Q & A: Simon Graduate Is First American to Lead Heineken USA
|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
You’ve been with Heineken since 1995. What is special about the
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