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It’s a question that comes up a lot: How can a company be, or claim to be, a Canadian leader when it’s owned by a foreign corporation? In the beer business, it affects how people perceive our products, how they assess our views on public policy, what they believe to be our motives, and even how some of them wish to see us treated by government and regulatory authorities.
In my experience, when leveraged effectively, foreign ownership can be downright positive.
I am reminded of an article that I read that reflected on the early 1990s, when the United States was facing an influx of foreign manufacturers in the auto industry. Robert Reich, former U.S. secretary of labor, Rhodes Scholar, and professor at Harvard and Berkeley, published an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “Who Is Us?” Mr. Reich concluded that: “But today, the competitiveness of American-owned corporations is no longer the same as American competitiveness. Indeed, American ownership of the corporation is profoundly less relevant to America’s economic future than the skills, training, and knowledge commanded by American workers – workers who are increasingly employed within the United States by foreign-owned corporations.”
For the sake of argument, let’s apply Mr. Reich’s position to Canada today. It would read something like this: “Canadian ownership of the corporation is profoundly less relevant to Canada’s economic future than the skills, training and knowledge commanded by Canadian workers. So, who is us? The answer is the Canadian work force, the Canadian people, but not particularly the Canadian corporation.”
At Labatt, it has been nearly two decades since we were acquired by Belgian-based international brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev. While we know that our roots are Canadian (in London, Ont., to be exact), my colleagues and I have concluded that being part of a global enterprise has allowed us to continue to be leaders, not only in brewing in Canada, but in product and marketing innovation as well as in corporate responsibility. The lesson here is that skills, knowledge and lessons don’t have passports or nationalities, and that we should look far and wide for new ways to improve everything we do and how we do it.
Our parent firm Anheuser-Busch InBev knows how to succeed in local markets – let local managers and brands do what they know best, and share product and production innovations and improvements that have been proven elsewhere.
In annual events, employees from Labatt and our sister companies around the world gather to share, compare and compete with our best ideas on how to improve efficiency, reduce water and energy consumption, promote moderation, give back to the communities where we do business, and motivate and reward our employees.
I’m proud of the leadership Labatt has demonstrated in winning many of these internal competitions, but I feel the greatest value we take home each year comes from the insight we gain from other members of the family. Certainly in our industry, and in others, success requires a combination of global expertise and local knowledge. AB InBev knows that it’s good business for Labatt to stay Canadian because we know our home market intimately. We have to demonstrate that we can adapt global lessons into Canadian advantages.
The reality is that Labatt has and always will be a Canadian company and a Canadian success story. Being Canadian comes from within. Our beer is made with Canadian raw materials by Canadian employees who belong to Canadian unions (some unionized since 1907) and work in breweries in six Canadian cities. Virtually all our revenue is from Canada, we pay above-average wages and salaries, we invest hundreds of millions of dollars into our facilities and communities, and we contribute more than $1-billion every year to Canadian tax coffers.
We’ve learned that to be a good corporate leader, it is essential to embrace opportunities to improve wherever they exist, whether that be in Canada or on the other side of the world. In many ways, our story is that of a one-man, small-town Ontario dream evolving into a national icon thanks to an ever widening learning aperture that progressed from local to provincial to national perspectives and finally, to a welcoming global view of the opportunities and lessons that the world offers. It’s a lesson and an approach that Canadian companies, from startups to established firms, would benefit from experiencing.
Charlie Angelakos (@c_angelakos) is vice-president of corporate affairs for Labatt Breweries of Canada.