W Power 2024

Why Dolf van den Brink, the Heineken CEO, refuses to be guided by mere profit

The top boss of the world's second-biggest brewer by sales, who was on his maiden visit to India after taking over as the CEO in 2020, reckons the strength of a true leader lies in giving, and not in taking

Rajiv Singh
Published: Apr 3, 2024 04:15:23 PM IST
Updated: Apr 3, 2024 04:44:42 PM IST

Why Dolf van den Brink, the Heineken CEO, refuses to be guided by mere profitHeineken CEO Dolf van den Brink Image: Selvaprakash for Forbes India
It was 2005, just two years after the end of the devastating Second Congo War. The battered country in central Africa was limping back to normalcy, the bloodied streets of the past were still reeking with the remnants of fear, and it was nothing less than suicidal for a foreigner—especially an American or a European—to risk his neck in the line of corporate duty. “When you Google Kinshasa,” recalls Dolf van den Brink, “all the alarm bells go off.”

It was indeed alarming for the young Dutchman who joined Heineken straight out of college in 1998. Dolf started brewing his career as a trainee by dabbling in sales and marketing and gradually clambered up the ladder. Seven years later, in 2005, the world’s second-biggest brewer by sales decided to airdrop the young soldier to the capital city of Kinshasa to turn around the fortunes of Bralima, Heineken's operating company in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “When I went there, it was not a sexy and aspirational thing to do,” recounts Dolf, who was appointed as commercial director. If the feeling of commanding over 700 employees was overwhelming, then the task at hand was equally daunting. Bralima had been consistently losing market share and money. Dolf had to stem the slide.
He was ready for the new innings but there was a small problem: Dolf was too young to be seen as a captain. “When I came to Congo, I was 31, and I looked 25. I looked like a kid,” he recounts his bemusement. “Africa,” cautioned a battery of industry observers when they got to know about the young lad’s Africa posting, “is a tough place and seniority matters a lot”. All were unanimous in their assessment: If you don't have grey hair, you won’t get respect. Back in Africa, Dolf was left with no choice but to look, act, and behave like a senior official. “I started wearing glasses because I thought it made me look old,” he says, adding that he fell into the trap of subscribing to the paraphernalia of being a CEO. “I started doing silly things. I wore a suit,” says Dolf. “The funny part is I'm not a ‘suit’ kind of person,” adds the 51-year-old CEO, who was on his maiden visit to India in early April after being elevated as CEO of Heineken in June 2020.
Why Dolf van den Brink, the Heineken CEO, refuses to be guided by mere profitMeanwhile, back in Congo, the CEO was expected to behave like a CEO. And this is what Dolf did. On the first day of his new role, he did something dramatic. He took a beer crate, stood on top of it, and talked about a bunch of cultural values that he gathered during three weeks of travel in Congo before being appointed as the leader. The CEO passionately spoke about fighting spirit, speed, communication, the need to be smart and nimble, and pride. The intent was to connect with the local population and strike a chord among the employees. Nothing worked. A quarter later, the needle still didn’t move. There was no traction, no recovery, and no gain.
Dolf was still trying hard, felt drained, and lost a lot of weight. Finally, his wife took notice of his plight. One fine day, she looked straight into his eyes and delivered the message. “Buddy, just get rid of the damn glasses. Stop pretending, and just do your thing. Be yourself,” she said. Dolf loved the candour of the ‘love of his life’. “She knows me better than anybody else,” he says. The very next day, he discarded the glasses, the suit, the tie, and the borrowed mannerisms. “I decided to be just the person I am,” he says. And it worked miraculously.
But what led to the magic? “I just got rid of expectations,” reckons Dolf, who dons his ‘philosophical hat’ to explain how getting rid of the baggage helped. As a child, underlines the grad from the University of Groningen (with an MSc degree in Business Administration and an MA in Philosophy), one tries to live up to the expectations of one’s parents. As one grows up, one keeps on adding expectations of teachers, friends, social circle, and family. “I think the great journey of life is learning to let go of those expectations,” he says. “Just be the most amazing person you can be to unlock your purpose and potential.”

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Armed with a deeper insight, Dolf again tried to take a stab at the Congo problem. But what also came in handy was a priceless lesson shared by one of his mentors. “Dolf, always remember that to receive, you first need to give,” was the golden nugget of wisdom. What this meant was a simple thing: The essence of leadership is not in taking. It's in giving. Dolf realised that he had a few things to ‘give’: Respect, confidence, and a sense of direction to the employees. And all these things can only be given if one understands the culture of the community where one is working. Fortunately, Dolf bumped into a retired anthropologist in Congo, and the Heineken boss was ready with his brief. “Can you take my Western training and make it locally relevant,” he said, adding that the company was struggling with training its sales force. “To be a great marketer,” the anthropologist said, “you need to have empathy.”

Dolf started his new innings on the foundation of empathy. He shunned the annual plan as it made no sense to the employees. Reason? The locals could only relate to the moon cycle--the four-week cycle--because it determined their lives. Dolf tried to grasp the cultural nuances of the population. Take, for instance, the word ‘lobi’. “It is a word for ‘tomorrow’ as well as for ‘yesterday,” he says, adding that the concept of time for the locals was circular. “Well, in most parts of the world and the culture where I come from, time is linear,” he reckons.
So, Dolf started making four-week plans, and four-week targets. “This got the sales force excited,” he says, sharing one shade of cultural subtlety. “The words ‘target’ and ‘goal’ don’t exist in Lingala, the local language spoken in Congo,” he smiles. The big problem of reclaiming market share and lost ground was broken down into smaller tasks. “We tried to capture a few outlets rather than worrying about thousands,” he says. The strategy worked. A chief executive officer, Dolf underlines one of his takeaways, must be aware of the sensibilities, culture, and passion of the people. “One must be sensitive,” he adds.

