How Heineken saw ThaiBev's APB pursuit

PHOTO: How Heineken saw ThaiBev's APB pursuit
Above photo is Mr van Boxmeer.

SINGAPORE - Through a World War, the first man on the moon and countless other historic milestones, Asia-Pacific Breweries (APB) represented a successful 81-year marriage between Heineken International and Fraser and Neave (F&N).

Then Thai Beverage Public Co (ThaiBev) appeared, an interloper who managed to sneak a foot in the door.

"We were surprised, obviously," said Heineken chairman and chief executive Jean-Francoise van Boxmeer. "We didn't see that one coming."

Mr van Boxmeer was speaking at a press briefing yesterday, 4½ months after ThaiBev first announced its intention to take a stake in APB.

He reflected on how quickly Heineken's relationship with APB and F&N changed, and reaffirmed Heineken's commitment to growing Tiger Beer as well as keeping the beer rooted in Singapore.

ThaiBev appeared in the mix in July when the Thailand-based brewer of Chang beer and its concert parties agreed to buy stakes in F&N and APB from OCBC Bank, Great Eastern Holdings and Lee Rubber Co.

That move led Heineken, within days, to offer to buy out the APB interests held by F&N, its joint venture partner since the creation of APB in 1931, en route to a $53 per share privatisation bid for APB that is ongoing.

ThaiBev, meanwhile, is currently involved in a takeover battle for F&N itself, sans APB.

"You can be very quick in reacting on acquisitions, on crisis situations...Those things, even if you're a big company, you should act like a missile," Mr van Boxmeer said.

For Heineken, the appearance of ThaiBev threatened to upset a balance that had been reached over time and under "tight" contractual obligations.

"You don't see that many business joint ventures lasting for so long. Eight decades, even surviving a World War," Mr van Boxmeer said, adding that Heineken did not want to end up in a partnership not of its own choosing.

"I have said many times that the reason why we moved Heineken on APB was essentially because the fabric of the joint venture was altered by the entrance of competitors of ours into the shareholding register of Fraser and Neave."

Mr van Boxmeer, who stressed that business relations with ThaiBev are "cordial", drew a contrast between ThaiBev and Japanese brewer Kirin Holdings, which bought a 15 per cent stake in F&N in 2010.

Kirin's involvement in F&N has been carefully ringfenced so that Kirin had no inside access to information regarding APB, Mr van Boxmeer said.

"Kirin did not make a statement to raise its stake in F&N...The intentions of ThaiBev, as they were declared in their press statement...were very clear," Mr van Boxmeer explained.

"They stated very clearly that they had access to the fantastic business of APB, which boasts the brands of Tiger, and even Heineken was mentioned there. You just have to read it. So one has to react on facts and intentions. That is slightly different from what happened with Kirin."

Heineken's plan for APB is to delist the company but to continue growing the business and the Tiger brand out of its Singapore headquarters.

"I always say that a company and a brand cannot do without its roots," Mr van Boxmeer said.

"You always have roots somewhere, and you should never, never relegate your roots. The roots of Tiger are here in Singapore, clearly, and that's a good place to be."

The company continues to expand production capacity in Singapore, which exports more than half of its output, and plans are to improve sales in the 76 markets in which APB sells the Tiger and Heineken premium labels, Mr van Boxmeer said. For Anchor, APB's Singapore-based brand, the aim is to dominate the local lower-tier space.

Heineken will also look to bring Tiger into new markets, said Mr van Boxmeer, although the highly competitive Chinese market will require a more measured approach.

In total, Mr van Boxmeer expects the integration process to take about six months.

"The Tiger brand, we see possibilities beyond the borders of Asia, and it is obviously easier when you own the brand, I would say 100 per cent, to put also 100 per cent of the effort behind it," he said.