AB InBev Switches U.S. Boss as It Struggles With Sales Slump

By Jennifer Maloney Features Dow Jones Newswires

Anheuser-Busch InBev NV is shuffling the leadership of its North American business, putting another company veteran from Brazil in charge of the largest U.S. brewer as it struggles to end a long slump in sales of Budweiser and Bud Light.

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Michel Doukeris, chief sales officer for the global brewer, will take the helm of the U.S. subsidiary, Anheuser-Busch, on Jan. 1, succeeding João Castro Neves, who has run the division since 2015. Mr. Castro Neves, 50 years old, is leaving after 22 years at the company "to pursue other opportunities," AB InBev said.

The shake-up includes a handful of other executive changes, including the promotion of a PepsiCo Inc. alum and former U.S. intelligence officer, Brendan Whitworth, to vice president of sales for North America, succeeding Brazilian Alex Medicis.

AB InBev's sales in the U.S. have fallen as Americans shift away from domestic lagers toward craft beers, Mexican imports, wine and spirits. The company's share of the U.S. beer market, its largest, fell to 44.1% in 2016 from 48.2% in 2011, according to research firm Euromonitor International. That slide has continued this year, especially for its biggest seller, Bud Light.

The management changes mark a new phase for the company's U.S. operations, said Carlos Brito, chief executive of the Belgium-based behemoth. The first phase, after InBev's 2008 takeover of Anheuser-Busch, was aimed at cutting costs and paying off debt. The second focused on expanding the portfolio with craft beers and growing higher-end brands such as Stella Artois and Michelob Ultra, Mr. Brito said.

"Now, we're going to have a more commercially minded person at the head of the business" with a background in sales and marketing, Mr. Brito said in an interview. The new chief's mandate: to boost revenue.

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Mr. Doukeris, a 44-year-old Brazilian, joined the company in 1996. He worked as vice president of soft drinks for Latin America before moving to China, where he rose to become head of the company's Asia-Pacific operations in 2013. He is currently based in New York.

The new Anheuser-Busch chief said he aims to increase speed to market and pledged to invest more in data and analytics to do more targeted local and regional marketing. "We need to understand the consumer needs, " Mr. Doukeris said in an interview.

Mr. Doukeris and Mr. Brito said they would continue to develop the brewer's portfolio to offer brands that work for different occasions and didn't rule out further acquisitions. The company is still digesting its $100 billion merger with SABMiller last year, which lessened its reliance on the U.S. market.

AB InBev has been unable to arrest a nearly two-decade decline in Budweiser sales, even as it has moved aggressively to expand Budweiser distribution around the globe.

At the same time, its profits have increased. North America is the biggest profit contributor for AB InBev, with the U.S. and Canada contributing about a third of profits, according to analysts.

The world's largest brewer was built by a group of Brazilian businessmen who brought a private-equity approach to the industry. It grew into a global giant through deals for Anheuser-Busch, Grupo Modelo and most recently SABMiller. The company has proved adept at acquiring businesses and cutting costs but has struggled to increase its share in key markets.

Retail store sales of Bud Light, the No. 1 U.S. beer brand by volume, fell 5.7% this year through Oct. 21, according to Nielsen data compiled by Beer Marketer's Insights.

Wholesalers, industry observers and former Anheuser-Busch executives have faulted the company for frequent changes in its Bud Light marketing campaigns, high turnover in its brand leadership, and a lack of understanding of U.S. culture among those in charge of reviving an iconic American beer.

AB InBev in March addressed some of those concerns with the announcement that Andy Goeler, a three-decade Anheuser-Busch veteran, would return to the helm of Bud Light, a brand he led in the 1990s.

Mr. Brito said that for a brand so large, "it is sometimes a challenge to find the right tone. You need to appeal to a large group of consumers, but you need to have a target audience to really focus your communications. So how do you do that without alienating people?"

"Today with Andy Goeler, Bud Light, I'm sure, will be in a much better place," Mr. Brito said, adding that he is optimistic about the brand's two current campaigns emphasizing friendship and the quality of the beer's ingredients, and its recent push to court Hispanic consumers. "Of course, if you have people that understand the local culture and understand the business and love the company...this is a great combination."

Noting that Mr. Doukeris has a record of developing "local talent" in China, Mr. Brito pointed to the promotion of Mr. Whitworth, who joined AB InBev in 2013 after five years in PepsiCo's Frito-Lay division. Mr. Whitworth, 41, previously served as a U.S. Marine Corps officer and as an operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency's clandestine service, according to his LinkedIn page.

Write to Jennifer Maloney at jennifer.maloney@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 13, 2017 08:54 ET (13:54 GMT)