Dolf van den Brink stands fast with Heineken
These days, ambitious Gen-Xers and Millennials tend to bounce from company to company in their race to the top. Not Dolf van den Brink, 40, who joined Heineken straight out of college and has stayed with the global brand, gaining experience in a variety of titles on multiple continents. In this excerpt from Fortune’s new book Zoom: Surprising Ways to Supercharge Your Career, see how van den Brink, at the age of 36, rose to become the CEO of Heineken U.S.A. in 2009:
On a plane ride back to the Netherlands after a series of job interviews with banks and financial institutions, Dolf van den Brink was thinking, “I’m not so sure whether I’m going to be happy in this world.”
It was 1991, and the Dutchman was in his final year at the University of Groningen. He was focusing on business administration (and philosophy), and he liked “analytical challenges,” he says, but he was also discouraged that so many of the job opportunities coming his way were “so purely focused on dealmaking and making money.”
Then, at a student job fair, he met a recruiter for Heineken, and they hit it off. The recruiter, formerly a sales rep for the company, used to cover the “on premise” accounts (often called “on trade” as well, the term refers to bars and restaurants, as opposed to grocery stores), and his stories about the business and its challenges, as well as how it all revolved around its people, enthralled van den Brink. The rep put him on a fast-track recruitment process, and soon enough, in contrast to the stuffy finance offers still on the table, he had before him what he considered an “out-of-the-box offer” from Heineken. Although he didn’t know it at the time, his choice of company would be critical: Heineken was where he would end up spending his entire career, rising from management trainee to U.S. CEO in the span of 11 years.
The brand name and global power of Heineken intrigued van den Brink. He had always longed to travel; the small size of his home country had prompted him to visit both South Korea and Argentina as a student, and he had relished broadening his horizons. The Heineken job, it was apparent, would allow for such opportunities.
And though he didn’t realize it at the time, he now thinks it was the potential to be a manager that most enticed him. “In hindsight, I wanted to develop as a people manager, as a leader, as a change manager, rather than an analytical specialist making, I’m sure, a ton of money.”
Among six different roles in five different locations that van den Brink held before he became U.S. CEO, the most pivotal and instructional was certainly his time in the Congo — four years spent turning around a brand that had been steadily losing market share for the better part of a decade.
Van den Brink was in Amsterdam working as an international channel development manager — a role he had created for himself in one of many bold examples of advocating for himself at the company — when, one day in 2005, a colleague told him, “You’re on the list for the Congo.” It was surprising and, he admits, scary news. He didn’t know much about Africa, and he and his wife, Sylvia, weren’t sure they wanted to raise their children there. (At the time they had one daughter.) He tried to push back against going, but as he recalls, a coworker warned him, “You’d better think about this because this is actually a much bigger job than you may realize.” He did his homework and learned that it was indeed a huge role in a massive country where Heineken had five breweries but was losing to its competitors.
At 32, van den Brink would be commercial director, managing nearly 700 people in marketing, sales, and distribution. At Heineken’s soft drink company, Vrumona, he had managed just one person, a young junior manager, and didn’t feel very good about how that had gone because the person left Heineken the minute van den Brink left. He was surprised that the company had enough confidence in him to put him in the new role in Kinshasa, where he’d be managing far more than one young go-getter. There, all but two employees were local-born Congolese men and women. It was an intimidating proposition for an outsider. But it was also the best possible preparation for him to become CEO of the U.S. business.
He flew to the Congo with his wife to take a tour of the operations there and feel out the place that could potentially be his family’s home for the next few years. Sylvia — who van den Brink says shares his adventurous spirit — looked around and quickly declared it exciting. “I’m fine with this — we can totally do this,” she told him. That didn’t mean he was any less nervous. It was an area that had been struggling for years and losing additional market share every single month. His five predecessors were much older and more experienced than van den Brink when they had joined the business in the Congo, and all had left. He didn’t want to simply be the sixth in that trend.
Perhaps it was precisely his youth and freshness that made van den Brink the right man for the job. And though he was an innovator, often wanting to retool things completely, he was also a true believer in the company. He was becoming a Heineken success story. When he arrived to begin the job, he told Hans van Mameren, the outgoing commercial director who would be staying on for a short while to ease the transition, that he had butterflies. “No, no, you will do fine,” van Mameren told him (though van den Brink recollects that the veteran did have to think for a few seconds, looking at van den Brink and sizing him up). “You will go under a couple of times, and we’ll pull you up by your hair.” It made van den Brink feel at ease, a vote of confidence from one Heineken company man to another.
On his first day in the new role, van den Brink was sitting at his desk, anxious, having had three cups of coffee. He had spent a month traveling the country incognito, visiting breweries, but hadn’t done a meet-and-greet with the people he’d be managing. So he asked his secretary to call in all 150 people from the commerce department. When they filed in, he stood on an empty beer crate and introduced himself, along with five cultural pillars that were important to him, including esprit de combat — which translates to “fighting spirit” and was crucial for an arm of the company losing share — and nkolo boul, a Lingala phrase he had picked up that means, roughly, “street smarts.” If you are not big and powerful, he reasoned (and at that time, in that area, Heineken was not), then you must be witty and agile.
