InBev CEO Brito: Brazil to Belgium to Bud

July 20, 2008 6:25:19 PM PDT
The man who would be King of Beers is a no-frills leader without a company car or even his own desk. Carlos Brito, chief executive of brewer InBev SA, says he doesn't care for perks - and neither should the people who work for him.

"I don't want the company to give me free beer; I can buy my own beer," he told Stanford MBA students earlier this year.

Brito, who will be leading Anheuser-Busch after the company agreed to InBev's $52 billion takeover offer, has been described as "an American-style" manager who is fiercely private and admits himself that he did not always get "the people thing," when he started off in sales.

Anheuser-Busch is a perked-up company with corporate jets for executives and free beer for the workers - as well as generous donations to local communities and politicians. Similar employee extras at Belgium's Interbrew vanished when it merged with Brito's Brazil-based AmBev in 2004.

"His reputation precedes him as a no-frills, no-thrills severe cost-cutter," says Eric Shepard, editor of beer industry newsletter Beer Marketer's Insights.

Brito rarely grants interviews and is reticent with the press, sticking to a few standard lines when he must face the camera for InBev's annual results or shareholders' meetings. The company refused to even confirm whether he was married with four children, saying "We don't give details on his private life."

Alberto Cerqueira Lima, a former colleague of Brito's at Brazilian brewer Brahma and now head of a Massachusetts-based market research firm, says "if he could, he would remain anonymous," describing Brito as a "workaholic and a methodical and pragmatic executive."

He showed himself to be a careful businessman who kept his cool during a difficult monthlong courtship of Anheuser-Busch when both companies threatened to start a hostile battle.

"He says the right things," says Shepard. "He knew the kind of backlash that he was going to get and I don't think he ever betrayed any sort of hostility even as they were making hostile moves."

"Publicly, he maintained that he wanted a friendly combination and ultimately that's what he got," he said.

The new company will create the world's largest beer company, turning out major brands such as Budweiser and Stella Artois. InBev's focus on carving costs made it the world's most profitable brewer, wringing profit from stagnant markets and winning admiration from shareholders and the rest of the industry- but angering workers.

"It's quite an American style compared to the Western European standard," said Kris Kippers, an analyst at Belgian investment firm Petercam. "He's really an American-style manager; those who deliver, who do good work, are rewarded."

Born in 1960, Brito studied mechanical engineering in Rio de Janeiro and applied to several U.S. universities for a master's in business administration. He was accepted by several - but could not pay his way.

A family friend put him in touch with Brazilian investment banker and billionaire Jorge Paulo Lemann, who told Brito he would pay for his graduate studies at Stanford.

"All he wanted in return were periodic reports and clippings from the United States to keep him up to date with what was going on there," said Cerqueira Lima. "Brito insisted on knowing how he would pay Lemann back and Lemann said, 'I do not want to be paid back. One day you will do for others what I am doing for you.'"

Lemann put Brito to work at Brahma when he bought it in 1989, later merging it with another beer company, Antarctica, to form AmBev.

Brito acknowledges that he didn't always get "the people thing," when he started off in sales, seeing that as the only truly important part of a business.

He first saw a promotion from head of sales to head of operations - in charge of workers and manufacturing - as a step down. But he says he surprised himself by enjoying managing people and coming to understand how they were at the heart of the business.

Brito had been head of InBev's North American business for just over a year when he became CEO in August 2005, as the Brazilian management team firmly took the reins of the company and rolled out zero-based budgeting that forces managers to justify every expense.

He doesn't have his own personal assistant or company car and shares a desk with top finance, marketing and human resources executives in an open office that he says allows dozens of two-minute meetings to discuss the business throughout the day. Hiding behind an office door is for the mediocre, he claims.

Brito admits that InBev's Spartan style can make it difficult to attract experienced staff because few enjoy its "more risk, more reward-type environment."

"It is very hard to find people that will be excited about the way we are trying to build the business, but once you find them they get really connected to the company, they cannot work anywhere else because they love this kind of openness and candor," he told the Stanford students.

InBev prefers to hire young graduates and promote from within on merit instead of seniority. Brito says he believes it is important to focus on the 250 people - out of 85,000 workers - who make a difference to the company.

"These people, they are managed in a different way, because we want to make sure they are excited, they're not going to leave the company," he said at Stanford. "We've got to make sure these people are engaged and getting everything they have to grow our business."

Talented people want to work for successful companies that are growing and generating new career opportunities, he says: "You want to build something that's better than you."


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