Beyond the beer at Anheuser-Busch InBev

Finding and retaining the best people is top priority for CEO Carlos Brito

September 20, 2013

Carlos Brito

Carlos Brito

The world’s largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch InBev is best known for global mega-brands like Budweiser, Bud Light, Corona, and Stella Artois. But Carlos Brito, CEO of the beer behemoth, which boasted some $40 billion in revenue last year and has enjoyed a steadily rising stock price, spent very little time discussing the company’s wide range of products during his visit to MIT Sloan. As the first speaker in the Dean’s Innovative Leader Series this year, Brito focused on what he said is his number one priority: people.

“When we looked at other beer companies, they had trucks, they had products, they had breweries. Everything else was the same, but our performance was better,” the Brazilian-born Brito told the standing-room crowd in Wong Auditorium Sept. 19. “That’s because we have a secret sauce at our company … The company really is the people.”

“The only sustainable competitive advantage we have as a company is the people we attract. Everything else can be copied,” said Brito. As a result, he said, he invests significant time in recruiting, evaluating, developing, and retaining top talent. “Talented people attract more of the same. They challenge each other, they learn from each other, they like working together,” he said.

To retain such top-tier people, Brito said the company focuses on three things: creating a meritocracy, fostering an informal environment where even the CEO sits in an open office and flies commercially, and promoting a feeling of ownership. He was unapologetic and very clear about the company’s efforts to attract the very best people they can. “We can’t please everybody, but we try to please the very talented. We want to make talented people stay. Talented people want to be measured by what they do and who they are,” he said.

He urged the students in the audience to consider the messages they will send based on the choices they make in future management and leadership roles. For example, he said, a manager may have to choose between promoting a very ambitious and talented but less-tenured employee and an average performer who has been at the company for a longer period of time. “We all know what [we should] do but how many of us know how to do it day in and day out? If you say the company is about meritocracy, you send a huge message when you do what you say,” he said.

After energetically fielding questions on everything from work-life balance (“I think today it’s more like navigation.”) and fielding disagreements within the company (“As long as it’s respectful and constructive, you can say whatever you want.”), Brito concluded his engaging remarks to a standing ovation.