Asahi Europe CEO Hector Gorosabel was instrumental in setting up the unit

Asahi Europe CEO Hector Gorosabel was instrumental in setting up the unit

As the man in charge of Peroni Nastro Azzurro, Grolsch and SABMiller's other European brands sold off after its takeover, Hector Gorosabel had a front-row seat for the dismantlement of one of the world's major brewers. Then, Asahi came calling and offered him the chance to lead his former charges in a fresh direction for the Japanese giant. In a two-part interview with just-drinks, Gorosabel discusses how he came to accept his new role, and reveals the behind-the-scenes emotions as SABMiller went out of existence.

Two years ago, when he was still SABMiller's regional director for Western & Central Europe, Hector Gorosabel was given the task of selling off some of Europe's biggest beer brands. It was around the mid-point of Anheuser-Busch InBev's protracted takeover of SABMiller, and beers including Peroni Nastro Azzurro, Grolsch and Pilsner Urquell - jewels in the SABMiller European crown - were being offloaded to appease regulators.

As the man in charge of the brands for the previous six years, it was left to Gorosabel to draw up a presentation for potential buyers.

Over the course of one long weekend, the former Coca-Cola executive hunkered down and wrote out a complete business strategy for the brands, little realising that in a few months it would be himself that would implement it.

"If you go back and look at the opportunity that we presented to the potential buyers, and you look at the presentation I did on day one, they are identical," Gorosabel tells just-drinks in the Asahi Europe offices just outside London. It is from here, just around the corner from the old SABMiller UK headquarters, that Gorosabel now leads Asahi Europe as CEO, a position he has held for just over 18 months. When the Japanese conglomerate was looking for someone to head up its expansion project into Europe, Gorosabel, with his previous experience of leading the brands, was the perfect choice. 

At the time, however, a role with Asahi was not what the SAB veteran was expecting. "There was no certainty I would go with the business," Gorosabel explains, adding that he had already come to terms with the fact that he might, for the first time in his career, have some time off. "My first responsibility was to facilitate the sale of the business. [But] Asahi asked me to come along and, of course, I thought that the business is so interesting, the opportunity so fascinating, that this had to be the most fun thing I ever did in my life."

Asahi Europe CEO Hector Gorosabel, right, with Asahi president Akiyoshi Koji at the launch of Asahi Europe in October 2106

His new job, as he saw it then, was to fashion a company built around the brands he had brought with him from SAB. From a beer perspective, the portfolio was a diverse bag. In one corner was the stylish Italian Peroni brand that under SAB's control had captured a lucrative share of the on-premise market in the UK. Grolsch was another interesting proposition, with its distinct bottle and swing-top closure, while Pilsner Urquell could legitimately claim beer royalty status as the world's original Pilsner. Then, there was London craft brewer Meantime and a selection of other smaller brands such as Kozel, Tyskie and Lech. Along with all of this was SAB's European brewery and distribution network.

"What I always said was that we didn't want to create a mini-SABMiller, an offshoot of SABMiller or something of the sort," Gorosabel says. "We had to create an entirely new company with new ways of working.

"We were in a unique position. Suddenly, we were a small brewer with world-class assets. We could be much more entrepreneurial, much more agile, much more aggressive because at the end of the day we were going to fight against the big guys, against Anheuser-Busch InBev, Carlsberg, Heineken. We certainly had no intention of having a full-frontal battle with them; we didn't have the wherewithal to have one - to outspend or even outsmart them. But, we had some significant competitive advantages and, deployed in a focussed manner, we thought we could do very well.

"When you start to look at some of those things, we thought there's no reason not to deploy those tools globally, to set out to become a global premium beer powerhouse. And, that's what we did."

To do this, however, Gorosabel had to first leave behind SAB and to turn to a "new page". This would be no easy task, as almost the whole of Asahi Europe was staffed by former SAB employees who had joined Gorosabel from across the road. It was made even more difficult by the nature of SAB's demise, swallowed up by rival A-B InBev in one of the biggest takeovers in corporate history. Staff had been through the wringer in a long and drawn-out ordeal that, from the initial official offering through to completion, took just over a year.

"At first," Gorosabel says, "I think we went through a bit of disbelief and almost denial, if I can say it that way. Then, the organisation slowly started to come to grips with the fact the business was going to be sold. There were many ups and downs. By the end of the process, many people were tired. It had been a very long year, There had been a lot of uncertainty."

One of the biggest unknowns in the SAB break-up was the future of its European beer brands. As the frontman for the sale, Gorosabel had a box seat to an auction that reportedly involved some of the biggest names in the industry. There was, Gorosabel says, "enormous interest", and although professional courtesy precludes him from identifying who exactly contended with Asahi for the portfolio, he does acknowledge it was a mix of both brewers and private-equity groups. The competition to win the auction was fierce, with "tens and tens of buyers" taking part in the first round. "Even in the last round, there were numerous interested parties," Gorosabel says.

Ultimately, Asahi won through. In exchange for the not-insignificant sum of US$7bn, the company held the keys to its new European adventure.

Click here for the second part of just-drinks' exclusive interview with Asahi Europe's Hector Gorosabel

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