At first, the job tested him. Only a couple of months in, he was exhausted, drained, and anxious. “I’m not sure whether I can keep doing this,” he told his wife. One issue gnawing at him was the formality of the African culture, where rank is treated gravely — that intimidated him. He wore a suit and tie every day in the steaming heat to exude seniority. But his wife advised him to dress however he liked and to eschew the norm; he ditched the tie and jacket. He told his employees they could dispense with formal ways of addressing him. They, in turn, appreciated that he was marching to his own beat. The situation turned around. And the second of his two daughters was born in the Congo, which van den Brink sees as a unique trait she’ll always have in her history.
He quickly picked up French so that he could communicate with the majority of workers, who were locals and knew English only as a second language. He learned the culture and its pace and attitude. He ran spirited weekly sales meetings that began with him and a room full of African men chanting and pounding on the table. (A video of one such meeting can be found on YouTube; to watch it is to see that van den Brink was working hard, certainly, but he was also having the time of his life — he’s smiling, flushed, as he bangs on the table and calls out chants.) By the time Menno Lammerts van Bueren — another Heineken company man, who joined in 1998 — came to Kinshasa, he says, “Dolf already had a nickname: Papa Plus, which means ‘Daddy More.’ He always wanted to have more — never settled for less.”
Van den Brink’s stint in the Congo would end up being the biggest success story of his career so far. And he spent a longer time there than anywhere else, to date: over four years, compared with the three years he’s now been CEO of Heineken U.S.A. Van den Brink cleaned up the African business with gusto. When he arrived, Heineken was down to 31% market share; its biggest competitor, the French brewing company Castel Group — today partially owned by SAB Miller — boasted more than a 70% share. When van den Brink left to take the U.S. CEO spot, market share in the Congo had doubled and overtaken that of Castel Group, hitting 74.8%. “That is probably the defining role in my career, when I will look back at it in 30 years,” he says.
In May 2009, after four years in the Congo, the young Dutchman decided to enroll in the Advanced Management Program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. It is five weeks long and rigorously focused on business leadership; van den Brink was seeing the likelihood that he could rise to the very top.
The program proved invaluable. After it wrapped up, van den Brink could have gone anywhere. Armed with years at a big beverage giant like Heineken, and now a stint at Wharton on his résumé, many young businesspeople, especially nowadays, would have branched out and gone somewhere new. But van den Brink says he “never had a doubt” that he would simply take another position with Heineken after the five weeks in school. He had no idea what it would be but never felt nervous about it; his relationship with the company had enough trust, cultivated over time, for him to feel totally comfortable.
He expected the company to place him in some midsize country. Instead, during his midterm break from Wharton, he took a trip to New York City — for pleasure, not business — and happened to meet with Jon Nicolson, Heineken International’s president of the Americas, who offered him the job of U.S. CEO.
What a vacation that New York trip turned out to be. It was the ultimate payoff for his years of being a company man; he was not exactly the obvious candidate, and the U.S. desperately needed a visionary leader to help turn around Heineken lager’s ailing market share; thus it was a huge job.
Van den Brink was surprised, but delighted. He wasn’t anxious or skeptical as he had been at the outset of the commercial management job in the Congo; he had the same confidence in himself that his employer did. It makes sense. Even though he was barely in his mid-thirties, van den Brink had proved his ability to turn things around in a troubled region. And the U.S. business needed the same resuscitation that the Congo got. His world tour of six positions in one decade had prepared him well for this big step.
When he set up shop at Heineken U.S.A. headquarters in 2009, the first move van den Brink made was to rip down the wall of his corner office and replace it with a giant glass window, so that everyone could see in and he could see out. He encouraged people to approach him whenever they wanted, and he stuck with the casual attire he had favored in the Congo. He introduced four “pillars” for the whole team at Heineken U.S.A.: “Be brave,” “Decide and do,” “Hunt as a pack,” and “Take it personally.” By the end of 2012, the year van den Brink made Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list at No. 8, he had helped Heineken’s U.S. portfolio gain back share in the U.S., with volume up 4.5% for the full year.
His success was largely thanks to investing in a company that was ready to invest in him. People ask van den Brink all the time why he has stuck with a single organization for so long. He tells them, “What company would have offered me as big a job as I got in the Congo from my position in the Netherlands? Who would have given me a CEO role in the U.S. coming from a commercial manager role in the Congo? In the beginning, they slowed me down to deepen my experience, but then they kind of stretched me up and accelerated it. That’s absolutely been the key.”
Not everyone will find success by staying with the same company for the first 15 years of their career (and many of the successful people featured in these pages did the opposite, moving around often). But for van den Brink and others, the old-school method of “choose a place and stay there” worked beautifully. Every time Heineken put its faith in him, it boosted his own. And he rewarded the company’s confidence with long-term fidelity and staying power.