“We’re trying to add 10 customers at a time. The big brewers are trying to add a million,” he said. “We’re in different businesses. We both make something called beer, but they don’t really taste much alike. The big brewers are of a completely different mindset. A-B has more in common with Coca-Cola than they do with us. That’s not to say their beer is bad. It’s just different from what we make.”
Wagner worked as an investment banker before founding Saint Arnold. The skills he learned no doubt serve his business well, but any story about his brewery starts with beer. In contrast, beer is not at the center of Dethroning the King: The Hostile Takeover of Anheuser-Busch, an American Icon. The book details the takeover of one brewing giant (A-B) by another brewing giant (InBev). Lots of hostile fire, some flirtations, plenty of intrigue, all of it happening at a stunningly fast pace.
Beer itself is barely at the periphery through much of the book. It’s most prominent when author Julie MacIntosh turns her attention to the Busch family, notably the uneasy relationship between August III and August IV. Almost every review of this book has pointed out with some surprise that the family controlled so little A-B stock by 2008. Few add that although the Busch family did not have it in their power to block the takeover it came together during a rocky economic time in 2008 and could easily have fallen apart. Had August III not pushed for the deal, and her sources certainly indicate he did so with a capital P, the financing window could have closed before InBev had everything in place.
Again, Dethroning the King is about the deal. How it happened, and pretty much why it happened. It’s not about the relationship between the city of St. Louis, its corporate and spiritual home, and the company. Recently, stories in The Washington Post and Bloomberg have examined how the takeover opened the door for smaller brewers in St. Louis. MacIntosh barely touches on such matters.
Not to make fun of her, but an example from the early pages indicates how little of St. Louis — more time spent in boardrooms than barrooms, plus the various locations (notably an airport hangar) where meetings were held — she got to know. Writing about the “Wassup?” advertising campaign she describes August IV giving the spots a final test run on “a well-known hill in St. Louis where a pack of Italian restaurants was concentrated.” This, of course, is not a hill but The Hill, one of America’s more famous Italian neighborhoods.
OK, it’s not fair to judge a book by what’s not in it. However even though A-B became a global company, and even though it operates a dozen breweries all over the United States we always understood that if Budweiser was the king the throne had to be in St. Louis. What does the change mean there? On the national scale, why all the attention to the fact that a foreign operation officially owns what was already an international company?
Those questions, as well as others of global impact, will be more easily answered after additional time has passed. This book, full of financial details, was ready to be written. It’s likely one historians will consult for years.
For instance, MacIntosh points repeatedly to how the company spent lavishly for travel and various amenities on the corporate side. Such “fat” that could be easily eliminated made A-B vulnerable, because InBev (and previously Ambev) has been famous for rewarding stockholders by ruthlessly improving the bottom line.
Although she doesn’t explain that the company spent just as freely when it came to acquiring the best ingredients that too was part of the Busch philosophy. Since the deal closed the new company has divested itself of many contracts with hop growers from the south of Germany to the American northwest (honorably it should be pointed out). Wouldn’t you think this has implications for A-B InBev beers? As significantly it may affect what hops are generally available, plus their quality, for all brewers. More for history to sort out.
Order Dethroning the King from BeerBooks.com (and support an independent bookstore).