,” he continues. “At the end of the day we brew, and we sell beer and I really wanted to learn that in my early days. Instead of just saving water I decided to spend time brewing beer myself and doing the night shifts.
“That was my first contact with UK pub culture, which I love,” Thumelaire adds. “The atmosphere is unique compared to anything I've seen worldwide. I've travelled in 30 countries for my work and have never seen something like the connection that exists for the consumer.”
As such, Thumelaire tells The MA that he was “very excited” almost six months ago when he got the call to become Budweiser Brewing Group UK & Ireland’s on-trade sales director. “That was very special for me,” he recalls.
“The on-trade is part of the social fabric, something historical – pubs are hundreds of years old. It's been quite an exciting journey and I’m very happy to be back."
You can’t fix problems from an ivory tower
By his own admission, Thumelaire knew “nothing” about saving water before being dispatched to south Wales by AB InBev but looking back, he acknowledges that the lessons learned while trying have spilled over into his other roles at the company.
“I had absolutely no clue when they sent me there,” he recalls. “But I did all the jobs, I wanted to do everything to understand. Ultimately that's how I solved it – being in the field, with the people, seeing what's happening and getting your hands dirty is how I saw tanks overflowing. I was asking questions.
“It’s always been on my mind when I solve problems to be very close to the field, to the reality – not being in your ivory tower and not knowing how things really work.”
Thumelaire wants to do things “a bit differently” in the UK on-trade.
“The first reason for that is that we're in a different world right now,” he says. “Not doing things differently would probably be the craziest thing.
"In the short-term the most important thing is supporting our partners in the industry – that's the very basic thing I want to focus on before I talk about anything else.
"I've been in different roles throughout my career and it's always been about quite strong, organic growth – that's what I like, to build brands, and the place you do that, for me, is in the on-trade,” he continues.
What’s more, with a portfolio boasting Corona, Bud Light Stella Artois and Camden Town – which Budweiser Brewing Group integrated in November – to work with in addition to recent dispense and service solution improvements, Thumelaire heads out into the field in the name of what he describes as a “more complete brewer”.
“I think now we finally have the means, but of course it isn't going to happen by magic and that's where I come in,” he says.
“If you look at Budweiser Brewing Group today, we're already very strong in the off-trade and we're under index in the on-trade in terms of market share,” he continues.
“As a company, if we want to continue growing, the on-trade is one of, if not the biggest opportunities – that's how we want to invest.
"I'm a big believer in building brands in the on-trade,” he adds. “The obsession about the execution of brands and building consumer experiences is something I'm very big on.”
Where does on-trade growth lie?
Low and no alcohol: "It's obviously a very important trend – I think it's not even a trend anymore, it's a lifestyle that a lot of people choose. A lot of research is showing now that a quarter of British people are trying to actively reduce their alcohol intake.
“We have our own goals when it comes to smart drinking, we've made a commitment to have 20% of our sales volume in low and no alcohol by 2025, something we're taking very seriously.
“We launched Bud Zero last year, Stella Artois Alcohol Free, and we're growing and making these brands more available in the on-trade to make sure the consumer has the choice.
“I think it's still less developed in the on-trade versus the off-trade. If we look at the category numbers it's clearly smaller.”
Premiumisation: "For me it's really about premiumisation. We've seen it for years and last year, during Covid, what was interesting to see was that premiumisation accelerated.
“We've seen across categories that consumers are trading up, they want to treat themselves, have a real experience and go for something more premium.
“Categories like world lager, premium, premium 4%, have been the fastest growing categories last year in the on-trade and something we believe is going to continue.
“That's quite exciting for us. We have transformed our portfolio of beer brands in the last year and Stella Artois is making a big comeback – it was one of our best performing brands last year in both on-trade and off-trade.”
‘Weird year’ for Corona
One such brand, however, faced the potential hurdle of the hitting expansion trail in the UK at the same time as a deadly namesake virus.
