Tom Verhaegen

You are a flemish person, in Twente.

“I grew up in Ranst, a small village close to Antwerp. Working hard and a sense of responsibility are in their blood and I grew up with that. When my mother once complained to my grandfather about my father, he said to her: ‘Allez, but he does work hard right, Lisette’- that’s what it’s like there. Ranst was small, as was my image of the world. I wanted to break free, discover the world, which was only coming to me through television in the late seventies, early eighties. I wanted to conquer it, early on in my career. ‘When you go study in Antwerp, you’ll get a moped’, is what my parents said, but I wanted to go to Leuven. I studied to become a business engineer, comparable to the Dutch degree in Business Administration. I saw my degree as a ticket out into the world and getting me as far as I wanted to go. In Leuven I learned failing was an option. Before that everything just came to me, but now I needed to compete with the best and I had not seen it coming. The degree took five years, but I had to retake my first year, turning it into six from the get-go. I was less diligent than I would have wanted and I now view it as a missed opportunity."

You initially applied for jobs in the banking world.

“That was a conscious move on my part, in order to master the art of the interview. I didn’t want to work at a bank, but I did want to understand how to interview well. My first was a disaster and then I got it: I had to say what I wanted, no matter what they asked me. I practiced it to perfection and then I was ready to interview at companies where I actually wanted to work. I received a lot of offers, also from large FMCG-multinationals, like British American Tobacco (BAT). BAT had an imposing assessment center. In group discussions, with six assessors in front of me, I was challenged to switch back and forth between English, French and Dutch. Bat was so impressive, I accepted their offer. I started off as representative in Brussels. Bat offered a young development program that took up two years, which had me start off in the field, because that is where I would learn the business. When I got through there would be a second part, in which the managers would know me well enough in order to determine what kind of career was in store for me.”

Marketing was next.

“I had never seen that one coming. Marketing had a soft reputation, not being very fact-based. I found it to be quite hazy. I was only part of the young development program for eight months when they reeled me in. I was initially based at Brussels, then in Amsterdam. I loved BAT’s international aspect. I was suddenly confronted by not only Belgium, but also the Netherlands, Switzerland, the Baltic States - those were our markets. The reality of the business differed for each country and so I learned to adjust."

Yet you left for interbrew.

“I had spoken to headhunters over the phone, but they never had any better offers than what I had at BAT. Interbrew was able to top that. There are very few things that bring a Belgian close to tears, apart from beer and chocolate. I was eager to make a name for Belgian Beer. It was a no-brainer. I came back to Leuven, as global brand manager at Hoegaarden, and Leffe followed later on. When it came to marketing Interbrew was light years behind Heineken. We made leaps and bounds in order to make up for it. In those days I pulled quite a few all-nighters. The world was constantly changing and I was often made to outdo myself, which was extremely thrilling. At some point InBev - originated in 2004 from a merger between AmBev and Interbrew - was looking for someone to go to South America, to launch European brands out there. On Thursday my boss was at my desk, asking me: ‘Tom, what’s your take on Latin America? ‘. ‘I like it’, I said. ‘Good’, my boss answered. ‘On Monday you will be on a plane and you will only return once you’ve launched Beck’s in Argentina. ‘ Most people would have wanted to discuss the conditions, but I didn’t. In the end I did not launch Beck’s, but Stella Artois instead, in Argentina, Chili and Brazil. Argentina is now one of the biggest Stella-countries in the world."

What has South America taught you?

“There are no entitlements, that’s what we should learn from South America. If you had something yesterday, it doesn’t mean you’ve still got it today. In South America there is a crisis every few years, in which people lose everything: their house, their jobs, their money. Social security is non-existent and there could be another crisis tomorrow. In South America people know for a fact: there are no acquired rights. Our society has been built on that assumption however. We think: there has not been a war for sixty years, we have got a house, two cars and we get to go on holiday again next year. Forget about it! A person has a right to nothing at all. That’s how I also look at careers. I compare them to those of athletes. You aren’t always at your best, because you won last week. Swimmers, football players, racing cyclists, everyone needs to prove themselves every single day. That same mentality is what’s often missing in business.”

What does it do to a person when they get up every single day thinking: there are no entitlements?

