Your career has taken you from political communications and the public sphere to corporate communications and the private sphere. Judging from your experience, would you say that communications professionals can turn their hand to any sphere?
I think that, provided you have the right expertise, strategies, and, very importantly, instincts, communications professionals can learn to master any issues in any industry or organisation. Instinct is the tough one though, because you have to learn how to effectively translate your instincts into skills.
You worked as a spokesperson for former Belgian Prime Minister Wilfried Martens and now you’re working closely with a CEO. What did you learn from the former experience that helped you with the latter?
I worked for Wilfried Martens during his European career, after he had resigned as Prime Minister. My scope was not just communications – I also ran his office, so I was very much involved in everything. I’m still actually pretty amazed that he gave me that opportunity, considering that I came straight from university and had no experience. I had my degrees and they were relevant to what I had to do, but I’m still extremely grateful. I started as his number two until I succeeded his then-chief of staff and spokesperson after two years, so I had a period where I was able to learn tremendously from my predecessor. But, even then, it was sink or swim – it was an amazingly steep learning curve. On reflection, sometimes you need a bit of luck and a great opportunity, and I think politics is a fantastic school for people working in communications. There are so many different angles and stakeholders that you need to consider, in a not-always very friendly environment, to say the least. So it helps form your backbone; you develop a thick skin and there are so many things you learn from. I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but as I began doing other things throughout my career, in hindsight, I realise that working in politics really was a great school. On reflection, sometimes you need a bit of luck and a great opportunity.
What lessons did you take from the public sphere regarding accountability and transparency?
That’s a very hard question. I think what I’ve always pushed for when I joined the private sector is being at the table and being involved early on, being part of the initial discussion as much as possible, because I was used to working in that type of environment. With Minister Martens, I was very fortunate. I was in all the critical meetings, travelled with him and was part of the discussion. I had the full context, and I think you can only truly add value if you have that. And I know it sounds very commonsense and easy, but I do notice in companies, that even today, communications is sometimes brought in only at a certain point and already with a specific brief. I truly believe that you can only really add value if you have the full context, if you know the objectives and the challenges, so you can steer in a certain direction before it’s all pre-determined. So having had the opportunity to work in such a way in the political world, it was so normal for me to always push for this in my subsequent jobs. If you are allowed into the discussions and into that process, then people see how you can add value in a very different way, so that definitely is one learning. Also, I think there’s always a question about timing. You have to get a feel for when the time is right to push for certain things and that was a big learning process for me in politics. I’m a go-getter and impatient, which made me wonder sometimes how Wilfried Martens navigated, and wouldn’t force a decision but would wait. His intuitive sense of timing was amazing, and I always kept that in mind. Sometimes, in a company, you can propose or try to achieve something, and for whatever reason, either something else needs to happen first or the timing is just not right for it. That said, perhaps the biggest take-away is the notion of building the right instincts, which is challenging because it is something that you can not really pass on to someone. You can teach so many things and you can learn a tremendous amount in communications, but getting that part right is tough and I think it’s critical in any environment you work in.
As head of communications for InBev you led communications for the Anheuser-Busch acquisition in 2008. Would you say that this was the biggest project of your career so far?
Yes, I think it’s definitely the most intense and challenging I’ve worked on, which meant pushing myself out of my comfort zone. The InBev team was based in Belgium; we didn’t live and work in the US, so there was a lot to learn. It was extremely rewarding and just fantastic to be part of the team that helped make this happen. It’s the most visible piece of work I’ve been involved in, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t equally cherish other projects I have been able to work on that may be less visible.
At what point in the build-up to the acquisition did your communications strategy begin to evolve? Were you involved at an early stage, as you recommend?
