Today’s New York Times contains what I can only describe as a snarky piece about the A-B/InBev deal. Snarky because of the reporter’s decision to travel the easy, but low, road. To judge August Busch IV now on his youthful past — and find him wanting. You can read the piece for yourself, but it mentions two of Four’s encounters with the police more than two decades ago. Hints that, as a young man, Four was a bit, um, dissolute. Wild. Prone to making stupid decisions. Etc.
Hey, whaddya know! I’ve got something in common with August Busch IV! I drank my way through my twenties, and when I wasn’t drinking, I was ingesting every drug known to humankind. I’ve done every dumb thing a dumb kid can do (many of them illegal). By all rights, I shouldn’t even be here, because this was the kind of stupid shit that leaves less lucky people dead.
Surprised? Most people are. Because those who know me now know me as a totally average, upright citizen who works hard, obeys the law, and, ya know, lives an ordinary (read: dull) life. Most people who know me judge me as I am, not as I was.
But back to this Times piece: According to the reporter, “it is perhaps not surprising” that A-B is “struggling” because of Four’s “party-boy history.”
It’s hard to get past the sheer stupidity of that causal chain: There’s not now and never will be a causal link between Four’s youthful stupidity and the company’s stagnant/slumping stock price, which stems from corporate decisions made back in the 1990s and a fifteen-year-pattern of stagnant national beer consumption (thanks to birth rates and demographics) (over which, I’m certain, Four has no control…)
But hey, it makes better newspaper copy if you can paint a CEO as a scoundrel and wastrel and a human being incapable of change.
So here’s an idea: let’s take a little tour through A-B history, shall we? Let’s start with August Busch, Sr. (1865-1934), son of Adolphus Busch and the man who steered the company through the nightmare of Prohibition. As a young man “Gussie,” as many people called him, wasn’t much interested in the company business. Wanted to be a cowboy, he did. So after a wrangle with his father Adolphus, he headed west and worked on a ranch. Eventually grew tired of what was, he discovered, a very tough life, and returned to St. Louis, still less-than-interested in working for his imperious, willful father.
But then his older brother and the brewery’s heir apparent, Adolphus Busch, Jr. (1867-1898), died young and unexpectedly. The only other surviving brother, Peter (1869-1905), had dedicated himself to living the life of a ne’er-do-well playboy of the first order. (Father Adolphus, Sr. disowned him).
That left Gussie as the new, but reluctant, heir apparent. And guess what? He shook off his youth and resistance and marched into the job. Grew up fast. Learned how to run one of the world’s largest breweries. He saved the company during Prohibition, and in the 1920s, reinvented it so that the brewery could survive the new demands of a changed consumer market once Prohibition ended. Not bad for a playboy with cowboy ambitions.
How about his son, Gus Busch, Jr. (1899-1989)? (Also known by some as Gussie.) As a young man, Gus was a typical rich boy: Prone to play. Allergic to work. Fond of women and drink. Nominally he was the brewery manager in the ’20s and ’30s, but he didnt’t take the company or his job too seriously. He left the heavy lifting to his brother Adolphus III ((1891-1946).
But when brother Adolphus died unexpectedly in 1946, Gus ended up in the president’s office. By his own admission, it took him several years to grow up and into the job. To gain command of the company and its many problems. (And in the 1950s, there were problems galore, not least of which was the fact that national beer sales had plunged after WWII and showed no signs of going anywhere but deeper into a rut.) He made mistakes. And apologized publicly for them to his employees and his shareholders. But by god, he turned the lemon of the fifties into highly profitable lemonade in the sixties and beyond.
So before we all get carried away with our assumptions that the August Busch IV of age forty-four is the same man as he was at twenty-one. . . . well, how about we ponder this bit of company history. And then let’s all stand in front of a mirror and think about the kind of people we were twenty years ago. My guess is there’ll be a whole lotta cringin’ goin’ on. And maybe a bit more compassion for a guy who has five generations of family legacy sitting on his shoulders. (*1)
*1: He is the sixth generation to serve as head of the brewery; I’m including his maternal great-great-great grandfather, Eberhard Anheuser.