It motivates me to be the best that I can be. I don’t want to depend on anyone, because I know I can’t count on them, nothing is certain. I am competitive, I want to be valuable, because that’s what brings peace of mind and self-confidence. If the same situation occurs in Europe as it has in South America, it would not make me nervous, because I know where I could be of use.”

What was your next career move, after South America?

“I wrote an email to our new CMO. ‘My assignment was to launch Stella Artois here and to educate local teams in order for them to manage the brand independently’, I wrote. ‘That is where we’re at now. I think I would be better suited for a different role. Should you have one: I am interested.’ At 33 I became InBev’s marketing director in Belgium, where I was part of a great team once again, going through an exciting period. But at some stage I decided InBev wasn’t for me anymore. Somewhere along the way I had lost interest. I was sales director, yet no longer able to stand in front of the troops shouting ‘We’re headed that way!’, for I no longer believed in it myself."

And then SABMiller called.

“If they had rung a year earlier, I would have said: no way. Now it was a different story altogether. On SABMiller’s website I read their mission statement, which was: ‘we want to be the most admired beer company in the world.’ Wonderful. During meetings I noticed their story rang true: SABMiller is tough when it comes to performance, but it also takes other things into account. For three years I was in the Czech Republic for SABMiller. I started out as marketing director, but I immediately told them I wanted to be managing director or general manager at some point. After two years I had shown them my aspirations were realistic and I was prepared for such a task. During my third year there my boss put some more on my plate - I was to reevaluate their sales - and distribution strategies, as well as their structure over there - with which he was essentially saying: nothing is for free. If I was ambitious, I’d have to prove myself. And then the next opportunity presented itself, it was Grolsch."

Who inspired you during your career?

“Brent Willis, CMO at Interbew. The guy was insane, albeit in a positive way. Like a bull in a china shop he’d run in and shout: ‘This is what we’re going to do!’. Fabulous. He’d be able to paint a clear picture of the future and lead the way. ‘I am a prostitute for volume’, he’d say. I thought it was wrong, as well as vulgar of him, but his message was: think bigger! He’d tell me: you are going to Brazil and sell one million hectoliters of beer in a year. It was nuts, but I got what he was trying to say. More important than Brent was Doug, Douglas Brodman, my boss at SABMiller in the Czech Republic. Doug was the best people leader I ever met. He was an alpha-male, disguised as a very nice person. He was patient, let you finish what you were saying and asked questions, because he had been taught to curb his passion and impatience. Doug would make you feel he was luring you, rather than pushing you, he encouraged rather than kicked you. It was impressive. I’d love to be a little bit more like Doug."

What's your career advice to young hipos?

“Act like you are at the level to which you aspire. Many employees sit and wait for a company to offer them something. Don’t do that! When you want to become a managing director, act like one. Take initiative, show you can do it and grow. Don’t wait for someone to do it for you, because it won’t happen. If you have both the talent and the performance, your company would be foolish not to give you the opportunity for you to show it.”

What ambitions and dreams still remain?

“It was my dream to become managing director, which I became a year and three months ago. It is now my dream to prove to myself and the organization that I can do it. That I am able to improve this brewery each and every single day, together with the entire team, to the degree it befits someone in my position. Once I fulfilled two of these kinds of positions, in two different organizations, then I will have proven to myself I can do it. I am not there yet, not by a long shot. When I just started out here it took some time for me to find my bearings, because for the first time I had landed a job which may very well be my final goal. That had never happened before. Good, well I realized that at some point, one day. And the next day I thought: no entitlements. There are no entitlements.”

2016 – present 
Managing Director Hungary, Canary Islands & European Import Markets, SABMiller

2015 – present
VP Sales and Marketing – Europe, SABMiller

2012 – 2015
Managing Director, Grolsch

2009 – 2012
Marketing Director – Czech Republic, SABMiller

2008 – 2009

Sales Director On-Trade Belgium, InBev

2006 – 2008

Marketing Director BeLux, InBev

2004 – 2006

Director Commercial Marcas Internationais America Latina, InBev

2003 – 2004

Global Brand Director – Hoegaarden, Leffe, Bass & Staropramen, Interbrew

2002 – 2003 

Global Marketing Manager Bass & Staropramen, Interbrew

2002 – 2002

Global Brand Manager – Hoegaarden, Interbrew

1999 – 2001

International Brand Manager – Barclay, British American Tobacco

1997 – 1999 

Junior Brand Manager – Barclay, British American Tobacco



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