"Last year was a bit of a weird year to start launching Corona Draught,” Thumelaire reflects. “But it was a big gap for us in our portfolio.”
Yet despite £112m dropping off the beer’s brand value in the year to August 2020, and a name clash with a global pandemic, Corona remained the world’s most valuable beer brand according to Brand Finance.
The brand valuation consultancy’s annual report on the strongest and most valuable alcoholic drinks brands saw Corona cling to top spot in its beer list despite the Mexican lager’s value falling from approximately £6.4bn to £6.3bn.
However, Thumelaire’s predecessor Ryan Fritsch diffused speculation that Corona’s brand and sales figures had been dented by a pandemic name clash.
“It was quite interesting when Covid-19 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,” he told The MA in August.
“If you look at Corona as a brand in the UK, it is one of the strongest,” Thumelaire updates. “We were completely not capturing that in the on-trade.
“We basically didn't have a proposal on draught, and we know the British consumer loves a pint. As a consequence of being just in a bottle we were clearly not capturing the market-share opportunity that we had.
“As soon as we launched it, the draught proposal worked very well,” he continues. “It was very positive – consumer response, volume, great numbers from the beginning. Obviously, we haven't been able to see everything that it could do in a normal year, but we think we have a winning solution.
"If you combine our new portfolio and historical brands, we can transform the game. We think we have something transformational that can change the game."
‘Official partner of the reopening'
While Thumelaire expects the forthcoming, albeit staggered, resumption of trade in the UK’s pubs and bars to be the “real one”, he suggests that sites may reopen in a manner “quite different” to what’s gone before.
“The first thing is that versus the last reopening, people will be more ready,” he says.
“I would expect pubs to be more prepared versus last time. Last time was very unknown in terms of safety measures and how to get organised.
“We want to help them in that journey so that's been a big focus of ours,” Thumelaire continues. “To support the on-trade with Save Pub Life we leveraged £1.5m for the industry in two waves and now we're looking forward to supporting the on-trade again.
“We want to become the official partner of the reopening – that's going to be a lot of work for us.”
As such, when The MA speaks to Thumelaire in spring 2021, he claims that he and his team are in the middle of designing what that next wave of support will look like.
“The biggest focus for my team right now is to design that support package for the on-trade to reopen,” he says.
“We expect this reopening to be the 'real one' – that's what we all hope for and now with the vaccine progressing we can hope for a definite reopening and so clearly we need to think ‘how do we design something that is relevant in the new environment' which is pretty exciting."
Top tips: a summer of opportunity
Re-opening is on the horizon for the nation’s pubs and bars. Jean-David Thumelaire, on-trade sales director at Budweiser Brewing Group, shares his top three tips to help the on-trade capitalise on a summer of opportunity.
Get your beer selection right
Beer is the biggest selling category in the on-trade so it’s important to get your offering right.
Last year, Stella Artois was the best performing premium beer brand making it an obvious choice this summer. Alongside stocking the right brands, publicans must also consider the whole offering, from glassware, dispense and having the right safety measures in place. These contribute to an improved customer experience making them more likely to stay longer, spend more and return again.
Stock up on super premium
Another must stock is Camden Hells, which recently topped The Morning Advertiser’s The Drinks List as the best-selling craft beer, both in volume and value.
Prepare for a summer of sport
Consumption of beer and sport goes hand-in-hand. Last year, one in three pub-goers cited watching live sport as one of the main things they missed about going to the pub.
We’re offering customers 50% off their annual BT Sport subscription when they add one of our brands to their draught selection. With the Budweiser Family as the official beer of the Euros, 2021 is summer of opportunity.
Interested in finding out more? Our Save Pub Life platform provides all the practical tools and advice you need to drive sales this summer https://www.savepublife.com/Reference1. CGA Brand Index (PERIOD 13 ) 26.12.202. Oxford Partnerships (October 2020)3. CGA Brand Index (PERIOD 13 ) 26.12.204. https://www.morningadvertiser.co.uk/Article/2020/11/12/Best-selling-alcohol-brands-2020