Business Irish

Wednesday 25 April 2018

Interview: Heineken boss courts further success

Interview: MD and former basketball ace Maggie Timoney is shooting for a second cider win after Orchard Thieves' success

Maggie Timoney, managing director, Heineken Ireland. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Maggie Timoney, managing director, Heineken Ireland. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Samantha McCaughren

Samantha McCaughren

Maggie Timoney has been running Heineken Ireland for almost five years, but staff still joke about "Which Maggie will show up today? Irish or American," says the Mayo woman, who was once a champion basketball player in the US.

"I never worked in Ireland until this job," says Timoney. "It's funny, because I'm Irish through-and-through but I was gone so long and I cut my teeth in the US."

So what did her American approach bring to Heineken Ireland when she returned in 2013?

"I was much more direct, you know? At home here, the first 15 minutes of a meeting is, 'Did you see the match? Wasn't Johnny Sexton unbelievable?', and then finally we get down to it."

Although she retains an American twang, Timoney feels that Irish Maggie comes through more strongly now. But she credits her years living and working in the US with some of her strengths.

"I think in the US, anything is possible, right? Because when I think when I first came here, [people said] 'Oh no, we don't do it that way, we can't'. And I'd say, 'why not?' Like cider."

Heineken Ireland's successful expansion into cider is one of the company's most notable achievements under Timoney's leadership. Listed company C&C had a firm hold on the Irish cider market for many years with Bulmers. Several challengers to its dominance were unsuccessful before Heineken's launch of Orchard Thieves in 2015.

The marketing imagery of a fox was promoted heavily throughout the country and Heineken succeeded in creating a powerful new cider brand.

"We saw an opportunity in cider that consumers were looking for choice. And we borrowed the name from our company in New Zealand and then we developed all the assets around the fox and Orchard Thieves, and I almost feel like it was born in Ireland and it's now available in 15 countries. In the Netherlands or in Bulgaria, Spain, you can find Orchard Thieves."

Numbers show that the beer and cider market was down last year but Orchard Thieves continued to grow share, amassing 12pc of the cider market.

Now Heineken is preparing to take another bite of the apple and will launch a new cider - name yet to be revealed - in the next couple of weeks. C&C, which has flagged the highly competitive nature of the Irish market, will not be pleased.

"We think that there's still not a lot of choice in cider in Ireland and we want to ensure that we can offer more choice to the Irish consumer and so we're going to continue to innovate in cider and offer that choice and we will launch a new cider in the next two to three weeks," says Timoney.

The other big development for the company, whose Irish headquarters is in Cork, is the launch a non-alcoholic beer. Unsurprisingly, Timoney is a big fan. "Heineken 0.0 is a non-alcoholic beer made by beer-lovers for beer-lovers. So it took quite a while for us to get to a Heineken 0.0 because we were so uncompromising on not only the quality but also the taste. We really want to take a leadership position on moderation."

It is already on sale in around 20 markets and performing well, she says. Cynical observers might question the timing of the launch. The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill has been strongly criticised by the drinks industry and new initiatives promoting lower alcohol levels are viewed by some as an attempt to distract from the core issue the legislation is trying to address - alcohol abuse and its impact on health.

"It's definitely not a gesture to appease policymakers," says Timoney. "It is a launch to satisfy a consumer need that is absolutely there.

"If you look at the consumer trends globally, and even Ireland, moderation, health and wellness, are key trends," she adds. "And I think a brand like Heineken should offer consumers choice. If people say, listen, I don't want to drink but I want to be a part of that occasion, I think Heineken 0.0 really offers them an incredible choice, an incredible quality choice."

Heineken also sells a low-alcohol option - little wonder as Nielsen figures show the category is growing by 6.2pc in Ireland. But it is difficult to know how willing publicans will be to stock several non-alcoholic beers. "Right now, and you'd have to ask publicans, they probably don't want to carry too many non-alcoholic variants," says Timoney. "But I think as trends continue to move in the positive direction for low and no alcohol, I think retailers and publicans will offer more choice."

Timoney is perhaps an unlikely person to end up in the drinks industry given that sport played such a big part in her early years. But the origin of her interest in sport is actually linked to the industry. Born in Ballina, Co Mayo, the youngest of four children, she began playing basketball when a man from Guinness - Danny Thompson - became a technical rep in the area and set up a team.

"I went along to this training session and I was pretty awful, to be honest with you." But Timoney, who was tall as well as talented, became a skilled player. The sport set her up well for business also.

"I am often asked about how I feel about being a woman in business? I just don't think about it that way and I think it's because we grew up playing basketball. There was a girls' team, there was a boys' team, but when it came to games against other teams, the boys and girls had to join together in order to have enough players.