Why Dolf van den Brink, the Heineken CEO, refuses to be guided by mere profit
Over 15 years later, in June 2020, Dolf displayed his sensitive side to the world and did something that not many CEOs would do on the first day of their joining as the global head. “On May 25, 2020, I arrived in the Netherlands,” says Dolf, who was set to join the office as CEO of Heineken on June 1. The country, like most parts of the world, was battling the pandemic, offices were shut, and ‘work from home’ was the norm.
Apart from the Covid-induced anomalies, something disconcerting also happened on May 25. “George Floyd was murdered in the US,” he says. Floyd, a 46-year-old black American, was murdered in Minneapolis by a white police officer. There was a huge global outrage. A week later, on June 1, Dolf could still sense the anxiety, emotions, and anger around what happened in the US. “It cracked open our global consciousness and awareness,” he says. “And I just felt I had to acknowledge it,” he adds.
On June 1, the first day in office, the CEO yielded to his heart and an expanded sense of consciousness. The first video Dolf uploaded was not about business and brands. It was about the global campaign, ‘Black Lives Matter’. “I just wanted to tell that as a company, our empathy is with the movement,” he says. Diversity and inclusion, he lets on, became an important part of how Heineken wanted to evolve as a company.
But do CEOs and brands need to take a moral stand? And if they do, are they not risking the possibility of a backlash on social media? Dolf has a different take. “The video was out of empathy for a difficult moment for humanity, and how it's leading to real change,” he reckons, adding that CEOs must be creative, imaginative, and bold. The world, Dolf explains, is undergoing multiple shifts and inflection points. “Only pursuing shareholder value profit for the sake of profit is not enough,” he says, expounding his belief. As a living being, one needs to breathe, and if one doesn’t get oxygen, one will die.
Ditto for business. If a company doesn’t make a profit, it dies. “But profit can’t be the sole purpose of business. Similarly, breathing can’t be the sole purpose of living,” he says. In 2020, Heineken—which has a presence in over 190 countries with its 300 brands, and has over 85,000 employees—rolled out a value-creation model called ‘Green Diamond’. “It puts growth, profit, and capital on equal footing with sustainability and responsibility,” says Dolf.

Why Dolf van den Brink, the Heineken CEO, refuses to be guided by mere profit
There are, however, flip sides to being an activist CEO. And Dolf has seen that side. Heineken faced flak for dragging its departure from Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. The company, which vowed to exit in March 2022, finally pulled out from Russia after seventeen months in August 2023. “There are times when people will accuse you of making a mistake which you haven’t done,” he says, alluding to the criticism in the Western media on the delay in exiting Russia. “We had employees, we had to take care of them, and exit in a responsible way,” he justifies the so-called delay. There will be times when a CEO might feel that s/he has been unfairly treated. “But that's also part of leadership. One must grow a thick skin and make sure that your moral compass is strong,” he says, adding that there is intense polarisation in the Western world. Half of the world asks you to do something, and the other half demands you to do the opposite. “So, in the end, your moral compass and values come into play,” he says.

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In one of his stints as the boss, Dolf’s moral compass was put to a litmus test. “I was very tough on my direct reports,” he confesses. Though tough, at times, can be good in terms of setting high expectations and ambition, Dolf erred by being judgmental. “And that didn't create the kind of safety level,” he says. Consequently, there was an unwelcome fallout: Employees stopped speaking their minds. “And when it happens, you're not going to get great results, ideas and outcomes,” he quips. He asked a coach to interview his subordinates, and the feedback was brutal. “It was an eight-page document. But had only one page of positives,” he says.
The CEO was understandably perturbed. “I quickly put the document in the drawer,” he recalls. After two months, Dolf decided to act. “I asked for feedback, and I needed to own up to it,” he says. Dolf apologised, underlined that he never intended to hurt, and committed to living up to a higher standard. “I'm Dutch. We err on the side of being too direct,” he says. “Just admit, apologise, and repair,” he shares his success mantra of seamlessly getting along with employees. “When I did so, I instantly earned their trust, and then we clicked as a team.”

Why Dolf van den Brink, the Heineken CEO, refuses to be guided by mere profit
Dolf, interestingly, has another playbook to get the best out of his team by nudging a cultural shift. Take, for instance, his stint as managing director in the US in 2009. He introduced coloured cards in the meeting rooms. While ‘green’ meant “I am all in,’ ‘red’ card empowered the employees to ask a question or challenge an existing idea. Dolf opened the gates of the meeting room to more entertaining guests such as little toy horses. The trigger to bring horses to the table was the unproductive practice of talking endlessly about a few points. The toy symbolised ‘stop beating a dead horse’. The moment one slid the horse over, it meant one needed to move on. Dolf explains the logic. The forms—whether cards, toys, or beer crate speech—are secondary. The end game is connecting with people, he says.
Back in India, Dolf reckons that he has managed to establish a great connection with the local team. “What I love about India is the way people connect,” he says, confessing that some of the board meetings in India had been messier and more chaotic as compared to other places. “But then you go and have dinner together, and sometimes you even hold hands, which we, in our Western culture, have lost that form of intimacy,” he says. The way one connects over the dinner, he underlines, and the relationships one builds, can last a lifetime. “There's something special in India about how you connect, and that's something I'm inspired by, and I try to pass forward,” he says.
So, is his way of working as a CEO the best? Is it something that should be emulated by others? Dolf flashes his enigmatic smile. “There's no right or wrong way,” he says. “All I can do is do it my way and the way that's authentic to me,” he signs off.

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