We were involved pretty early on and I’m convinced that really contributed to a successful communications outreach and strategy. We fully appreciated that not living and working in the US meant we really needed to dive deep into all possible challenges and concerns. We did lots of scenario planning. That was one recognition. Secondly, as a company born out of many acquisitions, we had an established process of working together as a cross-functional team and that really helped. It was very natural that we were brought in early on. We tried to anticipate potential key issues and concerns, which resulted in making commitments from day one in the initial unsolicited bid letter we sent. And it also helped us to be very proactive, really building momentum and creating this sense of inevitability that this deal was going to happen. It not only helped us reach our objectives – communicating the value of the deal to the Anheuser-Busch shareholders and other constituents – but it allowed us to defuse the non-business issues that were potentially associated with the transaction. We were able to effectively carry out our objectives because we had mapped the concerns of all stakeholders very carefully and because we did scenario planning and so on early in the process.
Anheuser Busch was responsible for Budweiser, the iconic American beer. What strategies were in place to deal with US resistance to their major beer brands being taken over by a foreign company?
We had a strategy in place to address the critical audiences. In addition to the shareholders, who mostly care about the value, there were also employees, consumers, the St Louis community and wholesalers – in the US, you can’t sell your beer directly to pubs and retail, you go through wholesalers. We did that by making very clear commitments on day one. So having done all that pre-work, on the day we sent the letter to the CEO of Anheuser-Busch we listed all of our commitments – for example, that the name of the new company would evoke the heritage of Anheuser-Busch (we ended up calling the combined company Anheuser-Busch InBev), that we would keep US breweries open, that St Louis would be the headquarters of the North American zone, that we would keep iconic elements, such as the famous Clydesdale horses, Grant’s Farm, and so on. Eventually, we also brought the BUD ticker symbol back to the New York Stock Exchange a year after the deal. Very clearly, we built these commitments into our day one communications and we repeated them throughout the campaign to all stakeholders through all channels. We went directly to each of the key stakeholder groups through a deal website we created and communicated without media filter.
Was there any backlash from the political sphere?
We were very proactive in our approach. Our CEO went to Washington and had meetings with the Missouri congressional delegation and leadership; we initiated a grass-roots campaign in key states and conveyed our messages through both paid and earned media. We deployed operatives with a double objective – to gather intelligence and to disseminate our messages. But, just to illustrate the potential for political sensitivity of this transaction: in the midst of our approach, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama was campaigning and his plane had to make an unforeseen landing in St Louis, of all places. He stated that it would be a shame if Anheuser-Busch were to be acquired by a foreign company. So, the risks were certainly there. That was one key area, and consumers were another key concern. We were willing to pay 50 billion US dollars for a very valuable brand and asset, so it was critically important that there was no consumer backlash. So we had plans in place and did research, focusing on Missouri to carefully monitor any signals. To effectively reach the wholesalers finally, our CEO gave interviews to the two trade publications talking about the company, what we stand for and why wholesalers are great partners for our business. In summary, we had a wide range of initiatives to get our messages to our stakeholders.
Was it relatively easier to communicate the acquisition when InBev was already the product of a merger?
For sure, because you learn as you go, right? It’s never perfect, you make mistakes when you carry out mergers and acquisitions, but the fact that we had gone through a number of them helped us a lot.
But it wasn’t a case of applying protocol?
No, but it does bring rigour to the process you follow and the steps you take. Also, our company culture is one that doesn’t pause too much on things that went really well. Of course, there is recognition, but to keep moving forward we always zoom in on what we could have done better. And, because of that, we improve the next time. So it was definitely of tremendous value that we had gone through several other deals of very different natures.
You’ve gone from heading global external communications to being responsible for both global external and internal communications. How have you adapted to this broadening of your area of responsibility?
It happened very naturally because, in effect, we were already involved in a lot of that work. On many projects, you work on the full range of stakeholders and communications tools, so we were very close and deeply involved. Therefore the transition happened very naturally; it wasn’t a big step change.
Why combine both disciplines in one person?
Everything is so intertwined, everything is linked. External is internal, and internal is external. And employees are such an important audience and key to any business and communication strategy that it’s very logical to have both disciplines under the same umbrella.
You lead communications at a company that has a Brazilian CEO and Belgian headquarters, and your office is in New York City. What have you learned about intercultural communications?
