Heineken chief aims to put the fizz back into beer sales

Mayo-born Maggie Timoney has taken over the brewing giant’s Irish operation at a difficult time for the drinks industry

Imagine a job interview during which you are asked to hold hands with your potential boss. Later that boss/interviewer faints and you are called on to revive them. This may sound like a nightmare, but it was actually a recruitment policy adopted by Heineken when looking for an intern for its events and sponsorship team.

Having received 1,734 applications for an internship vacancy, the drinks company took extreme measures to create an application process that no amount of interview preparation could possibly anticipate, putting the interviewees in Amsterdam through a series of extraordinary circumstances.

Thankfully Heineken Ireland doesn’t employ such drastic tactics when determining how interview candidates will react under real pressure. However, Maggie Timoney – the newly-appointed managing director of the company’s Irish operations – still asks some tough questions.

“Anytime I’m interviewing someone, I ask them what three songs they would bring with them if they were stranded on a desert island, and why they’d bring those songs. Music tells a lot about a person.”


“In the beginning I might have cared if they picked a song I hated. It’s human tendency to want people like you. Now I see diversity of thought as a positive addition, important if not critical to success. If you hire everyone that thinks like you, you’re not going to move the needle in any way. You don’t want to hire mirror images of yourself always.”

Timoney, who was appointed managing director of Heineken Ireland earlier this month, strives to hire good people. “You can have the greatest strategy in the world but if you don’t have the right people to execute it, you’re going to fail.”

As the former chief people officer/head of human resources for Heineken USA, having good people and teams is something she believes is key to the company’s success. That’s more important now than ever, with falling beer sales in Eastern Europe, Brazil and large African markets.

Heineken, which is the world’s third largest brewer by volume, lowered its guidance for full-year profit earlier this week, after beer sales slipped – it now expects net profit growth before one-offs to fall by a low single-digit percentage this year on a like-for-like basis.

Mayo-born Timoney believes the increase in excise duty on beer, announced by the Government this month as part of Budget 2014, will put further pressure on sales.

“Last week, the Government hit us with an 18 per cent increase in excise. We now have the third highest excise in Europe after Finland and the UK. The average drink price in Ireland is now 62 per cent higher than the average Europe price.

“We need to look for a reversal of the 18 per cent excise increase. It’s tough for the pub owners. A thousand pubs closed in Ireland in the last five years. Per capita consumption has decreased by a third since 2000.”

She believes pub closures and declining consumption will not be helped by the minimum pricing structure for alcohol, which the Government is currently considering.

A proposed ban on the sponsorship of sporting events by drinks companies from 2020 was postponed this week after a battle between Minister of State at the Department of Health Alex White and key Fine Gael Cabinet colleagues.

Sports sponsorship
However, the introduction of minimum alcohol pricing is still on the agenda in a bid to fight alcohol abuse.

Timoney says there is no correlation or evidence that sponsorship of sporting events in any way leads to misuse, adding that the primary way to deal with alcohol misuse in Ireland is via education.

“There is no proven causal affect between alcohol abuse and the sponsorship of sporting events.”

That said, she believes the drinks industry can do more to promote drink awareness.

“Heineken is a family company and we have family values. Those values are very important to every single employee at Heineken. We think it’s uncool to be drunk – at any age.

“As an industry, we can do more to promote responsible alcohol consumption but we need to do more together with the Government. ”

She criticised the Government for not doing more to work with the drinks industry on the issue.

“We have reached out to the Minister for Health and the Government to say we need to combat alcohol abuse together. The Department of Health has not been responsive in the past. But we will not stop reaching out to them.

“We want to jointly craft a plan with Government that will make a dent in alcohol abuse and put some measurements around that plan.

“When I first came to Ireland to take up the position at Heineken, I was shocked the Government wasn’t working closely with the industry when the industry has reached out. What’s the Government afraid of? We have the same objective.”

A 15-year veteran of the lager company, the Ballina native has also worked in senior roles for Heineken in the Netherlands and Canada.

As general manager of Heineken Canada from 2006 to 2010, she drove substantial growth of the brand, resulting in Canada becoming one of its top 10 markets in the world. These achievements she puts down in part to her competitive nature.

Basketball career
"I am very competitive. I was born competitive. My college roommates would probably say I've calmed down over the years, but I still don't like to lose. I like to win. I think people are capable of much more than they think."

And it’s not just business that Timoney is competitive in. A former colleague once bet her an entire week’s wages that she couldn’t score more points than him throwing a basketball into a net at a conference. She won that bet, though she didn’t make him sacrifice his hard-earned money.

That said, he probably picked the wrong sport to challenge her on, considering she previously represented Ireland in basketball.

"I was on the Irish basketball team. Every year we went to the US to play nine games in 11 days. On one of those trips I had some universities in the US interested in me. I got a four-year basketball scholarship to study at Iona College in New York as a result."

While at Iona, she starred for the women’s basketball team and holds the all-time leading scorer record. In March this year, she was inducted into the Naismith National Basketball Hall of Fame, an honour reserved for the basketball greats in the USA.

On graduating from college, with a BA and MBA in 1991, Timoney took a sales rep job with Gallo Wine Company in the Bronx.

“I had a hard time getting hired. They all said to me that I had great academic credentials but no real work experience. No one wants to give you a trial without experience, but how can you ever get experience without a trial.”

She went on to work at an Anheuser-Busch wholesaler, until the Anhauser-Busch wholesale business was terminated by the supplier.

“I got a job as a sales manager for a visual presentation company. They were the three weeks of my career that I was very unhappy as I missed beer, not the drink but the industry and the people.

“I only lasted three weeks at the company. Thankfully, during those three weeks, I got a call from Heineken offering me a job.”

She began her Heineken career in 1998 at Heineken USA as the planning and coordination manager for national sales. Fifteen years later, she finally got the opportunity to return home to Ireland, to head up the company’s Irish operations.

“My father died and the same week he died I got the phone call about the job at Heineken Ireland. It’s strange how things happen.”

As for the future of Heineken in Ireland, Timoney wants to grow the brand’s market share but give back to the community at the same time, in the form of a new events centre for Cork.

While the Heineken brand maintained its position as the number one lager in Ireland last year, that is not enough for Timoney, who wants to see increases in its 34 per cent value share of the Irish lager market.

Heineken Ireland, along with joint venture partner BAM Contractors, has unveiled plans for a €50 million events centre, which will become a focal point for a much larger regeneration project located at the former Beamish & Crawford Brewery site in Cork.

The centre will include a 6,000 seat arena, a seven-screen cinema complex, artists’ studios and cultural centre.

However, Timoney is quick to point out that plans such as the events centre are not the only way the company supports the local economy. Last year, Heineken sourced all its malt requirements locally, supporting in excess of 750 farm households and injecting more than €4 million into the local agricultural economy.

“Heineken Ireland’s success has always been inextricably linked to the wellbeing of the communities in which we operate.”