The retirement of Jean-François van Boxmeer as chief executive of Heineken looked like a carefully managed process, as you would expect of the brewer of the lager that refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach. The succession appears to have come down to two long-serving senior executives of the Dutch brewing group and whoever missed out was inevitably not going to be hanging around for long.

So while the splendidly named Dolf van den Brink, currently president of the group’s Asia Pacific region, was able to raise a glass after being tapped on the shoulder and handed the top job, his rival Stefan Orlowski, a Polish-born Australian who a few years ago ran Heineken UK, was on his bike “to pursue his private entrepreneurial interests outside the company”.

Now I can’t say I know the chosen one, except for what I read. He is a Dutchman who joined Heineken in 1998 as a management trainee, rising to head of its USA and Mexico regions before taking the reins of its key Asia Pacific region. By all accounts he is a top banana, and – importantly – is well liked and respected by the Heineken family who still control the company.

So what about Orlowski? Will he prove to be a big loss to the organisation. Well, given his inexorable rise up the ranks during more than two decades on and off with Heineken, it seems blindingly obvious that he will indeed be a loss. I met him a couple of times when he was UK managing director and he struck me as a nice guy who knew his stuff. But was he group CEO material? Possibly not.

On the first occasion I met Orlowski I conducted a formal interview with him and, harsh though this may sound, I came away wondering what the bloody hell I was going to write. He spoke a lot but said nothing, if you get my drift. Which is unusual for a man brought up in Australia, where you expect the male of the species to be straight-shooting blokes.

As I say, I’m probably being overly harsh. After all, he’d only just been appointed to the UK job, so it was probably a bit much to expect him to have trenchant views and controversial ideas on the UK brewing and pubs landscape. But the plain fact is that he spent the hour we had together sticking religiously to the corporate script and I had to tear up my plans to devote a page to writing up the interview. I was at a complete loss what to write.

Perhaps I just caught him on a bad day. Whatever, by 2018 he was clearly on the up. In May that year he made a presentation at an investor event in Milan that seems to have impressed even the most hard-bitten analysts and he was soon being talked about as CEO material, although it wasn’t to be.

One element of the succession process that wasn’t addressed was the timing. Van Boxmeer’s contract was not due to expire until 2021, so why make the change now, a year early? His explanation was simple: the next generation of leaders were ready to step up now. He said he also felt that staying on for the extra year when everybody knew he would be leaving at the end of it would make the company “very inward-looking” while also creating mounting speculation about who would succeed him.

So what next for the man who joined Heineken as a management trainee in 1984 and rose to chief executive in 2001? Well, when I spoke to him the day after the announcement that he would be retiring in June he wasn’t giving much away. If I was reading between the lines I’d say he had something fairly major lined up, though whether another executive role or a chairmanship I wouldn’t like to say. Don’t forget, he’s only 58.

In the meantime, he says he’ll “give more time to my family and friends” and perhaps devote a little more time to his role as chairman of the supervisory board of the Dutch National Opera & Ballet. He is also on the board of Mondelez and on the shareholders’ committee of Henkel, and will remain involved with his current employer as a non-executive director of Heineken Holding, the vehicle through which the founding family controls Heineken NV. So as he neatly puts it himself, it’s not as if he’ll be “totally occupation-less” when he steps down.

If he does want another big job, he need only point to the Heineken of today compared with the one he took the helm of 15 years ago to impress companies. Jean-Marc Huët, chairman of the supervisory board, paid tribute to Mr van Boxmeer’s “extraordinary contribution” in more than doubling Heineken in size under his stewardship through a combination of organic growth and €30bn of deals including Scottish & Newcastle’s UK operations.

As a result, Heineken has a market value of just shy of €60bn, with a portfolio of more than 300 beers and ciders, including Amstel, Foster’s, Sagres, Moretti, Tecate, Strongbow and Bulmers. It has more than 85,000 employees and operates production facilities in more than 70 countries.

All in all not a bad legacy. Trevor Stirling, the highly respected Bernstein analyst, goes further, declaring: “I think it is no exaggeration to say that, together with Brito [of AB InBev] and the late Graham Mackay [of SABMiller], he has been one of the titans of the modern brewing industry.”

Mind you, van Boxmeer has not been to everybody’s taste. James Edwardes Jones, at Royal Bank of Canada, acknowledged a total shareholder return under his stewardship of almost 400 per cent, outperforming the European consumer staples sector by 13%, yet at the same time said: “We can’t help feeling that performance was not driven as hard as it could have been over the period.”

That is terribly harsh. My own view is probably closer to the Bernstein view. I’ve always found the Belgian a top man; wise, bright, considered, cultured and, most importantly, a beer man through and through.

 

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