Anheuser-Busch must tell its compelling story | St. Louis Public Radio

Anheuser-Busch must tell its compelling story

Jun 16, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 16, 2008 - Anheuser-Busch's marketing savvy has made its beer, particularly Budweiser and Bud Light, household names around the globe.

Now, though, A-B faces the promotional challenge of its 156-year independent life: effectively sell its corporate story both in its hometown and to its board and stock holders or surrender its identity to suitor, the Belgium brewer InBev.

That's the assessment of Bill Finnie, for 31 years an executive at A-B and now an adjunct professor of business strategy at Washington University.

The Busches need to present a compelling story to the board of pride in the product and a plan for improving the company's bottom line.
Credit Donna Korando | The Beacon

"Although it's clear that the CEO August Busch IV and his father August Busch III are very strongly opposed (to the sale to InBev) and that they want to remain independent, A-B has not told its very compelling story," says Finnie.

"It must communicate its story to its share holders. A-B has to communicate its rationale (for remaining an independent company) and it better be very compelling."

That story, says Finnie, is that Anheuser-Busch is a premier American company and an altruistic corporate citizen that generates red-white-and-blue pride in the St. Louis region and the entire United States

"Any time, anywhere you ask people (in the St. Louis area) what one company would you love to work for, it's A-B," says Finnie. "It's the company most St. Louisans identify with."

The potential sale is a "blow that that goes beyond the loss of a lot of white-collar jobs. It's a very sad day for A-B employees and a sad day for everyone ... because A-B is the preeminent St. Louis company."

Finnie is chauvinistic about A-B's importance to the community, and that has little to do with the fact that he owns 100 shares of company stock.

"I care about St. Louis. I owe A-B everything."

Finnie, who worked for A-B in marketing strategy analysis and special projects from 1965-91, says rumors would occasionally circulate about the brewery's vulnerabilty to a sale. He was not surprised when he heard about InBev's overture.

He has a couple of theories on how the tug-of-war between the brewing behemoths might play out.

"I've been telling people that the deal is so compelling financially to InBev and to the people who own a huge majority of A-B stock that the deal is likely to go through, though probably at $70 per share," speculates Finnie. (The current offer is $65 per share.)

"I am not an insider. I have not talked to anyone at A-B. Every board of top tier companies is very independent today. The board (most of whom live outside St. Louis) will listen to August Busch IV and August Busch III and Pat Stokes, former CEO and chairman of the board. Their voices will be heard clearly. But the board is independent. It does have a fiduciary responsibility and will act depending on what is right for the share holders."

"The board will listen," Finnie predicts, " and after much gnashing of teeth InBev will reluctantly offer $70."

That's where A-B's "compelling argument" and potential streamlined business strategy  comes in to play.

A-B must say "that we have plans for more aggressive cost cutting. First, lower its costs and accelerate price margins. (The fact that the government has approved a Miller-Coors merger would allow A-B to raise its prices.)

"Higher beer prices will cause people to trade down to less expensive beers," says Finnie. "That will hurt the imports. It's higher sales, much better margins and then reducing fixed costs. It's a compelling argument if they can make it."

One other scenario could lead to a perfect business marriage. The question becomes: Where do the newlyweds sleep?

"There's a a huge upside for InBev and to St. Louis if InBev moves its world headquarters to St. Louis and renames it Anheuser-Busch. That would be their global name, and it would not hurt them in the rest of the world. St. Louis would save a lot of corporate overhead."

The pluses to such an arrangement, Finnie says, are at least three-fold.

"Both have incredible historical cultures of aggressive growth. You combine that aggressiveness in both cultures, get the cost reduction and the marketing. All three of those legs working together would allow them to dramatically accelerate investors' growth."

Finnie, whose opinions and analysis have been in steady demand by St. Louis media, told National Public Radio that "a merger might be a foregone conclusion. Done wrong, it's going to be a huge disaster for InBev, A-B and its people. Done right, it can be a huge win for all three."

What would make for a disaster?

"With its global headquarters still in Belgium, it would be seen as a foreign company buying this icon of blue-collar America. It could cause frustration over U.S. jobs moving (overseas). There could be a consumer revolt.

"It could make Coke changing its formula look like small potatoes. A-B, like Coke, has a legendary commitment to product quality. Its ads have reflected the best of American values and emotionally involve viewers. A-B sponsors local sports teams all over America. People watch sports and see Bud and Bud Light."

InBev's ownership could thwart that dynamic.

"If I were in Belgium, I'd want to keep in InBev in Belgium. But if I am an investor, I want them to do whatever makes sense. They are really savvy, smart business people, and they want to do what's in their best financial interest. They are world class in cost reduction."

One great unknown is if InBev would be as generous as A-B in distributing its charitable largesse around the St. Louis community.

"In its letter, InBev makes a lot of commitments that it would protect the sacred liquid, that it would not close breweries, that it would continue philanthropic support. (They) will sharpen their pencils, but I think will try to keep the vast majority of sports sponsorship. But will they (support a local) music in the park or is that something we can cut without too much risk?

"It's in their best interest to protect the sacred liquid -- unless sales decline."

No matter the outcome, A-B and St. Louis loyalist Bill Finnie won't be switching to Stella Artois.

"I'm an old-liner," he says proudly, "who likes Budwesiser."

Paul Povse, Springfield, IL., was with the Journal-Register. He is now a free-lance writer and adjunct professor of journalism. To reach him, contact Beacon issues and politics editor Susan Hegger.