Tomas Gimenez, the Country Manager for Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev) in Cambodia and Laos, learned he was officially moving to Phnom Penh one week before his plane left New York City bound for the other side of the world in January 2020.
He had visited the Kingdom as a tourist years before, and after working as a consultant in the United States, he returned to build a team and turn Budweiser, Hoegaarden, and Corona from fringe beers into household names in a country dominated by the Angkor, Anchor, and Cambodia.
The transition wasn’t easy, he said, on a professional and personal level, especially when COVID hit just over a month after he settled into his new home.
“It was only about five weeks after I arrived, COVID started. Then all the shutdowns happened. It became very hard to meet anybody. It’s been quite refreshing now that things are opening back up. I’m able to meet people face-to-face and get to know the community a bit more, which has been great,” Tomas Gimenez told Cambodia Investment Review.
While the social scene has sparked back to life in Phnom Penh, it will take some time for the beer industry to catch up. As a result of the shutdowns, lockdowns, and alcohol bans last year, sales plummeted, investments dried up, and marketing campaigns stopped altogether. More recently, supply chain disruptions have caused bottlenecks in importing ingredients.
On a positive note, Gimenez said the pandemic allowed his team to reflect and plan for the future.
“There are pros and cons. Yes, it kind of halted growth and made for very two challenging years. But I think it also humbled us a bit to be able to take a step back and work more on strategy and actually figure out what we’re doing,” he said.
He used the time to learn about Cambodia’s culture and craft a team that aligned with his goals.
The five-member AB InBev Cambodia crew, which currently operates out of a co-working space in Riverside, embodies a start-up culture where ideas flow freely and everyone works side-by-side.
Gimenez said this is a reflection of Cambodian culture as a whole, with entrepreneurship booming during the pandemic, and represents how AB InBev operates, with CEOs working at desks in open spaces instead of in private offices.
Targeting Cambodia’s young and hip demographic
His first strategic decision was to find another niche to focus on besides electronic dance music (EDM), a common market target of competitors.
“We’re going to lean very heavily into a local culture that is focused around street culture and up-and-coming trends. We invested heavily in hip-hop, which ended up being massive these past two years. We’re leaning more into art, fashion, and these elements that are a bit more different and unique [than EDM],” Tomas Gimenez said.
One of the company’s goals is to promote Cambodian artists and musicians and propel them to the global stage. In 2020, for example, Budweiser sponsored popular local musician VannDa’s Skull album.
“We want to continue to uplift Cambodian culture. As a global brand, we have the unique benefit that we can really help local artists and support them in their dreams, and make a name for Cambodia outside of Cambodia.”
Hopeful growth tempered by logistics setbacks says Tomas Gimenez
By all accounts, AB InBev’s strategy is working. When Tomas Gimenez first arrived, Budweiser’s sales were insignificant, and despite the pandemic, he’s helped record triple-digit growth in his first two years at the helm.
Last December, after a dismal 2021, the industry started to recover. With borders, businesses, and nightclubs opening back up, sales picked up as well, a trend Gimenez hopes to see continue in 2022.
The team is currently focused on navigating the global logistics nightmare caused by COVID-19. During the pandemic, a surplus of products had to be written off because of the alcohol ban. Now, the company is dealing with the opposite issue.
Blocked up supply chains, increased shipping container rates, and surging demand is causing stock to run dry and prices to skyrocket, but Gimenez said he expects supply chains to recover around July.
In the meantime, the small team is embracing their underdog role as new and established competitors make their push for market share in an industry bound for a bounce-back.
“It’s very fun being in that position in the market because no one’s after your lunch, you’re after everybody else. You can try different things and launch new products. You can fail and no one will even realize… It’s more fun playing offense than it is defense,” Tomas Gimenez said.
Tapping into Cambodia’s premium beer market
Gimenez said a shift is occurring towards a preference for more premium products and he intends to capture this market. Changing the perception of draft beer, which is often associated with cheap happy hour specials around Phnom Penh, is high on his priority list.
Hoegaarden, one of the beers in the ABI InBev’s portfolio, has already made its way to local taps, and last year the company offered draft pours in massive three-liter (about 10 beers) mugs, a promotion that caused a stir on social media.
With more pressure on brands to become more sustainable, AB InBev Cambodia is also making efforts to reduce waste.
Corona beers are produced plastic-free and Gimenez said every Budweiser in the world will be brewed using renewable electricity by 2025. AB InBev also created the Corona Protect Paradise campaign, where consumers clean beaches in Sihanoukville in exchange for beer.
Tomas Gimenez said the market dynamics have changed since he arrived just before the pandemic, with last year’s alcohol bans and a rush of new entrants into the industry making competition for market share fiercer than ever.
“COVID has forced all players to rethink their strategies and accelerated some inevitable trends, most notably e-commerce. This is where our ability to be agile and react quickly to these changes in consumer behavior will help us stand out from the crowd,” he said.
Tomas Gimenez continued: “Our culture is to dream big, take risks, and fail fast. The upcoming generations in Cambodia are very talented and bring many new, fresh ideas to the table. I come to work energized each day knowing we share the same vision and are not shy to challenge and improve each other’s ideas. Most importantly, we really enjoy the work. After all, we work in beer, it’s both challenging and fun.”