Having transformed Heineken into a global powerhouse, Jean-François van Boxmeer feels the time has come to pass the baton on to “a better version” of himself. By Eamonn Duff
Heineken CEO Jean-François van Boxmeer will step down in June after a 15-year period of transformational growth that turned Heineken into the world’s second largest brewer.
He is to be succeeded by its current Asian chief, Dolf van den Brink.
In what have been strikingly similar career paths, both company veterans joined Heineken as trainees and enjoyed career-defining spells in Africa on their march towards the top.
News of van Boxmeer’s exit came 24 hours prior to the release of Heineken’s annual figures which showed a 14 per cent rise in net profits and a projected mid-single digit earnings growth for 2020. Sales of its namesake brand jumped more than eight per cent in 2019. Those figures were boosted by the no-alcohol Heineken 0.0 line which is now available in almost 60 countries. The results serve as the perfect parting gift from Heineken’s long serving boss who has spent 35 years of his life with the company. He said: “It has been a great privilege and honour to lead Heineken and to work with so many great people from all over the world over the past three decades.” While one analyst described van Boxmeer’s announcement as “unexpected”, it seems there was nothing to be interpreted from the timing. “I feel now is the right moment to hand over leadership to the next generation,” he said, adding: “I am proud of what we have achieved together…I would also like to thank all our employees, who make our business great every day.”
Far from being anchored down to the company’s Amsterdam headquarters, van Boxmeer spent his first 10 years with Heineken travelling through Cameroon, Rwanda and Congo. In a 2014 interview with McKinsey’s Rik Kirkland, he pinpointed his time in Central Africa as a pivotal period in his own personal and professional development. “I think my experience in Africa brought very early to me the understanding of the relativity of the power positions that you are dealt when you are in a leadership position in a company. Because never forget that you can be a CEO of a company like I am today, but it is a rented position. It’s only temporary. So never forget when you climb up the stairs to tip your hat to those who climb down the stairs. One day you will do the same. So I thought it was worth three times Harvard.”
Following his stint in Africa, van Boxmeer held various roles across the rest of the world including Managing Director in Poland and Managing Director in Italy. In 2001, he was promoted to the executive board of Heineken and then, in October 2005, he was appointed Chairman and CEO.
When the Belgian took charge, it was still predominately a European beer group. When he officially steps down later this year, he leaves behind the second largest brewer in the world, after AB Inbev. Crucial to that success was a string of major, international acquisitions. He oversaw the 2008, £7.8bn buyout of UK brewer Scottish & Newcastle and a 2010 deal to secure the beer business of Mexican drinks giant FEMSA.
Around that time he gave a wide-ranging interview to the Dutch newspaper NRC, explaining why, in his opinion, the future success of Heineken rested on sales further afield. “Ten years ago, 80 per cent of our profits came from Europe, now less than half. Today, two-thirds of our volumes come from emerging markets. Unlike in Europe, growth is now there.”
He continued: “The combination of demographic growth, economic growth and political stability determines where we invest. These days, therefore, it is sooner in Mexico than in Germany. We realise that we cannot operate everywhere, the world is too big for that, but there are still many opportunities.”
In 2012, Heineken won control of Asia Pacific Breweries which is known for the Tiger and Bintang beer brands among others. In 2015, it then negotiated a 50 per cent stake in the prominent US craft brewery Lagunitas, snapping up the remaining shares in 2017. Most recently, in August 2018, van Boxmeer secured a $3.1 billion, 40 per cent stake in the parent of China’s largest beer company, unlocking access to ‘Snow’, the best-selling beer brand in the world – despite largely being sold only in China.
Charlene de Carvalho-Heineken (above), who holds a 25 per cent majority stake in the family-controlled Heineken business, said the family were “deeply grateful” for everything the departing boss had achieved. “During Jean-François’ almost 15 years as CEO, Heineken has completed over 30 billion euros of acquisitions across the globe,” she said, adding that while he’d transformed the business into a “global brewer”, he’d also successfully “preserved and nurtured” its proud heritage and identity.
Van Boxmeer has described the tall, youthful Dutchman replacing him as a “modern, engaging person”, adding: “He’s a better version of me.”
The compliments do not end there. “His ability to lead teams, grow our brands and business, in a responsible way, is nothing short of impressive. I am certain that under his leadership the company is in the best of hands to continue to grow.”
The 46-year-old van den Brink (above) certainly knows his way around the corridors of Heineken having joined fresh out of college, as a commercial management trainee, in 1988. In the 22 years since, he’s served as the company’s Commercial Director in Congo where, managing a 700-strong team, he more than doubled the brand’s market share and tripled its revenue. After his African adventure, he became Managing Director for Heineken USA (2009) and Mexico (2015) before moving to the Asia Pacific division two years ago.
Heineken hierarchy feel those experiences have chiselled him into an “outstanding leader”. Jean-Marc Huët, Chairman of the Supervisory Board, said: “With his leadership experience in all four continents, Dolf van den Brink is the right CEO for the company in the next phase of growth and development, building on Jean-François van Boxmeer’s great legacy.”
When he takes the helm, van den Brink will become the industry’s youngest CEO, taking charge of a historic, iconic company that’s deep into its second century. And, it is fair to say, van Boxmeer has left some hefty shoes to fill.
When he finally strolls off into the sunset in June, one wonders how he might look back on his own 15 years as Heineken chief?
“I wrote 15 pages of a book that’s 154 pages,” he said in a recent interview with Bloomberg, adding there were “no regrets” other than wishing he had acted faster on gender balance in a “very male” brewing industry.
In a parallel Universe, Van Boxmeer could have been head of Unilever. In the mid-eighties, the Anglo-Dutch giant declined to give the economics graduate his first job. Heineken hired him. The rest is history.
Between 2005-2017, he spent $30bn on 65 acquisitions, expanding the company’s brewing operations from 39 countries to 70.
Van Boxmeer leaves behind the world’s second-biggest brewer by market share. A decade ago, it was fourth.
Former SABMiller CEO Alan Clark summed up his old rival with these words, to the Financial Times, in 2017: “Jean-François has that rare leadership ability where he can balance the past, present and future – appreciating the strength of brand and heritage and ever-steadily moving the business on.”
Ushering in a new era
Van Boxmeer will be a hard act to follow but Carvalho-Heineken is a big supporter of his replacement, Dolf van den Brink
“My family and I are confident that his strong leadership and people skills, combined with his broad international experience, make him the ideal candidate to succeed Jean-François in the CEO role.”