Founded in 1963, Athenian Brewery is Greece’s leading brewer, and has been a part of the Heineken NV group since 1982. Alexandros Daniilidis became CEO of Athenian Brewery in 2018 after a six-year stint as CEO of Heineken Serbia, during which time he oversaw sales rise from third to first in the Serbian beer market. Now he is applying his experiences to Greece, where he is tackling the challenges of a wine-loving market by creating new beer product categories and promoting beer culture
What are your greatest challenges in the Greek beverages market?
Beer culture or the relative lack thereof is one of the great challenges for us here, because Greece has the second-lowest per capita consumption of beer in Europe. Despite the fact that there is a long history of beer in Greece, we need to find ways to increase sales opportunities, as beer as a drink maintains a very seasonal aspect related to summer. Two big areas we can innovate in to achieve better results are developing the beer culture and working on more categories. For example, we have introduced zero-alcohol and low-alcohol products.
What strategies can you use to boost beer culture in Greece?
This country is a late developer in terms of beer culture, because Greece as a land is an endless vineyard. What we need is to have the right portfolio of brands that can cover all consumer needs – and these are becoming more complex. Not just in Greece, but globally there is tremendous fragmentation. The dilemma we face is how to cover these diverse consumer needs while meeting the business target of high efficiency. We believe we can meet all consumer needs and be efficient. To do so, we must work on the way we communicate with consumers, and highlight elements such as the natural ingredients we use in our products, which is something people are more cautious about these days. We also have to pay attention to the serving and storing of our products, ensuring that we are creating a good experience for consumers at home or at an outlet.
How did Athenian Brewery react to Greece’s financial crisis and the country’s difficulties over past decade crisis?
First of all, I would like to stress that for Heineken and Athenian Brewery, Greece is not an opportunistic market. During the crisis period we proved that for us, Greece is a market with a long-term future. We invested more than €150 million in the last two years of the crisis, a time when many other players were divesting and our profit were under pressure. We believe that consumers will react positively to a company that continually invests. We were expecting change and waiting for the country to enter a growth mode, but it was not an easy exercise, and we had to keep up our efficiency and remain productive. We invested in new projects during the crisis period, chiefly in our production and the idea of a circular economy. Twelve years ago, we started a program with 2,500 farmers to cover our needs for malt from local barley sources. We reached a point whereby all our needs were covered by locally produced barley, even though the price can be higher than elsewhere in Europe. And in the last two years we started exporting ready malt based on the agreement we have with the farmers. So we have shown that we are in Greece for the long haul, and the crisis was a period in which we had to upgrade our operations, and we even managed to find new business for our partners and ourselves.
Athenian Brewery recently invested €1.5 million at its Patras plant. What is the strategy to turn this investment into growth?
The investment at Patras was very important, not just because of size, but also because it allowed us to transfer products that were being made abroad to local production. For example, we now produce ciders locally, and using 100% Greek raw materials. As a result, Greek apple growers are now registered as a European supplier for Heineken, so they can export their fruit. This chimes with the main objective of the Greek government, which is to support local production to export more and improve the trade balance. We have a really ambitious investment plan for the coming years, involving €40 million, essentially to upgrade our facilities, boost efficiency and allow us to export more. The only way to do this is to present products that are competitive in terms of quality and cost. All of our investments are focused on boosting the competitiveness of the company. Another key pillar is renewable energy and sustainability. Heineken has ambitious targets at a global level, and we would like to be at the cutting edge of this development. Currently, we are at the stage of evaluating which type of renewable energy is the most suitable for our industry.
How are you going about the expansion of domestic and export markets?
The first target is to grow per capita consumption in Greece, given that it remains at a low level. This requires an approach of boosting beer culture through innovation. We are developing new low-alcohol categories, and we are seeing a positive reaction from consumers, as well as building new categories such as cider, which was totally unknown in Greece. I think the first steps are very promising here, as well. We also have a water business in Greece, which we think has the potential to grow both in the local market and abroad because the quality is extremely high. Regarding exports, we are seeing that the growth of tourism on top of the Greek diaspora has created new opportunities for many products in markets in Asia, the United States and Europe. Germany, for example, is complex, but I believe that German consumers are interested in Greek brands, and this is a market where we will develop plans in the future – there is real potential. There are many restaurants and a thriving Greek community there.
Do you agree that the private sector and Greece’s government must find more ways to cooperate to boost exports?
A country that has plans to turn the page on a crisis that lasted a long time and had a severe impact on the Greek people should create an environment where the private sector and government have to join forces. It is necessary. The agenda of Athenian Brewery is identical to that of the government, and the administration must be open to the logic that Greece is a small market – it is not enough to simply fight on the battlefield for local consumers. To truly grow the economy, yes we must satisfy local consumers, but we need to also seek all possible opportunities in export markets. To this end, we are here with our plans, our investment and commitment to contribute to the effort to create value based on a very competitive production model. We cannot present ourselves as heroes from Greece; global markets not interested in folk stories. We have to present ourselves as competitive companies with top products and an interesting story for their consumers.
How is the company innovating and what are your production methods doing to change the Greek economy?
Cider is a big bet for us. We had to start from scratch in terms of production and communication to train consumers, because they had no idea about this product, which was only visible in tourist areas popular with British people. We believe it is a future growth area, because it chimes with two important consumer priorities right now; one is refreshing low-alcohol drinks, and the other is natural produce. If we add, in our case, Greekness – as we are the only national producer of cider – I think it has great potential. The company can also contribute in the construction of a sustainable circular economy, starting from the fields, where we are connected to 2,500 farmers that grow barley – the barley is than malted in our two malt houses and this malt covers 100% of our production needs as raw material for beer. The relationship with those farmers is not just “commercial” through our contractual agreement, but also includes services related to training and safety. We are connecting that primary sector to industry and investments, and we also have connecting projects with many startups. We are even exporting malt to countries such as Austria, Israel and Italy, places with extremely high quality standards. This raising of standards opens the path for our farmers to export to very developed economies. Production per hectare has increased by 13% since we started working with Greek farmers. Sustainability is a key pillar of our global strategy. In terms of our footprint, we have reduced emissions by 27% over the last 10 years, and we are working on many projects in this area. We will soon announce that all of our forklifts are running on electric power, and, as I mentioned earlier, we are exploring the most efficient renewable energy for our production. We have already invested in solar power, but we are also investigating others. We have reduced water consumption per hectoliter of beer produced, and experimented with new types of barley seeds to reduce water use in the fields. Ours is an end-to-end approach to sustainability. We also support responsible consumption initiatives and an endless list of cultural activities, such as sponsorship of music and art events. This is part of the DNA of Greek society.
You have said that Athenian Brewery is a multinational with a Greek soul. What do you mean?
Our founders started in partnership with Amstel, with a very clear view on the way they wanted to do business. These values match the values of Heineken NV; we are proud to be part of company that has such an international presence, but also one that acts in a way that respects the local country. We have a rich brand portfolio that includes big international brands such as Heineken & Amstel, major Greek brands such as Alfa and rising local brands such as Mamos – also a variety of low/no alcohol and specialty beers. We maintain a focus on people, and we have kept up longstanding partnerships in the marketplace, and have suppliers who have been linked to the company for more than three decades. This is unique. I am happy to be part of an organization with a strong culture, and happy to be able to enrich it with Greek and Athenian values.