Anheuser-Busch InBev CEO Michel Doukeris has hinted at a shift in direction for the Belgian-headquartered brewing giant to prioritise brand building over mergers and acquisitions.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Doukeris said his experience in AB InBev’s operations prior to becoming CEO in 2021 had made him “obsessed” with building longevity.

“We built the company by acquiring things, not by creating things,” he said. “But my passion was always more on the building, rather than buying”. 

AB InBev in its current form has existed since 2008 but grew significantly in a $100bn-plus merger with SABMiller in 2016.

In recent years, the Corona brewer has been aggressive in acquiring fast-growing craft breweries to complement its flagship brands. Under Doukeris and predecessor Carlos Brito, however, AB InBev has also focused on cutting its net debt, from 5.5 its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation in 2016, to 3.5 times at the end of 2022.

The company remains, however, $80bn in debt, something Doukeris said he was determined to bring down through a continued emphasis on zero-based budgeting – a tool by which all expenses must be justified for each new period, rather than automatically assigned based on past allocations.

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“Every dollar that is spent counts,” Doukeris said.

Prior to becoming CEO at AB InBev in 2021, Doukeris ran the Chinese arm of the group from 2010 to 2012, staying on as president of its Asia-Pacific division until 2016.

He said the exposure to Beijing’s “five-year plans” – a concept by which the Chinese Communist Party issues strategies for economic development once every five years – has helped him look to the long-term when repositioning AB InBev to meet future challenges.

“The big click that came to me when seeing this five-year plan… in China was this very structured assumption that you want to build things on a more long-term basis,” he said, adding the approach would enable the brewer to identify future trends in beverages earlier.

He said: “It’s almost like you avoid a battle for something by positioning yourself ahead of everybody else for that thing. You’re fighting the fight but without having direct confrontation.”

Earlier this week, the marketing executive responsible for AB InBev’s Bud Light brand was reportedly placed on an extended leave of absence.

According to AdAge, Alissa Heinerscheid is to step back from her role as Bud Light’s vice president of marketing, after a partnership between the brand and transgender woman Dylan Mulvaney led to boycotting calls from US anti-trans activists.