The Anheuser-Busch Conclave (aka the worst plane ride ever)
I don’t know if they still are doing this, but mid-July was always the time of year when Anheuser-Busch held their “Brewmasters’ Conclave”, usually in Williamsburg, VA at their Kingsmill Resort. For a younger brewing manager, climbing the corporate ladder, this series of meetings that spanned several days provided a whole range of emotions, including inspiration, amazement, and also, to no small extent, a certain degree of terror.
The Conclave was set up so that Brewmasters, the Brewing Scientists, and Ingredient Managers (AB had employees at the Director Level who were in charge of hops, malt, rice, yeast and water) could present on the latest developments in the industry, and also research projects that they had conducted over the past year. There was always a lot of groundbreaking research being presented, and I always learned a lot. For a mid-level manager like I was in the mid 1990s, it also provided a very real sense of wonder at the technical expertise and the brain power that was in that room. In all seriousness, Anheuser-Busch’s staff of Brewmasters and Brewing Scientists were the best of the best in the world.
The Conclave was a situation where the presenters could sometimes “make” their careers, and also where they could see their careers fall apart. This is because even though it was called “The Brewmaster’s” Conclave, it really was the “August Busch III” conclave. He sat in front center, and basically led the show, drilling each presenter mercilessly with questions. There’s no doubt that August Busch III knew his brewing science, he was amazingly hands-on when it came to beer quality, taste and the science behind the art of making beer. As such, he asked tough, intelligent questions, and it was certainly a badge of honor to survive a presentation at the Conclave without being tripped up, let alone have a successful presentation.
When I was working in Corporate Brewing, I went to the Conclave several times, and I had to give presentations two years in a row. It was always on the subject of our new beer program and the Specialty Brewing Group, going through a list of every new beer that we had in development. We presented on the marketing plan, the recipe, and where the beer was going to be brewed.
The brewmasters from all 12 US breweries and all the International breweries attended, and everyone who worked in Corporate Brewing, R&D or the Brewing Technical Center was flown out on corporate jets from St. Louis. My second time presenting at the Conclave, when the flight schedule was first published, I noticed right away that I was scheduled with about 15 others to fly on the same plane as August Busch III. After I recovered from my shock, I approached the administrative assistant in Corporate Brewing, who was in charge of scheduling the passenger list for each flight, with a desperate plea to put me on another plane, and she told me “oh no, don’t even worry about it, August ALWAYS flies the plane, you won’t even see him”. I felt a little comforted after that, but not much.
As a side note, AAB III is in fact a licensed pilot, and almost always flew the corporate jet when he visited any of the breweries in the AB system, which is why he never tasted the brewery’s beer during a visit. He took it back to St. Louis with him, and tasted it later that evening. And if he didn’t like it, there was hell to pay, but that’s another story. When he was working at the corporate offices in St. Louis, he flew in on a helicopter, and landed on the roof, and then walked to his office on the top floor.
So I took some ribbing from some of my coworkers that morning in July as we waited to board the jets. No one wanted to trade places with me, that’s for sure. I boarded the plane with my coworker in New Products/Specialty Brewing Group and the rest of the unlucky souls, and sure enough, there was August Busch III sitting in the cockpit. I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to 2 hours in a plane with a man I considered the one of the most intimidating men in the world so I defintely felt a sense of relief when it looked like he was indeed going to fly the plane.
We take off, get in the air, and lo and behold, the cockpit door opens, and AAB III walks out, and explains that his son Stephen was going to fly the plane so he could “chat” with all of us. Well, my stomach dropped so fast….and he spent the next two hours peppering all the passengers about our beer and their upcoming presentations. When he got to me and my partner, we basically ended up giving him our entire presentation, and he gave us very explicit direction to be sure to include the projected sales margins in the Conclave, which we had to scramble to get as soon as we got off the plane. We survived the flight, but definitely needed a beer when we landed.
We were scheduled to present on Day 3, the last day, which was a half day. Conclave presentations often evolve into very deep follow-up conversations (or grillings), so we were behind schedule on day 3, and VP of Brewing Doug Muhleman approached us and said it looked like our presentation was going to get cut due to time constraints. Believe me, I had mixed feelings about that, but the primary feeling was one of relief. It had been a rough Conclave already, and I didn’t want to end up on the chopping block like some of the others.
At the mid-morning break that 3rd day, I was in the lobby getting a cup of coffee when I turned around and unfortunately, made eye contact with AAB III. And of course, he noticed me, and came over and said: “hey! when is your presentation?” And when I replied that it had been cut, he said “oh no you don’t…I want to see it”…so I went and told Doug Muhleman, and we were hastily inserted back into the schedule.
The presentation itself went fine, and I made it through with only minor scarring. I don’t remember much of it to be honest. But I remember that flight out to Williamsburg, and probably always will, and I also remember how easy the return flight was, how relaxed, how enjoyable, because the Conclave was over, and I was flying on the plane without the CEO.