Heineken CEO Jean-Francois van Boxmeer On Leading 150 Year Old Company

Management consulting firm McKinsey and Co. published an interview with Heineken N.V. (AMS:HEIA) CEO Jean-Francois van Boxmeer on Friday, October 24th. The wide-ranging interviews touches on many topics, but focuses on leadership given both corporate tradition and changing consumer and societal demands. Van Boxmeer has been with Heineken since 1984, has worked in several capacities in Africa and Europe. He has been CEO and chairman of the board at Heineken for nine years.

Early years working in Africa shaped perspective

Van Boxmeer said his decade spent working for Heineken in Africa has colored the rest of his career. “I spent ten years of my life there. Those were very exciting years where, beyond leading a commercial organization, you also had to deal with a lot of societal problems, emergency problems, all kinds of things you were unprepared for. They were extraordinary people with an extraordinary energy in very adverse conditions, and that has shaped me.

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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.”

Much to be learned from acquisitions

Learning from every experience is a big part of innovative leadership, according to van Boxmeer. He points to how much can be learned from corporate acquisitions. “When we acquire a company, there are always two sides to it. You have the processes that you discover in an acquired company, and you have the people. And from time to time, you see that processes in an acquired company are interesting and could be adapted for the worldwide Heineken Group. In 2010, we took over a huge Mexican brewery, Cuahautémoc Moctezuma. They had very tight processes for planning, and that inspired us to really tighten up our planning processes for the whole organization.”

Maintaining a long-term perspective

Van Boxmeer says you have to constantly question yourself about sustainability: “If I continue to do things that I do today, will I exist tomorrow? Is what I’m doing sustainable? Don’t I use too much water and energy to make my beer? Do we not use the wrong source of water supply to grow our agricultural produce, which will lead us in 20 years’ time to problems and no supply at all in the area where we are?”

He also emphasizes the importance of balancing short, medium, and long term priorities. It’s about spotting the opportunities and then mapping them out. “Well, what do I have to do so that the next 3 years are going to be great years? What, from 5 to 10 years? And what could be in 20 or 30 years?”

This kind of a balanced time perspective has influenced all of Heineken N.V. (AMS:HEIA) acquisitions over the last decade. Van Boxmeer points out that in some countries, like Nigeria, where Heineken added to their already existing business, the acquisition was more on a short to medium term perspective. In the case of the Moctezuma acquisition, it was also more short and medium term, but our Indian acquisitions are definitely taking the longer view.