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Want Real China SOE Reform? Let AB-InBev and the Crazy Brazilians Run Snow Beer.

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AB-InBev is closing their $104B mega-acquisition of SABMiller. As part of this, they agreed to sell SAB’s 49% stake in Snow beer . This was a preemptive move to get Chinese regulatory approval. As a result, quasi-SOE CR Snow will now become 100% state-owned (by China Resources Enterprise).

This is a real shame.

Because lost in the media coverage of this huge beer deal is the fact that we almost had AB-InBev running CR Snow. We almost had the world’s most aggressive management meritocracy taking charge of a big Chinese SOE (mostly). This would have been Chinese SOE reform like nobody has ever seen before.

Here’s my take on what I think would have happened (and I’m hoping still might somehow).

Phase 1: The Brazilians that run AB-InBev (and 3G Capital) descend on CR Snow like the Spartans in 300.

The movie 300 is a good analogy for the management philosophy of this hyper-aggressive group of Brazilian businessmen. For those who haven’t seen the movie, it’s the violent and frequently slow motion story of 300 mostly naked Spartan warriors (shown above) taking on the entire Persian army. The Spartans were famous for having been trained to fight since birth. And for their extreme aggression. They were the uber-warriors of ancient Greece.

That’s a good way to think about the management-style pioneered by 3G’s founders (Jorge Lemann, Carlos Sicupira, and Marcel Telles). They are the Spartans of management. They are famous for taking over companies in Brazil, Europe and the US – and then turning them into hyper-competitive meritocracies.

For example, in 2005, they merged their Brazilian company Ambev with Belgian Interbrew in a $46 billion deal. They basically combined the world’s 3rd and 5th largest beer companies. And their Brazilian managers descended on the traditional culture at the Belgian HQ like the Spartans. Within two years, profits had jumped $0.9B to $2.2B.

In 2008, they bought the world’s largest beer maker Anheuser-Busch for $52B (using a lot of debt). They quickly cut over $1B in costs, fired or encouraged 1,400 employees to leave and got rid of $9B of assets.

But their primary tool is not cost cutting. It is cultural transformation of management. They take-over and turn the management into crazy Spartans like themselves. And they openly want “crazy” people. According to Sicupira, “It’s easier to rein in a guy who’s crazy than push someone who is slow.”

Phase 2: They would implement a new type of Chinese SOE reform.

The 3G playbook is fairly well known, especially for beer companies. We would likely see three major initiatives at CR Snow:

#1 – Introduction of meritocracy plus partnership

They change management compensation so it has low salaries and huge performance bonuses. And performance is strictly measured. This creates a meritocracy where you rise and fall based on performance alone. In fact, the founders don’t allow any of their +10 children (and increasing grandchildren) to work at any of their companies – as this would undermine the culture of meritocracy.

They then pair meritocracy with partnership (i.e,. ownership). At Anheuser-Busch, they gave 39 senior executives a package of 28M share options. But these were given as an all-or-nothing reward based on reducing the company’s debt by half in about 5 years. If the team had failed in this, they would have gotten nothing. But when they succeeded (two years early), they received $1B in bonuses (yes, $1 billion to 39 people). You can see why this sort of pay structure would attract Spartan-like personalities.

#2 – Righteous (and ongoing) cost-cutting.

This is what gets 3G in the news regularly. They are famous for their extreme cost cutting and for implementing zero-based budgeting (the yearly budget starts out a zero and each cost must be argued up from zero. This breaks spending by habit). It is routine for them to immediately take away all the private offices, the company cars, the secretaries, the jets and business class tickets, etc. They cut everything they can and the cutting never stops.

For example, at Anheuser-Busch, they sold the fleet of planes (everyone now flies coach). They ended free distribution of beer and free tickets to St. Louis Cardinals games. As mentioned, they decreased the workforce by 1,400. They even dropped the number of blackberries used from 1,200 to 720.

#3 – Cultural change

Ultimately their biggest tool is cultural change. They are the Spartans. And they transform the culture by bringing in their own people and by driving out those who won’t adapt to their style.

The most famous example of this was during an early Brazilian takeover (recounted in the book Dream Big). The story goes that approximately 35 executives of a recently taken-over company met with Sicupira to complain about the new compensation system. They then went to lunch. While they were out eating, he had them fired and locked out.

Ultimately, their Spartan management system is based on creating a team of fanatics and giving them a way to get rich through long-term profit performance.

Phase 3: They would guide CR Snow to increasing scale and dominance in China.

There is enough history of 3G’s approach to conclude it would work at a Chinese SOE. They pioneered this in Brazil in the 1990’s, when many companies were bureaucratic and state protected. Their strategy (both by take-over and PE) was to invest in undervalued companies and give them shock treatment.

However, it was wasn’t clear back then whether this shock therapy would work on European or American companies. That question has now been answered. See the financial performance of Interbrew, Anheuser-Busch, Heinz, and Burger King. It turns out successful Western companies (especially when run by the founders’ heirs) can grow lazy and bloated over time.

CR Snow is now the largest brewer in China. But at 30% marketshare they are not truly dominant yet. I think 3G would rapidly grow CR Snow to dominance in China – and probably Asia.

***

A couple more comments on this. I teach 3G’s strategy at Peking University. My take is that it can be incredibly effective in specific situations. Such as:

  • When it is a big company with lots of bloat to cut. This type of bloat frequently accumulates in big successful companies over time.
  • When there are multiple internal operating entities that can be made to compete and share best practices. 3G did this with restaurant franchises at Burger King, with manufacturing facilities Heinz (and others) and with breweries at several companies. Cost cutting gets you benefits but it is the long-term productivity gains that really matter.
  • When the business is one where you can cut costs without impacting quality significantly. Cutting costs aggressively in beer is likely not going to impact beer quality. But cutting costs this way in hospitals can impact quality very easily. Simple products work better for this approach.
  • The business can grow just by doing more of the same. 3G doesn’t really do innovation, technology or product development. They expand by doing more of what they are already doing – like by selling more beer or ketchup.

Overall, the 3G approach works best on companies that don’t require innovation, product development or advanced brainpower. They want businesses with proven branded products or services where you can cut costs, drive productivity and expand existing sales.

A final comment.

SOE reform is arguably one of the biggest drivers of real GDP growth in China. It has had a huge impact thus far and is one of the most important national initiatives going forward.

But consider how tepid SOE reform has been in recent years. Now compare that to the Spartan management style I have just described (and take another look at the picture at top). That contrast is China’s lost opportunity in this beer mega-merger. 3G taking over CR Snow would be a real sight to see.

Thanks for reading.

Photo by leshoward, Creative Commons license with link here.

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Thanks for reading. My writing (and speaking) are on:

  • How rising Chinese consumers and companies are disrupting global markets. #consumerchina
  • China 2025″ – what a region transformed by Chinese consumers, companies and capital is going to look like. (#China2025)

If you would like my recommended China reading list, you can get it at www.jeffreytowson.com. You can also get a free chapter of my One Hour China Book there as well.

About: I am a Professor of Investment at Peking University Guanghua School of Management in Beijing. I am also an investor, consultant and former executive / slave to Prince Alwaleed.

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