University of Rochester

Alumni Gazette

Q & A: Simon Graduate Is First American to Lead Heineken USA

Andrew J. Thomas ’91S (MBA)
Thomas (Photo: Courtesy Heineken USA)

In October 2005, Andrew J. Thomas ’91S (MBA) made history by becoming the first American and at age 38, the youngest person to be named president and C.E.O. of Heineken USA. Based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, the family-run company was the first brewer to export to the United States in 1933 at the end of Prohibition, rising to become America’s favorite imported European premium beer. Heineken, which also owns the Amstel brand among many others, commands a 2.5 to 3 percent share of the U.S. beer market, according to industry publications. Thomas talked with Charla Stevens Kucko, editor of Simon Business, at Heineken USA headquarters in White Plains, New York.

What’s next for Heineken?
We are getting ready to launch the first line extension to Heineken since its founding in 1863, Heineken Premium Light Lager, in March 2006. Heineken Premium Light is an incredibly smooth light beer with all the quality and cachet you would expect from Heineken. Organizationally, it’s a fantastic opportunity—the first Heineken line extension ever, anywhere in the world, and we at Heineken USA have the honor to do it. The entire organization is working like crazy and is incredibly energized.

Where does beer fit into the American palate?
I think beer is an integral part of the American experience. Beer is synonymous with socializing. When you see someone having a great time and consuming responsibly, that is what we are all about. Not surprisingly, the role beer plays in society is something that varies culture to culture. So, while beer here in the United States is fundamentally a social experience, we can help expand the category by adding some romance to that experience. By reinforcing the role beer plays in contemporary lifestyles, Heineken USA is doing more to promote many of our products in that spirit, such as through tie-ins for our brands with celebrity chefs on PBS and the Food Network.

Who are your main competitors and what was it like to become No. 2 to Corona in 1999?
The comparison between Heineken and Corona always bothers me because they are totally different beers in every way. Heineken is an authentic, full-flavored, European lager while Corona is a lighter Mexican product with a very different taste profile. Our competitors vary actually by region. We may compete with Corona, Sam Adams, or even Budweiser in some regions. From a consumer perspective, consumer trends are playing in our favor. People want value for the dollar.

How do you safeguard or continue to grow a family-built brand in an age of mass consumerism and globalization on one hand, and the rise and craft of microbrewing on the other?
We will remain a top brand by preserving our values. Globally, there is the fourth generation of the Heineken family still active in our company, and that helps preserve the legacy of the Heineken corporation. We continue to honor the quality that our consumers have come to expect in a way that remains true to who we are. We try not to get overly caught up in what the latest fad is in the market. The more consistent we are, the better off we will be. I do think that beer entrepreneurs and specialty brewers are great for the category. They help to elevate the category at a local level, and the passion they have for their brands helps us all.

Given recent concerns about college binge drinking, how do you balance selling Heineken and the concerns of underage drinking or abuse by some consumers?
Simply stated, Heineken USA does not target college-age consumers. Period. We also ensure that our communication and packaging always carry a responsibility message. I don’t know of anyone who wants to see their products abused or illegally consumed, and the same goes for us. Consistent with our global beliefs, Heineken USA also takes our role as a corporate citizen very seriously. Our corporation and our employees donated heavily to the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, and we develop and support programs on alcohol education and responsible consumption with a number of leading institutions. A good example is our current collaboration with the New York Presbyterian Healthcare System, in which we provide guidance and materials developed by medical experts to parents to help them talk to their children about issues related to alcohol. Our commitment to responsibility is a very important part of who we are as a company.

How did you get to this place in your career?
After graduating from the Simon School, I worked in marketing research at Kraft Foods for a few years. One day, I got a call from a headhunter for a beer company that turned out to be Heineken. The idea of joining an entrepreneurial company intrigued me. I started at Heineken in 1995 in market research. In 1997, I moved to the operations area and worked on an Internet-based planning system we were developing called HOPS (Heineken Operational Planning System). From there, I went to Amsterdam and worked for our Export group, managing Heineken exports to Central and South America, Africa and the Middle East, and most recently was managing director for our Middle East/North Africa operations. I was fortunate to travel and do business in over 50 countries. It really was nothing I could ever have planned. My time overseas allowed me to experience business and culture in a way I never could have imagined. In fact, while I didn’t envision having an international business career, I am grateful I seized every opportunity for growth. This past year, when Heineken International went through a global reorganization, I was given this great opportunity to lead Heineken USA.

How did your Simon experience impact your career?
Simon was a great place for me. It was there that I developed confidence in the way I think and how I look analytically at a situation. I think I have an appreciation for different points of view largely because of my experience at Simon. It made me a better leader. It taught me to seek first to understand, then to be understood. I also learned that you have to connect with your audience and be able to effectively communicate about complex issues. Simon expanded my horizons in a host of ways.

What’s a typical day like for you?
Typical? Well, this is not a 9 to 5 job. And it’s not a job you leave behind when you leave the office. When it comes right down to it, I can’t be in a bar and not be working. I often ask people why they drink our products, and I’m happy to hear a lot of passion about our brands. Like many of us at Heineken USA, I take it very personally. So, in many ways, I am always ‘on.’

You’ve been with Heineken since 1995. What is special about the company?
What I love about Heineken is that it is truly a great company across a number of dimensions, from values to culture, to our products to our global reach. One of the many things that makes us unique is that you can bring together people from 180 countries around the world, all of whom, regardless of cultural orientation or geography, share a common passion for Heineken. That’s powerful.

How long have you been drinking Heineken?
While I really enjoy all of the great brands in our portfolio, I have always been a big Amstel Light consumer, even before I joined Heineken USA.

Your father was vice president and corporate controller for Titleist and your mother ran the corporate cash office for Mars Stores, a regional retailer. What was that like?
My parents encouraged me to be myself and to never be afraid to color outside the lines. My father always believed there are reasons why things are being done a certain way and that it’s important to not assume that they are being done the wrong way—to balance having an opinion with being overly critical. When Titleist was bought out, it was a very stressful time for Dad, and we lived through that with him. I learned a lot about how to navigate through stressful situations from my father.

If your child expressed an interest in getting into your business, would you encourage it?
Absolutely. This business is about fun. The best part of my job is seeing people out there consuming our product responsibly and having a great time. There is no greater reward. For me, this is a labor of love.

—Charla Stevens Kucko