"Sports for girls is so important. It builds confidence, it builds resilience. That physical activity is just so empowering for girls."

Timoney won a basketball scholarship to Iona College outside New York and after college began working in the wholesale alcohol business. She joined Heineken in the late 1990s, first as a national planning manager in sales for Heineken USA, and then held senior roles in Heineken's home country of the Netherlands before moving on to Canada as general manager.

She went back to the US as senior vice president of human resources (HR), an area she knew nothing about. "I learned a lot in that role," she says. "I always say HR doesn't hire and fire, leaders do. And the problem is, in companies where HR is used for the people who hire and fire, that's a weak company."

Five years ago, just days after Timoney's father died, she was offered the job in Ireland and she felt the timing to come home was right. She is glad to have spent the last few years around her family and her mother, who recently passed away.

With the five-year anniversary in the job now approaching, will she seek out pastures new?

"I'm still excited and challenged by the job and we're into the next phase of our vision for Heineken Ireland so there's still a lot that keeps me motivated," she says.

While Timoney has enjoyed the role, there was low point in 2016 when it emerged that some Heineken products were being mislabelled and sold in pubs as craft beers.

The volumes were small but it was embarrassing for the company and received significant media attention. Timoney says little about it only to comment firmly: "I found out about it, we stopped immediately, and we addressed it."

Looking at the overall pubs business, Timoney believes that it remains challenging for many publicans. "I do still think that it's still a tale of two economies," she says. "I think it is the west catching up with the east. So the gap is narrowing, but it's still tough on those rural communities for businesses, not only pubs, to thrive and survive."

With that in mind it must be difficult for a drinks company to get on board with the proposed changes in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill. There is considerable support for the measures among health campaigners who says drastic action is needed to tackle the country's drink problem. But the industry is particularly opposed to plans to put cancer warnings on labelling. It has also criticised the Government for its lack of engagement with drinks companies.

Timoney reiterates what she has said in the past that "we need to make it uncool to be drunk in Ireland". "But if you fast-forward 20 years and you look back on the Public Health Bill, it won't have changed behaviour, and that's the issue. Do we agree with some parts of the Bill? Yes, as an industry, we do. But it really is an instrument that is not going to change behaviour."

"I've publicly stated before and I'll state it again - if we, Heineken Ireland, I can't speak for the industry - sell less but we make a dent in alcohol misuse, we would be very happy with that. Because again, we want our business to be a sustainable business."

Critics of the drinks industry will doubt her sincerity, so can she ever win when it comes to speaking about drinking moderation? "The thing is we're not looking for a win, and we're not looking for a win with the Public Health Bill," she says. "If you're really serious about tackling alcohol misuse, why wouldn't you work together? At least let's just start talking. Why don't we have a round table and discuss?"

The historic Heineken office in Cork was given a multi-million euro makeover last year and the company has also moved into modern, trendy offices in Dublin. For Timoney, it reflected that fact that the drinks industry and consumer views about alcohol are changing and so must Heineken.

"When you're on a change journey, the symbols are very important - innovation, quality, progressive, pioneering, future-looking. You need to be in a workspace that's a symbol," she says. "And in Cork what we've done is - and which we do across our entire business, our strategy - is ensure that we're rooted in our heritage and our legacy, but married it to modernity."

Curriculum Vitae

Name

Maggie Timoney

Age

52

Position

Managing director, Heineken Ireland

Lives

Rochestown, Cork

Education

Iona College, New York - BA in International Studies and MBA in Organisational Behaviour

Previous experience

Several senior roles in Heineken, including general manager of Heineken Canada and senior vice president HR for Heineken USA

Family

Married to Glenn Patrick. Two sons, Ryan (15) and Kyle (13)

Favourite film

The Shawshank Redemption

Currently reading

The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Daniel Pink

***

What would say to people interested in working in the drinks industry?

It’s a great industry. Whether you’re in sales or marketing or finance, you’re going to be in a company that has great brands. It does attract smart, humble, fun people. And that’s always a nice place to even start or finish — depending on how long you stay — your career.

What’s your key business lesson?

Be yourself. Just be yourself at work. All these people who come in and try to be something they’re not and then it’s not real and people see through it. Work hard and ensure that you’re always curious to learn.

What advice do you have for young women in business?

If you look at studies, females will say ‘okay, I got the job, put my head down, I’m going to do the best that I can do, I’m going to deliver the results, and then somebody will say here’s the next job’. Young women need to learn early in their careers not to be afraid to put their head up and ensure that they have their career paths thought through.

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