I’m not sure which is less surprising: (a) the announcement that the Foster’s Board are now supporting SABMiller’s takeover offer; or (b) the ill-informed hysteria in the tabloid press about the ‘loss of an Aussie icon’.
But let’s have a look at The Hysteria. The grounds for concern are shaky at best. The three main complaints are: (i) jobs may be lost; (ii) iconic brands might be neglected, and (iii) profits will head offshore.
Let’s take each complaint. First, will jobs be lost?
I can’t see massive changes to the location of manufacturing . Beer is one of the least international-trade-worthy products due to its high weight-to-value ratio and perishability. That’s why we see so much licensing of brands across borders, contract brewing, and takeovers just like this one. So brewing jobs won’t be heading offshore (nor packaging, labelling, distribution, engineering). Likewise, technology-wise there are no real gains or innovations that are likely to change labour-capital ratios in this extremely mature industry. So, the brewery jobs should stay. In anything, if SABMiller can successfully launch and market their deep suite of brands (which will inevitably be brewed locally), then we could actually see some upswing in manufacturing. Any job losses that might occur are most likely to be in the (old) head-office, with some scope to reduce duplication of tasks. Even then, I’d predict more turnover than simple shedding of positions, as SABMiller attempts to rejuvenate a pretty moribund mob.
This is a really curious set of concerns, and based on a number of falsehoods. Foster’s (and it’s various previous incarnations) has itself been pretty free-willing and cannibalistic in its stewardship of brands for decades. One time icons like Abbotsford Lager/Stout have been demoted, labels have been dramatically altered, sleepy bit-players have been promoted (including VB and Crown Lager) and pushed beyond their Victorian homeland, and even the headline ‘brand’ of Fosters’ holds little-to-no local market relevance (as every Aussie traveller finds themselves having to explain to befuddled foreigners). Indeed, Foster’s has been making much higher margins on licensed foreign brands such as Corona in recent years than on these supposed national treasures. Yet local ‘Aussie battlers’ haven’t been hitting the airwaves to protest that ‘treachery’.
It is in SABMiller’s interests to maintain and perhaps even revitalise the fortunes of many/all of the aforementioned product lines. Given Foster’s retreat from foreign beer markets in the past decade, SABMiller taking ownership of these Aussie brands might indeed be the best chance of seeing more than a token blue and white can of Australian ale on overseas shelves. My personal hope: that SABMiller promotes the much tastier Fat Yak as a higher end export (and maybe also Blue Tongue which I’m guessing comes with the suite of CCAmatil/Pacific Beverages assets that appear to be part of this deal). That would be doing a lot more to improve Australia’s beer reputation than the currently bland product licensing.
Of course, SABMiller will presumably also increase the availability of its broader range of international brands. That will test the ‘loyalty’ of died-in-the-wool Aussie drinkers. But that isn’t SABMiller’s problem or fault.
Finally, won’t profits head offshore?
Firstly, it’s not clear how the average Australia benefitted from Foster’s profits up to now. Sure, the firm paid taxes, but so will SABMiller. Shareholders got returns (although pretty paltry ones in recent years given the wine debacle), but they are also getting a decent premium in the takeover. And if they want to keep getting a piece of the action, SABMiller is listed on the London stock exchange (and in Johannesburg). Again, SABMiller is likely to be making more generous investments in revitalising the Foster’s business in the coming years than the incumbent management have been, so it remains unclear that this is a case where the business is going to be ‘taken offshore’.
So, in conclusion, I’m arguing that this particular foreign takeover is likely to be one the least harmful we see in Australia in the near future. The nature of the industry is one that doesn’t lend itself to offshoring of key functions, and we should be more interested in what it might do to resurrect a dull duopoly market.