The Heineken formula: luck and longevity

Bottles on the Heineken production line.

Bottles on the Heineken production line.

The British philosopher Bernard Williams used to talk about the concept of moral luck, the idea that whether you or your actions are considered good or bad can be as much a question of chance as intentions.

So, for example, if you drunkenly drive your car into a lamp-post you are an idiot. But if you hit a woman pushing a pram, you are a monster, even though your intentions and actions were the same in both cases.

Success is also largely a question of luck. People with a knack for algorithms would have made great actuaries 40 years ago, but now can make fortunes predicting the stock market, or designing apps. Footballers used to dream of making enough money to open a pub when their careers ended, but now can make millions a year.

And so it is with family businesses. Take Heineken. It is a fantastic, 150-year-old brewing business with $24.9bn in revenues in 2013, and is still in only the fourth generation of family ownership. How did they do it?

Hard work, marketing nous, and a good product, obviously. But luck also played its part. That Heineken is under only its fourth family head means that it has enjoyed amazing stability. There have been no CEOs making crazy, short-term decisions to boost their own bonuses.

That was possible only because the second and third generation family heads lived to a ripe old age. The founder was 52 when he died, but his son and grandson lived to be 85 and 78. The current family head, Charlene de Carvalho-Heineken, is only 60. This has led to great continuity in the business’s philosophy, and the accumulation of deep knowledge.

The second piece of luck is that the heads of the family tended to have only children, as its CEO Jean-François van Boxmeer pointed out in a recent Forbes interview. “It’s not a very crowded legacy,” he said.

That means two things. One, that there was never much destabilising fighting between siblings to take over the business. And two, that the family has grown slowly, meaning that the business never had to overstretch itself to pay for lots of relatives. A family where every member had five children would face huge pressures to grow and diversify.

Succession plans are important, and careful planning reduces the chances that bad things will happen in the future, but sometimes the factors that create success are the sorts of things that advisers can’t control.