It’s interesting because I get that question sometimes: what’s it like to work with Brazilians, or Americans? But we’re just part of a very international team. So, both in our global headquarters in Belgium and the New York functional management office, there are probably about 25 nationalities working together, and it is very enriching and inspiring to work with colleagues with different national cultures and backgrounds. But it’s our very strong company culture that unites us and defines our way of working, so that is what drives us forward as a team. I think I learned a lot from working in the European parliament and that European environment. It was, professionally and personally, so fascinating and enriching, that I knew there and then that I really wanted to continue working in a very international environment. So, it’s really a journey, you continue to discover, you build empathy and understanding. That’s something that inspires me a lot personally and professionally. I always dreamed of one day living and working abroad.
Did you welcome the chance to spread your wings and experience the world from another perspective?
I had lived in Belgium my entire life and I dreamed of getting that opportunity, and suddenly, through Anheuser-Busch InBev, this opportunity came along. So it was an easy decision. I also wanted to give my children the opportunity to grow up in a very international, multi-cultural environment. I can already see that it is a very enriching experience for them, and I’m convinced it will shape their future lives and characters. So the combination of the professional opportunity with that personal motivation resulted in a big “Yes” to moving. My children live in this environment where there are more than a hundred nationalities, cultures and religions, and the exposure and the different view they get on the world – I think it is a unique opportunity if you can offer such an experience to your family.
What are your US colleagues’ attitudes towards the ‘Old World’?
Living in the US – and I appreciate I live in New York, so I don’t claim to know the US at all – I always find that people are very interested and eager to learn. They’re fascinated and admire the fact that we speak several languages, and that everything is so close in Europe. But, at the same time, there’s such a huge US focus; I’m amazed at the extent to which I see that now, especially in a city like New York, which is so multi-cultural and international. Reading papers, watching television, meeting people – it’s still very US focused. I find that intriguing, because the world is changing so fast.
Would you agree that the States are leagues ahead in their approach to communications, or could they learn anything from the European approach (if there is such a thing as a unified ‘European approach’)?
My impression is – and this is just my anecdotal, personal experience – that there’s the same communications talent and expertise in Belgium or Europe as there is in the US. I think it is still very much the case – and I see it reflected in the education system and in the job market when I interview people – that Americans usually do a much better job at selling themselves, at selling their approach, their project. That first impression is so strong. But when you dig a little bit deeper, there is not that much of a difference. I don’t want to make it sound negative, because I think it’s a very important quality – people being very confident, being eloquent. I’m sure the US is better in certain areas, as Europeans are in others, but I don’t agree with the premise that communications professionals in the US are so much ahead. What I find interesting, from what I’ve seen in the US, is that there’s a relatively big number of communications professionals with a very solid business background, which, for a company like Anheuser-Busch InBev, is fantastic. I do find that quite a lot of people have a strong business education, in addition to their communications expertise or degrees. And that becomes increasingly important in the communications area, because if you want to be at the table, you need to have a sound understanding of the broader business perspective.
Your office is located on Park Avenue. Does working there fulfil all of your expectations of such a glamorous address?
Anheuser-Busch InBev is not at all about glamour – quite the contrary. We have a very down to earth and frugal culture, so the choice of office was very simply based on accessibility. It’s next to Grand Central station, so colleagues who live in the city can just get on the subway, and commuters who live outside of Manhattan are a very short walk away to take their train. There’s easy access to the airports, which is important because we have global responsibilities, so most colleagues travel a lot. So it was a very pragmatic decision, which also benefited from the fact that, in 2009, the real estate market was definitely not at its height.
Finally, what does the future hold for your career? Do you know where you want to be in a few years time?
I don’t do that kind of planning because things happen, opportunities come along. I am fortunate to work for a company that grows, so I’ve continued to grow with it. The company I joined eight years ago, called Interbrew at the time, was completely different from the company that I work for now. Anheuser-Busch InBev is one of the world’s top five consumer products companies. And, as I mentioned at the beginning, I love to be challenged, and our company culture is one of continuously raising the bar. That means you always have to do better. Because we are a truly global company, we are also able to recruit such great people that you have to be on your toes all the time. You don’t want to disappoint your colleagues if you’re working on a team. So you have to continue to up your game, and if you continue to grow, that’s what matters. And who doesn’t want to work for a beer company?
Interview by Dafydd Phillips