Cheers to This Great CEO

In this era of increasing shareholder activism and corporate watchdogging, finding a chief executive shareholders actually like is rare. Sure, some of them aren't so bad and understand they must answer to their shareholders, but with increasing income disparities between the rich and poor, I find it just tough to like anybody who earns upward of eight figures in a year. Well, at this classic beer company, the current CEO rose through the ranks the old-school way and rewarded shareholders just as he was rewarded as the commander in chief. Let's take a look at the 13-year run of SABMiller's Graham Mackay.

Mover and shaker, not stirrer
SABMiller (ISE: SAB.L) is the second-largest purveyor of beers on the planet, right behind Anheuser-Busch Inbev (NYS: BUD) , the iconic maker of Budweiser. What does it mean to be one of the biggest beer companies in the world? Well, together, the two companies account for roughly 28% of total beer production. That may not sound like a lot, but the next time you go strolling through the grocery aisle or wind through a liquor store, keep in mind that around 1 in 4 beers you see are likely products of one of the two companies.

SABMiller subsidiary South African Breweries is one of the largest companies in South Africa, which I suppose shouldn't be much of a surprise. It was considered a hyper-progressive company during the apartheid years, when it promoted black workers and won the support of Nelson Mandela. Today, SABMiller also owns Grolsch, Peroni, Pilsner Urquell, and many, many more brands from all regions of the world. As evidenced by its wide portfolio, the company is known for its deal-making prowess and its market-leading initiatives in emerging markets. The company is the No. 1 provider of beers in Africa -- the fastest-growing market for the stuff. Much of the company's recent success in accomplishing these feats is due to its chief executive, Graham Mackay.

Mackay's more than OK
What's refreshing about Mackay is that he wasn't an implant executive like so many today in the C-suites. Mackay has been a career man at South African Breweries since 1978, well before its rise to global domination. He is an engineer by trade, and was originally hired to improve the company's computer systems. In an interview with Barron's, a former chairman of SAB said Mackay had "the foresight to see what the future held for the industry." And that's a bigger task than it may sound like at face value. The beer industry is heavily fragmented and difficult to grow on a global scale -- which is a big reason that there are only a handful of global beer companies.

As he rose through the ranks and learned the various parts of the business, Mackay became a natural candidate to take the reins in 1999. During his tenure, he has spearheaded $30 billion worth of acquisitions to the tune of 34 companies. More important, those acquisitions successfully added long-term value to the company.

Shareholders have had a great ride since then as well. According to the Barron's article, 100 pounds of SABMiller stock bought in 1999 is worth 536 pounds today. To bring that number more into focus, since 2003 the stock has appreciated nearly 500% in value. In five years, 85% in value. In one year, over 16% in value. The company has outpaced the London Stock Exchange as well as the S&P 500 over the long run by several points.

Warren Buffett often says he likes to look at a company from the point of view of a business owner, and prefers company management do the same. Though Mackay does not own SAB, he has run the company as if he did. His focus on quality is apparent in statements like: "A big brewery has microbiological standards like an operating theater." Millers aren't my favorite beers, but I can attest to the quality of many of SAB's premium products. Mackay chose to move the company headquarters to London and list the company on the country's stock exchange instead of in its native South Africa because he knew that's where the future growth of the business was. He knew the company needed the capital offered by an LSE listing in order to make major purchases beyond African breweries and some nationalized eastern European brew shops. After the public offering, he immediately went to Phillip Morris (NYS: PM) and made a bid for Miller.

Though Mackay is set to retire next year, with its meteoric rise in share price and its impressive global portfolio of beers, SABMiller is a market favorite and will remain so in the years following Mackay's retirement.

So there is still hope for quality executives out there who run a company the old-fashioned way. SABMiller, and Anheuser Busch Inbev, for that matter, are companies whose leaders have had real, executable vision that have rewarded their investors for years and hopefully will into the future.

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