Independent Beverage Group

Beer deals on tap: Global heavyweights step into era of consolidation

By Greg Saitz
Quoted From: The Star-Ledger
Back to News June 05, 2008

The monsters are restless, but Greg Zaccardi isn't worried.

Zaccardi has heard the talk that the world's largest brewer by marketshare, InBev, is preparing to make a bid for the United States' biggest beer maker, Anheuser-Busch. But the president of High Point Brewing, a small craft brewery in Butler, operates on a totally different scale than his behemoth brothers.
The Star-Ledger

"It's kind of like the elephant and the mouse thing -- we're just so microscopically small to these people, unless we did something to embarrass them, I don't think they'd even look at us," said Zaccardi, whose brewery puts out about 3,200 barrels of Ramstein beer a year.

In contrast, Anheuser-Busch's brewery in Newark -- one of 12 the company operates -- produced 7.5 million barrels of Budweiser, Michelob Ultra and other beers last year.

Such is the world of beer, where a microbrewer like High Point can go about its business of sending out small batches of brew to New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, while the big boys plot world domination.

Analysts said further consolidation among the industry's largest players appears imminent. As news reports in the past couple of weeks have indicated, InBev likely will make a bid for Anheuser-Busch or perhaps even another heavyweight, SABMiller.

"It's like a big chess board and we're getting to the end of the game here," said Joe Thompson, president of the consulting firm Independent Beverage Group.

The slow-growing beer industry is dominated by a handful of companies. At the top of the heap is InBev, a Belgium brewer that sells Beck's, Bass and other brands, and last year controlled 16 percent of the global market, according to Fitch Ratings.

SABMiller, formed in 2002 when South African Breweries and Miller Brewing merged, is next with 12.3 percent, followed by Heineken, Anheuser-Busch and Carlsberg, a Fitch report said. In the United States, marketshare is even more concentrated: Anheuser-Busch controls 48 percent, SABMiller has 19 percent and Molson Coors has 12 percent, the report said.

But alliances are being forged. In October, SABMiller and Molson Coors said they would combine their U.S. operations in a deal expected to save the companies $500 million a year.

And earlier this year, SABMiller completed its acquisition of Grolsch, while Heineken and Carlsburg agreed to buy brewer Scottish & Newcastle for $15 billion.

Now enter InBev and Anheuser-Busch. Published reports have said InBev is preparing a bid for the 156-year-old St. Louis-based brewer that could exceed $45 billion. The Sunday Telegraph in London reported Sunday that InBev was close to securing a $50 billion financing package.

It comes at a time when Anheuser-Busch has been underperforming for the past five years, said Brian Sudano, managing director of Beverage Marketing, a research and consulting firm in New York. The King of Beers wasn't so royal last year -- it was the weakest of the three biggest brewers in the United States, he said.

InBev has its own reasons to possibly covet Anheuser-Busch, including significant entree into the most profitable, albeit slow-growing beer market in the world.

"InBev is in a position where they're about to enter a period of slow growth," Sudano said. "If they do an acquisition, they can extend that (faster) growth phase for a period of time."

But a deal is not without challenges, said Thompson, from the Independent Beverage Group. For one thing, the companies' cultures are vastly different.

"One (InBev) is a cost cutter and another one is a brand builder," he said. "It would be a difficult marriage from the start culturally, more than most."

The possibility of InBev making a bid for SABMiller also has been floated in news reports. In a research note published last week, analysts at Credit Suisse said such a combination could work well, but "such a deal would be a nightmare" for Anheuser-Busch.

"The prospect of getting permanently boxed into an inferior and disadvantaged global footprint by InBev and SABMiller should cause (the Anheuser-Busch) board to think really hard about the cost of saying 'no' to InBev as A-B could compound a decade of bad strategic decisions with the worst one yet," the Credit Suisse analysts wrote.

Sudano, however, dismissed the possibility of an InBev-SABMiller marriage outright. Thompson also didn't see how it could succeed.

"InBev and SABMiller is above my pay grade," Thompson said. "I can't figure out how they do that."

And while there are any number of variables that could affect whether InBev ultimately acquires Anheuser-Busch, one could be the company's ruling family. Although the Busch family doesn't maintain a controlling interest in the stock, the clan appears split over the prospect of a sale.

Chief Executive August Busch IV and his father, company director August Busch III are opposed to the deal, according to the Wall Street Journal. But Adolphus Busch IV, a shareholder and uncle/half-brother to the men, wrote a letter to the newspaper stating, "A possible merger is not a family issue. ... It is strictly a matter of shareholder value."