The beer king gets a new CEO
As he assumes leadership of Anheuser-Busch, August Busch IV must grapple with increased competition and changing tastes.
By Ellen Florian Kratz, Fortune writer

(Fortune Magazine) -- For three years running, Anheuser-Busch (Charts), brewer of Budweiser, Michelob and other brands, garnered the top spot in the beverage industry in our ranking of America's Most Admired Companies. Among the larger universe of the 583 companies surveyed earlier this year, it ranked tenth for the quality of its products and services and 13th in the quality of its management.

Now we're preparing the latest edition of our ranking, and that management is about to change. Come December, August Busch IV will become the new CEO, replacing Patrick Stokes.

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Version 6.0: The incoming chief is the sixth Busch to head the company.
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As he takes the reins of the $15 billion (2005 sales) brewer, the younger Busch will face a number of challenges. Miller Brewing has been more aggressive in its ad campaigns since it was acquired by South African Breweries in 2002. Microbrews and imports are making inroads as well. Busch must also deal with the growing popularity of wine and liquor, which accounted for 45 percent of the alcoholic beverage market in 2005, up from 42 percent in 2001, according to Beer Marketer's Insights.

And while its global competitors like Molson Coors (Charts) have been consolidating in recent years, Anheuser-Busch has missed out on numerous overseas acquisitions. "For better or for worse, and we think it's for worse, their fortunes are tied to the U.S.," says Charles Norton, co-manager of the Vice fund (Charts), who is cutting his holdings.

To address these problems, August IV has been working hard this year to build up Anheuser-Busch's portfolio of offerings. The company acquired Rolling Rock in May, has inked import agreements with such brands as Grolsch and Tiger and built up its arsenal of microbrews. August IV has also raised the possibility of moving into the hard-alcohol business; the company is already testing a berry and herbal liquor called Jekyll & Hyde. (Busch would not comment for this story.)

Some observers wonder how much freedom August IV will have to execute his vision. His father, August III, known for his hands-on style, will step down as chairman when his son becomes CEO - but retain a seat on the board.

Stokes, a longtime ally of August III, will succeed him as chairman. "It remains to be seen if this is indeed [August IV's] company and if he has the will - and the full support of the board - to move the King of Beers in the bold new direction it must go to deliver for shareholders," writes Bear Stearns analyst Carlos Laboy.

Earlier this month, the stock jumped briefly on a rumor of a buyout bid from Eddie Lampert's ESL hedge fund. The rumor faded quickly, but it led some to raise the prospect of a takeover or merger.

One possible partner could be InBev, the Belgian beer conglomerate. (Though the Busch family has long led the company, August IV and his father own only about 1.5 percent of the stock. The largest shareholder is Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (Charts), which has a 5.7 percent stake.)

"When you see a company in a flat or declining industry, and the company continues to not find the answers, you expect it to come into play," says Tom Pirko of consulting firm Bevmark. If you share that view, BUD may be worth a gamble. Otherwise, we'd advise waiting to see how August IV tackles his new assignment before jumping in.

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