(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Megabrew is saying goodbye to one of its mega-champions.
Anheuser-Busch InBev SA said late Wednesday that long-standing finance director Felipe Dutra would step down in April. It’s the second big management change at the brewer in as many years. Chairman Olivier Goudet exited last year and was replaced by Martin Barrington, the former chief executive officer of tobacco company Altria Group Inc., one of AB InBev’s biggest shareholders.
AB InBev did not comment on why Dutra was leaving. CEO Carlos Brito said the departure was “bittersweet.” Dutra felt now was the right time to embark on new projects, he said, adding that his contribution was hard to overstate.
Dutra has spent almost 30 years with the owner of the Budweiser, Leffe and Jupiler brands, so it’s not overly surprising he’s moving on. He has been one of the architects, alongside Brito, of AB InBev’s transformation from a Brazilian beer maker to the world’s biggest brewer. That includes the 2016 acquisition of SAB Miller, which saddled the company with more than $100 billion of net debt.
AB InBev should seize the opportunity created by the transition to augment its cost-cutting prowess with a greater emphasis on sales growth. That’s as necessary as continuing to whittle away its borrowing burden.
Since the creation of this megabrewer, AB InBev has been grappling with the high leverage as well as a lackluster performance, from a combination of continuing beer volume declines in the U.S., where premium and craft beers are all the rage, and difficult conditions in key emerging markets, including Brazil.
Dutra has managed the debt as well as he could, with borrowings having an average maturity of 14 years, and 91% on fixed terms. He also halved the dividend in October 2018, raised gross proceeds of $5.75 billion from a listing of the company’s Asia Pacific unit last year and another $11.3 billion from selling the Australian arm.
Consequently, Duncan Fox of Bloomberg Intelligence estimates net debt at the end of 2019 was at just over $90 billion, and expects it to fall to about $75 billion at the end of 2020. That’s clearly an improvement, and may be another reason for Dutra to depart now while things are looking better. But it remains high. Even at the later date, borrowings would still be about 3.3 times Ebitda, well above AB InBev’s long-term goal of two times.
To really bring down leverage, AB InBev needs to lift profit, which is hardly forecast to move in 2019 and 2020, according to the Bloomberg consensus of analysts’ estimates.
That begs for efforts not only to control costs, which Dutra excelled at, but to boost sales growth, especially from elevating the amount of beer sold, not just raising prices. This is particularly necessary in the North American beer market, which accounts for about 30% of sales and profit, where volumes must be stabilized.
Indeed, the change of finance director needs to usher in a new era at AB InBev, where it achieves a better balance between its legendary cost management and spending to turbocharge its brands including the flagship Budweiser, faster-growing Michelob Ultra and its selection of carbonated alcoholic beverages known as hard seltzers. AB InBev appears to know this. Brito says new finance director Fernando Tennenbaum’s role will be to support top-line growth through both financial management and investment as well as continuing to bring down debt.
The change of guard may signal further developments as well. First, large scale M&A, already unlikely given the borrowing burden, is probably off the agenda for now, as the new finance director settles in. And while Brito’s succession may be some way off, given the two recent changes at the top, the appointment of Tennenbaum, as well as David Almeida as chief strategy and technology officer, appears to set the backdrop for this process.
Still, if there is one more thing that Megabrew excels at, it’s unleashing a mega-surprise on investors.
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Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.
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