Wow. Where to begin? I found this book riveting, cover to cover. I took my time, and I took breaks, and I read other books – all this is true. But my interest in this one never waned. I have been raving a bit manically to anyone who will listen ever since I finished it last Friday night. I’ve taken my time writing about it here because I was trying to be less hysterical in my praise.
I’ll give you a quick synopsis if the subject area is unfamiliar to you:
Anheuser-Busch was the last U.S.-owned big beer company in 2008, and was also still family-controlled, by the Busches. (Coors was already part of Canadian-owned Molson-Coors, and Miller was part of South-African-owned SAB-Miller.) A few Brazilian bankers had started, years earlier, by buying out Brazilian Brahma beer, but they quickly grew into a large brewing concern known as AmBev who then joined with Belgian brewers Interbrew to become InBev, which ended up Belgian-based, but mostly Brazilian-controlled. In 2008, AB was suffering, and InBev made their play by offering an impressive bid. AB made a rather half-hearted effort to defend itself by merging with Mexican brewing powerhouse Modelo, but ended up selling to InBev to create Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI).
Macintosh is the journalist who covered the takeover of Anheuser-Busch by InBev, for the Financial Times. She had me right from the start, when she described (in the Author’s Note) her experience as a woman – and a visibly pregnant one, at that – in the doubly male-dominated worlds of finance and beer. This resonated with me, as I’ve worked in beer and in bicycles in the past and am also familiar with the concept of male-dominated industries. This personal relationship to her work foreshadowed to me that she was going to handle her subject from a human perspective, and she did. I like my nonfiction full of narrative and personalities – human characters. This was a fascinating treatment of a story I was already prepared to be interested in. My ties to beer, and the beer industry, originally drew me to this book. But I stayed for the human element.
This story is full of characters. (Forgive me for broadly generalizing, but people in Big Beer and finance are wealthy, and wealthy people tend to be eccentric, yes?) Macintosh kindly includes a “Cast of Characters” (and I also referred to the index to flip back to the earliest mention of a character here and there) to help us keep them straight; but really I had minimal trouble. They’re all so quirky and real (notice I didn’t necessarily say likeable! but interesting, yes). Like I said, the beer got me in the door; but the people and the plot twists kept me in my seat.
The world of finance is thoroughly new and mysterious to me. (I have been harassing my finance-friends to help me understand certain concepts. They have been mostly helpful; or, unavailable. Probably on purpose. That’s you Will.) But it speaks to my engagement in this book, that I am now hyper-motivated to learn all about mergers & acquisitions (independent v. dependent board members… fiduciary duty… private equity firms…) JUST so I can better follow the action in this plot. For me to have found a book of finance this unputdownable seems rather a feat. I can’t recommend it enough.
The more I try and explain my appreciation, the more I think this story wears several hats. It’s actually suspenseful and full of intrigue, like a lot of the novels I enjoy – like a murder/mystery/international intrigue. It also has certain elements of classic tragedy – ambition and hubris being (among) the tragic flaws of the Busch players. And the fate of Anheuser, in mid- and late-2008, is also an allegory for what the United States went through simultaneously. Our national hubris and feeling of this-can’t-happen-to-us led to a shocking (to varying degrees I suppose) downfall. Of course I’m just paraphrasing Macintosh in this; she says on page 22,
Anheuser’s hubris and naivete had led to its fall from grace, and it provided an apt comparison to the broader state of American at the time.
Or again, page 341, in the words of an (unnamed) advisor to AB,
The way this played out was Shakespearean in nature. I haven’t decided which play. The dynamic between father and son was just Shakespearean and tragic.
(The father and son referred to here are August Busch III and IV.)
My notes at the end of reading this book say, “I <3 gray areas." It's always easy to love and hate characters in books when they're all good or all bad; but isn't it more satisfying to feel conflict? Aren’t they more human and thereby more evocative of complex emotions, when they have redeeming characteristics, or confuse us a little bit? These are, of course, real humans; but it’s Macintosh’s journalistic thoroughness that rounds them out. I didn’t find it easy, in the end, to see any of these characters in black and white. Instead, the complexities and gray areas make it echo for me.
If you’re interested in big business, or finance, or the beer industry, or the consolidation of the world market into very few giant conglomerates, or U.S. businesses’ place in an international world, or if you enjoy readable nonfiction… I really can’t overestimate my recommendation of this book.