In 1989, when Jim Brickey came across an ad in the classifieds section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for an open compensation analyst position at Anheuser-Busch Cos., he jumped at the opportunity.
As a native of St. Louis — a city whose principal industry has been brewing beer since the mid-1800s, when large numbers of brew-happy German immigrants came to the area — the chance to work for a company with a deep local heritage was a dream job. But the Anheuser-Busch that Brickey joined in October 1989 looked nothing like it does today, and the transformation extends far beyond the typical corporate growing pains.
In July 2008, the family owned and operated business that spawned the United States’ first national beer brand, Budweiser, was purchased by Belgian brewer InBev for $52 billion. The deal instantly made the combined company, Anheuser-Busch InBev NV, the world’s largest brewer, boasting popular brands such as Bud, Bud Light, Beck’s and Stella Artois.
Brickey, now in his 24th year with the company, was officially named vice president of people for North America of AB InBev in November 2008. But there were more changes afoot. In June the company closed a deal to purchase Mexican brewer Grupo Modelo SAB, maker of Corona and other brands, for $20.1 billion. With both deals complete, AB InBev isn’t just the world’s largest brewer; it’s nearly twice the size of its nearest rival, SABMiller.
The InBev purchase marked the beginning of a series of massive changes to Anheuser-Busch’s identity in the marketplace and its organizational culture, providing Brickey with a host of fresh integration and talent challenges. Chief among them was the complete exit of the Busch family, which had owned Anheuser-Busch for more than a century. The company would also sell Busch Entertainment, a diversified business unit of Busch Gardens theme parks and Sea World, to private equity firm Blackstone Group in 2009.
St. Louis is now AB InBev’s North American headquarters, responsible for the U.S. and Canada. The company’s global headquarters is in Leuven, Belgium.
“My day-to-day changed dramatically,” Brickey said of going through the acquisition. “And it’s never been the same.”
Brickey’s ongoing talent and integration efforts as the top HR officer for AB InBev’s North American operations are even tougher thanks to vacillating consumer beer drinking habits, especially in the U.S.
Demand for beer in the U.S. has weakened in recent years, as consumers, bored with mainstream lager, have flocked to wine and spirits, said Tom Pirko, president of food and beverage industry consulting firm Bevmark in Buellton, Calif. Then there’s the increasing popularity of local or craft beers, which also have disrupted mainstream beer sales.
AB InBev’s second quarter earnings report released at the end of July showed a North American profit margin expansion for the first time in about a year. “I honestly think we’re looking at something of a culture shift,” Pirko said of domestic beer purchasing and consumption habits.
AB InBev has responded by creating more specialty beers such as Bud Light Platinum, which contains 6 percent alcohol, and margarita-flavored Bud Light Lime Lima-a-Rita, both sold at premium prices. Still, Pirko said the changing domestic beer market, along with the continued culture change at AB InBev, presents a unique challenge for the company. He also said the cutbacks and operational efficiencies InBev brought with it when it acquired Anheuser-Busch — a company Pirko described as bloated and notorious for needless spending — will attract a different talent profile.
“When you have this change of culture, when you have people who are thinking about the economics of the business in a different way, you tend to attract a different kind of person,” Pirko said. “You don’t attract somebody who’s on a standard career-driven automatic rise in status as you hang in.”
Melissa Reuscher, the company’s North American vice president of people continuity, said Brickey’s leadership style of innovation and creativity has equipped him well to manage the challenge. She pointed to his passionate, hands-on approach to hiring, and his influence on the company’s expansive new-hire management training program as examples of success. “We place a lot of value on our people, and therefore need to make sure we have excellent talent selection and talent development programs,” she said.
A Systematic Approach
Although he leads a function traditionally known for its strategic focus on developing soft skills, Brickey’s background is steeped in systematic and analytical thinking. He graduated in 1983 from the University of Missouri with a degree in computer science. He said computer science wasn’t a huge interest for him at the time, beyond being a popular major among his peers.
His first job after leaving school came with telephone company Southwestern Bell, now a subsidiary of AT&T. There, Brickey started out doing computer science work in industrial relations and personnel. Being a programmer for these departments offered a lot of knowledge about the human resources function’s needs. He would eventually become a personnel specialist with the company — a shift driven by his desire to get out of computer science and into another area of business.
Brickey stayed in that role until roughly 1989, when the position with Anheuser-Busch popped on his radar. “I applied for that, went through the interview process all the way until the end, and very much like AB still is today, they decided to promote from within, and I didn’t get the role,” Brickey said.
However, a few months later he got a call for a job as compensation analyst. “They told me they wanted to go outside to ensure they got some fresh talent and different perspectives, and I apparently the first time through was their No. 1 candidate from the outside. I took that role in October in 1989.”
Brickey said starting as a compensation analyst helped him learn a lot about Anheuser-Busch. Time spent grading and analyzing job content and doing salary surveys exposed him to its ins and outs, and to senior-level people in human resources.
