Up close with Carlsberg president Jorgen Buhl Rasmussen

  • Business
  • Saturday, 18 Apr 2009

DANISH beer group Carlsberg A/S, well-known for its attractive advertisements and catchy slogans, has found its best ad in president and chief executive officer Jorgen Buhl Rasmussen.

The tall, cool and blue-eyed Dane’s passion for running Carlsberg and respect for all the company stands for is clear to see in the sparkle in his eyes, enthusiasm in his voice and the earnest way he talks about the company.

“Carlsberg is very special to me. There is something very unique about it, and that has something to do with its history – how it was founded, its ownership and how the company still puts a lot of money back into culture and arts,” he says.

“Whenever I travel around the world and see the Carlsberg logo, I kind of feel good in the middle and it is a nice feeling. I enjoy the brand and can even get goose-bumps when I see big Carlsberg posters displayed. It is such for many at Carlsberg, I think.”

Rasmussen, 53, came on board Carlsberg in 2006 as an executive board member and executive vice-president in charge of Eastern Europe before being promoted to president and CEO the following year.

It was quite a big jump up the corporate ladder and something that Rasmussen did not expect.

“I was surprised when I learnt that my predecessor was leaving. There was talk that I was tipped for the position but I was not expecting it,” he recalls.

“This is probably a huge milestone in my career. It is not about having a title or the final say, but more about the excitement of leading a business like Carlsberg.”

To Rasmussen, job satisfaction, enjoying one’s work and learning new things are very important, regardless of one’s position in a company.

“I have to feel good about and enjoy what I am doing. I am excited about leading a company such as Carlsberg because it is a very visible company in many markets, and in the Nordic markets Carlsberg is an icon,” he says.

Taking on the job at Carlsberg also meant a homecoming of sorts for him as he had left Denmark in 1993 for Britain to run Duracell’s British business.

“What attracted me to Carlsberg was that the company had evolved a lot since the late 1990s to become a more branded and marketing-driven company as well as an international company with ambitions to be more global.

“When I left Denmark in 1993, I would not have joined Carlsberg because to me it was very much a production driven company, not very international but more a Danish/Nordic Scandinavian company,” he adds candidly.

The fact that Gillette was going through an integration with Procter and Gamble (P&G) at the time was further inducement.

“It was not a difficult decision. I felt that being a 50-year-old, starting out in P&G was not right for me. Many people had been there for years and I was just joining them at 50. I felt that joining Carlsberg at that point in time was a better choice for me,” he admits.

Joining Carlsberg turned out to be a good decision for Rasmussen as it gave him the opportunity to be involved in the biggest takeover in the company’s 160-year history – the £7.8bil purchase (which was made jointly with Dutch brewer Heineken) of British brewer Scottish & Newcastle last year.

Although the deal had been initiated by his predecessor, Nils Andersen, Rasmussen and his team were the ones who pulled it through.

The takeover, which gave Carlsberg full ownership of Russia’s biggest beer brand, Baltika, was fantastic learning and the biggest achievement for Rasmussen at the company so far. “The acquisition of Scottish & Newcastle was a huge thing and although it was exciting, it gave me many late and sleepless nights.

“We were always negotiating. It was all about tactics and being extremely disciplined. In the process, you think, plan and talk about how to move on to the next phase. But it was a big achievement for me,” he says.

With the Scottish & Newcastle deal behind him, Rasmussen is now facing an even greater challenge – the global financial crisis and the effects on the company.

Admitting that he likes the excitement that challenges bring, Rasmussen believes that crisis will turn Carlsberg into an even stronger company.

“The global crisis is tough but it is also exciting. Facing challenges are part and parcel of being a manager. We must always remember to be prepared and proactive. Deal with everything that comes our way and don’t hope for the best. If you hope for the best you won’t succeed,” he advises.

Carlsberg has not done too badly for itself so far under Rasmussen’s stewardship. It had one of the strongest years in terms of financial performance last year.

What is his secret to being a good leader? “Communicate – talk to people about my views and the strategies I want to pursue for the company. I think that is extremely important because the more clarity you have in the organisation about its strategies and direction the better,” he replies.

He strongly believes a key part of being a CEO of a big company is meeting and talking to employees and to be aware of what is happening in the company.

“I spend a lot of time on that. I need to feel comfortable about the leaders in the different markets that Carlsberg is in. I cannot run the entire company on my own but I can give direction and drive some of the strategies. In the end the business will be run by the different leaders in the various markets,” he notes.

Known to be a tough and ambitious boss, Rasmussen admits to being demanding and setting high targets.

“I am never entirely happy with what we have achieved. I call it being constructively dissatisfied,” he grins wickedly.

Some of his favourite questions to make people think include “Can’t we do it a little bit faster or do more?” and “Yes, this is the plan, but what if we have to do twice as much? What would we need to put behind it?”

That said, he is also an old softie at heart.

“I am seen as tough in a friendly manner so people in general find me accessible and that is what I want to be.

“My door is always open, so I really want anyone – doesn’t matter what level – to turn up in my office, chat, talk and have a laugh,” he says.

He is also described by many as being “quite commercial” due to his many years and expertise in sales and marketing.

And his sales and marketing training started from his childhood years when his father ran a supermarket, thus exposing the young Rasmussen to a commercial environment at a tender age.

“I have always been a very active person – action-driven and like to connect with people. That kind of attracted me to sales and marketing, with its many activities and the speed in which things are done,” he explains. The more he immersed himself into sales and marketing, the more inspired he became, and Rasmussen continued in that direction until he moved up the career ladder, away from marketing, to become general manager of Duracell’s Danish and Finnish businesses in 1988 and the rest, as they say, is history. As CEO of a huge global company, he travels most of the time. Rasmussen often wishes he had more time with the family.

“This is a role where I am on the job most of the time but I try to spend as much time as I can with them,” he says. It does not help that his two sons, aged 20 and 22, whom he tries to see as much as possible, are still living in London.

Being the active person that he is, the very trim Rasmussen does a lot of sports in his spare time. “I like sports. I have been doing quite a bit of running. I even participated in the London marathon some years ago and completed it. I go to fitness clubs and play tennis,” he adds.

“I used to play badminton and football as a youth. So I am still a keen football fan but now it is watching and not playing.”

Despite being the cool Dane that he is, Rasmussen has a penchant for hot and spicy Asian food that makes him sweat.

And his favourite drink? Beer, of course! “I love beer and not only just one type of beer. In many markets, including Denmark, where I live, it is popular to have different beers for each course in a meal instead of wines.

“I drink Carlsberg beer the most. It is my preferred drink as you can drink it in the afternoon, late evening or on a hot day but not for breakfast,” he jokes.

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