As a kid, I listened to hundreds of games of my favorite team, where I repeatedly heard the names Budweiser and Busch over many years. Because of the rise in popularity of TV shows like Riches, Succession, and Yellowstone, I was curious if Bill Knoedelseder’s book Bitter Brew – The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s King of Beers included a similar story arc. The answer is a resounding ‘yes’ with many previously untold stories.
- The book that doesn’t get written if Bill grew up in a city other than St. Louis.
- The origin story of Bitter Brew.
- The reason Mark found the research beyond his expectations.
- Baseball, Gussie, and the Clydesdale horses.
- A 150-year dynasty from Lincoln to Obama.
- The definition of a larger beer in a country that preferred whiskey.
- The law of the land that shut down the 17th largest industry in the country and how the Busch family survived and protected its employees.
- A simple analogy in understanding 2 million barrels of beer being sold.
- The reason Gussie was a good CEO but a great promoter of the brand.
- The overlooked attributes of the Busch brand – quality, quality, quality.
- An aging patriarch who got pushed out.
- The chain of events following succession, both good and bad.
- The questionable decision to have August IV take over as CEO.
- InBev becomes the king with Busch as its servant.
Five Great Lines
Prohibition took a terrible toll on St. Louis, wiping out an estimated 40,000 brewing-related jobs as dozens of breweries shut down. But even when the unemployment level reached 30 percent in the city during the Depression—80 percent among blacks—August A. managed to keep the Anheuser-Busch brewery operating, with 2,000 workers still on the payroll. For that, his employees and the city loved him.Pages 29-30, Kindle Edition
This line stands out because the family valued its employees during that time period. Other brewers ultimately shut down and could not help those who lost their jobs. The next president would go on to say, “Making friends is our business,” not the beer business. That included every employee throughout the organization. And that leads to another great line I had not heard before.
“Making friends is our business,” he said. Gussie had made that his motto; rarely did he go a day without uttering it. Over the years, he came to the conclusion that the company could never go wrong by doubling down on patriotism and the public good. “If we do something in the public interest which at the same time is profitable to the company, then this is, indeed, very good business,” he said.Page 41, Kindle Edition
This line stands out because it’s authentic and a conviction that was probably rare to hear from other CEOs during that time period. While Bill never brings this up in the book, I’m convinced that Gussie did not pour over P&Ls. His bottom line was ensuring what he stated above was carried out by every person who worked for him.
“A classic tale of human failing, the Schlitz saga now serves as a reminder for those who might lose sight of the fact that a company—no matter how modern its plants, how endowed its balance sheet or how lionized by Wall Street analysts—is really no stronger than the human beings who manage it.”Page 146, Kindle Edition
This line especially stands out because it’s a testament to never sacrificing quality to save a few dollars. Gussie had been mocked in the press for his old-fashioned ideas on strict adherence to quality. Schlitz lost its way when it started cost-cutting only to endure a PR nightmare that included a recall of spoiled beer. After that fiasco, Schlitz would never compete with Busch for the number one position in beer sales.
Passing up the opportunity to be a partner in AmBev is regarded as one of August III’s two great professional mistakes. Five years later, the Brazilians merged AmBev with Belgium-based InterBrew to form InBev, which knocked A-B out of its long-held spot as the world’s largest brewer (by volume)—“The New King of Beers,” Money magazine proclaimed—and set the table for its eventual takeover. Had August been willing to pay the price in 1999—a mere $210 million—he might have been able to head off the takeover.Pages 299-300, Kindle Edition
This line stands out because it leads back to leadership. This could be a case where we state, “There are no bad business decisions, only unintended consequences.” This is case study material. I would enjoy hearing a group of executive MBA students discussing and arguing whether or not Busch should have gone on the global acquisition trail as AmBev/InBev did before it acquired the U.S. king of beers.
The Clydesdales made an appearance during the 2011 World Series, when the Cardinals won their eleventh world championship. At the start of game 2, they clopped along a downtown street and into the newest Busch Stadium (opened in 2006), where they circled the warning track to the cheers of the crowd. But the cheers weren’t as loud as they were when Gussie rode shotgun and brought the fans to their feet with his exuberant wave, back when the ball club and the brewery had a personal connection.Page 362, Kindle Edition
This line stands out for several reasons, but the main one is that family businesses are fragile. I’m partly surprised the dynasty lasted as long as it did, some 150 years crossing four generations. The end was inevitable based on the lack of leadership at the helm as this dynasty was on its last fumes. This line suggests that every family business should consider reading this book, seeking ways to be different and better if they want the business to survive in successive generations.
Other Books by Bill Knoedelseder
- Fins: Harley Earl, the Rise of General Motors, and the Glory Days of Detroit (Mark has already used one of his Audible credits to listen to this book)
- I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Standup Comedy’s Golden Era
- Stiffed: A True Story of MCA, the Music Business, and the Mafia
- In Eddie’s Name: One Family’s Triumph over Tragedy
- Bill’s website
- IMDB Writer and Producer Profile
- AAE Speaker Page
- Wikipedia page
- Publishers Weekly Book List
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