Brickey went on to become a senior compensation analyst and then a compensation manager, positions he said helped him build a wider managerial skill set related to communication, influence and team building. He had opportunities to move to other functions, but Brickey chose to stay in human resources. “This seems to be something I’m good at,” he recalled thinking. “The organization appreciates the role I’m playing, so I’m just going to stick with it.”
About 1995, he became a director of compensation, adding new responsibilities in benefits, staffing and relocation. Around 2005-06, he transitioned into a vice president of human resources for Anheuser-Busch’s beer business, during which time Brickey said he gained insight into InBev because the two companies initiated an import agreement.
As the Anheuser-Busch acquisition by InBev moved into full gear, Brickey remained in a vice president of human resources role for the beer business until the deal was completed in 2008. “That was an opportunity for them to pick their new leadership team,” Brickey said, “and I was picked as the top HR person for North America.”
A Taste for Talent
Talent acquisition is the subject that keeps Brickey up at night the most. Hiring top talent is such a focus he personally interviews every candidate for positions director level and above, internally and externally, for North America. “It’s very time-consuming, but it’s very aligned with our core principles around hiring the best people in the industry, hiring people better than ourselves,” he said.
Because the company is so focused on cost and time efficiencies, making the hiring process diligent and thorough for higher-level positions is a worthwhile effort. But Brickey said the real goal is to develop leaders from within. The primary vehicle for doing this is AB InBev’s management-training program for entry-level positions — a 22-year-old program inherited from InBev.
Dubbed GMT, for global management training, and GMBA, for the program designed for graduate students, these programs attract thousands of applicants per year from some of the country’s top universities. AB InBev usually brings in 100 or so people from the program, and last year Brickey said it hired about 20 for North America.
These global management program trainees come to St. Louis for a one-week induction session in August. During the week trainees work around the clock to learn about the company and work on a special project.
Trainees are then sent into the field to work in functions such as manufacturing and sales for roughly 10 months, and they spend additional time in St. Louis learning about other core business functions. The end of the training program includes a capstone project, usually related to new brand development or marketing a new product. Once the program is complete, those hired are sent back into the field for jobs in sales or production, though Brickey said a few stay in St. Louis.
“It’s by far our greatest program relative to feeding that pipeline with great talent,” Brickey said. “It’s a program that our leadership across the organization really appreciates because it gives them the ability to look at talent from schools from which, without this type of program, I don’t think we would have the presence we have today.”
Brickey said similar training programs now exist for other areas of the business such as logistics and information technology, and the expansiveness and selectiveness of each program is a major relationship-building vehicle.
“There’re still a lot of great kids out there that aren’t making the cut that could play a very valuable role for us as an organization,” Brickey said. “We’ve created these other programs to say, ‘Hey, you didn’t get the GMT program, but we really, really like you, and we think based on the interview process that you’d be a great fit over here.’ And, we’ve been able to hire people from these same schools in these other training programs by leveraging the relationships we already have in the review process.”
Performance management is another area of focus for AB InBev’s North American talent function, something Brickey referred to as its people cycle. The cycle starts in January and February when every employee and manager assigns targets connected to the company’s variable pay program for the year. For instance, Brickey said he has individual, departmental and divisional variable pay targets.
Providing variable pay targets for employees acts as a catalyst for individual learning and development. Brickey said, “What are some of the things that I want you to work on personally that will help you not only develop and grow, but will drive you to be more successful?” is the type of question the process is designed to answer.
In July, he and his team administer an annual merit increase review, followed by an organizational people review, or OPR, process. In the OPR, AB InBev management and leadership teams throughout the world get together and evaluate every employee department by department, zone by zone and region by region. “Are they properly placed? Do they have upward potential? Are they doing the things we want them to do?” Brickey said.
At the end of the year the company administers a performance review process with its more senior people — about 800 of them — who go through a 360-degree assessment that includes a 90-minute face-to-face review session, a sit-down that Brickey said gives employees a feel for the company’s transparency.
“When I write a comment about my boss or my peers or my subordinates, in the comment section of the 360 I put my name on it,” he said. “You can have anonymity if you want, but we just sign it. So when you sit down and you’re like, ‘Hey, why’d you say this about me?’ I say, ‘Let’s talk about it; we’ve got an hour and a half.’”
Despite progress, much of Brickey’s work remains in integrating the AB InBev culture in the U.S. This is especially the case with marketing and branding recruiting programs among schools and students — do they still identify with the old Anheuser-Busch, or have they begun to recognize the new, global company?
In this vein, Brickey said the function aims to be more data driven, analytical and strategic in its efforts to integrate the two companies. The human resources department in the North American region has always used data in its work, but Brickey said there are opportunities ahead to do more and do better. “We can play a more constructive and strategic role for our departments as they look to structure differently and evolve, but we still have a ways to go.”
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