Anheuser-Busch InBev, the maker of Budweiser and Stella Artois, has launched a process to replace chief executive Carlos Brito, the Brazilian who led its transformation into the world’s largest brewer through a series of takeovers during his 16-year tenure.

The brewer is seriously considering outside candidates for the role, according to three people with knowledge of the matter, in what would be a significant move for a company that prides itself on its homegrown culture

Two of these people said that AB InBev was working with recruitment firm Spencer Stuart on the search. One of the people said that Mr Brito was involved with the AB InBev board in the process and planned to step down at some point next year. 

Part of the reason for the external search is that AB InBev is currently considering only one internal candidate, Michel Doukeris, who heads its North America-based Anheuser-Busch business, these people added. Other candidates previously tipped as possible candidates such as chief strategy officer David Almeida and chief marketing officer Pedro Earp are not being considered. 

It is also possible that Mr Brito remains in charge for longer if the company does not settle on a candidate from the search, one of the people said. This person added that Mr Brito was expected to join the company’s board after stepping down. 

AB InBev declined to comment.

The company has already replaced its chief financial officer and chairman in the past 18 months. The changes in leadership come as AB InBev continues to grapple with a heavy debt load stemming from its £79bn takeover of SABMiller, which capped nearly two decades of dealmaking that gave it a dominant position in the brewing industry. 

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Finance chief Felipe Dutra stepped down in February to be replaced by Fernando Tennenbaum, finance chief at the company’s Brazilian unit, less than a year after Olivier Goudet ceded the chairman’s role to Marty Barrington, former chief executive of the tobacco group Altria.

Having reached record highs in 2015 ahead of the SABMiller deal, AB InBev’s shares now sit more than 60 per cent below that level as investors worry about its debt burden, which at the end of June stood at $87.4bn, or 4.9 times earnings.

It halved its final dividend in April, after another cut in 2018; it has also been making disposals to help pay down debt, including the sale of its Australian division for $11bn to Asahi this year.

Mr Brito’s departure would mark the end of an era for the brewing industry after Jean-François van Boxmeer of Heineken also stepped down this year. Like Mr Brito, Mr van Boxmeer had pushed to create a global brewer during the sector’s period of hectic consolidation.

Mr Brito led what had been a Latin American regional brewer’s expansion into the world’s largest beer maker, fuelled by aggressive dealmaking, a bonus-led staff culture and fierce cost-cutting at the businesses it had acquired.

Any successor will need to win the approval of two key blocks of shareholders — the Belgian families who formerly controlled Interbrew and the three Brazilian founders of 3G Capital. Other major shareholders include tobacco group Altria and Colombia’s Santo Domingo family.

Mr Brito’s brewing career began in 1989 when he joined the Brazilian brewer Brahma, working for his mentor Jorge Paulo Lemann, the founder of private equity firm 3G, who paid for his Stanford education.

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Brahma began a deal-led expansion, transforming into regional brewer Ambev, of which Mr Brito became chief executive in 2004. That same year the company merged with Belgium’s Interbrew, maker of Stella Artois, to create InBev; four years later it staged a hostile takeover of the US powerhouse Anheuser-Busch to become a global brewer.

Via Financial Times