The president of AB InBev India talks about his 18-year stint in the company, loyalty for an organisation and industry, and why India should drink more beer
His colleagues have not heard this story—you can sense that Kartikeya Sharma, president, India and South Asia at the world’s largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev), doesn’t talk about it often. But something compels him to share it this weekday afternoon as we sit chatting in the offices of AB InBev, which makes popular beers like Budweiser, Corona and Hoegaarden, in Bengaluru. Maybe it’s all the cheerful Christmas and beer-themed decorations in the hip office space—it is literally “deck the halls” here—or the late afternoon sun streaming in through the windows, but in answer to a question about his 18 years at the company, Sharma, 41, opens up about how he almost didn’t get the job.
It was 2005, and Sharma was working with the student-led leadership platform AIESEC as the head of its India chapter, as a part of which he had to liaise with many global corporations, including AB InBev. He was backpacking through Europe when he got a call from the company asking if he would like to “come in for an interaction”. He said yes. On the day of the interview, he took a train from France to the company’s headquarters in Leuven, Belgium—or thought he did. “So I have this interview scheduled for like 2.30 or 3 in the afternoon. I show up at the station 30 minutes before time, suit in hand, and go into the men’s room and change, feeling very proud as an Indian about my punctuality,” Sharma recalls. “I get out of the station and start looking for the office, wearing this suit that I probably borrowed from someone, sweating in the warm July sun, and people seem puzzled. Then I say ‘Stella Artois?’ (one of the most popular European beers made by AB InBev) and someone says ‘ah, you’re in the wrong city.”
It turns out, Sharma was in Louvain-la-Neuve in the French-speaking Wallonia region of Belgium, around 40 km from the place where he was meant to be at that exact moment. When Sharma finally made it to the right Leuven, more than an hour late for his appointment (it helped that European cities, even those in different language zones, are short train rides away), he expected to be turned off. Instead, his interviewers laughed when they heard his story. “I asked ‘are you being nice?’ And they were like, no, no this happens all the time. And by the way, why are you wearing a suit?’”
It might be fair to say that Sharma fell in love with AB InBev, which has incorporated many breweries into its fold in its long history and has roots going back to the 14th century, at that moment. He didn’t hesitate before saying yes when he was offered a role in the company a few months down the line—not the one he had interviewed for but a rotational programme where he got to explore several departments in turn, based in Leuven.
“At 23, you look at the category and go, I am going to be selling beer for a living. How hard could this be? So of course I said yes,” he says. More than that, though, the company’s culture, revealed to him on the fateful day, has made him stay on for 18 years—the only “real” job he has held so far in his career. “Back then you didn’t have Glass Door (a website where employees can share honest feedback about companies they work for), etc., so it was more of going with your gut—it’s always about the people and I knew that day that if these are the kind of people I am going to be working with, I am going to enjoy being here.”
In November 2019, a few months before covid-19 hit, he took over the reins of AB InBev India, which operates independently as part of Budweiser Brewing Company Asia Pacific. He is the first Indian to hold the position, having held key positions within the company in his 18-year stint, including business development for new markets (east and west Africa) based out of Leuven; brand manager, global and local portfolios in India; vice-president, marketing, South Asia, and vice-president, sales, India.
Sharma, or ‘Kartik’ as he prefers to be called, was born in Gujarat to parents who were grounded and liberal—his father was a marketing executive in the petrochemicals industry and worked with IPCL for many years. Sharma and his brother lived in Hyderabad, Vadodara, Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata as their father moved around the country for his job. “We were very tight as a family. Despite moving around so much, my parents would not hear of putting us in a hostel. ‘Over my dead body’ my mother would say,” recalls Sharma. His parents did not blink when after school, he wanted to work with AIESEC instead of pursuing engineering, medicine or any of the traditional choices Indian parents are comfortable with. He studied economics in college and has a post-graduation degree in marketing from the Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow, as well as a leadership development certification from the Harvard Business School, US, but his real learning has always been on the job. He attributes his sense of flexibility and unconventionality to his father, who instilled in him the importance of curiosity and connecting with people.
It has stood Sharma in good stead. The year 2020 was a difficult time for a new leader of a big market as people stayed away from pubs and bars and the consumption of beer fell drastically all over the world. This was especially noticeable in India, where beer has typically not been a high performer in the alcoholic beverages category. Despite its seeming cultural popularity, its consumption in India remains modest compared to its population, remaining below 350 million cases a year (compare this to China, the world’s largest beer market, where the figure is around 2 billion cases a year), according to data from China Briefing.
Why has India remained such a small market for it? Doesn’t beer pretty much sell itself, I ask Sharma. “I hope at some point in my lifetime we get to a situation where these words come true. But it’s a resounding no,” says Sharma. “It’s ironic, given India’s weather, which is fairly tropical most times in the year, and with 60% of the population being under the age of 30. You would think if there was a country almost primed for beer as a product, it would be India. But in fact, it takes a lot of hard work to sell beer in India, and a great deal of that has got to do with how very savvy Indian consumers are. As (marketing and brand expert) Rima Bijapurkar, who is on our board of directors, said to me recently, Indians aren’t looking for a good deal—they are seeking value in what they are buying. They look at adjacent categories, and they go, well, why does this seem terribly expensive relative to my choice set?”
What Sharma essentially means is that beer offers low bang for the buck when it comes to alcohol consumption—it is a lifestyle choice, not what you would reach for when you are looking to get high quickly. But this mindset is changing, he feels, especially among young consumers. “They are value seekers, otherwise Apple would not be doing as well as they are doing (in India). Otherwise premiumisation would not be the trend underpinning so many categories,” says Sharma.
In the past three years, the company has made gains—AB InBev is now the second-largest player after United Breweries in the Indian beer market both in terms of volume and value, with Budweiser being the fastest-growing premium brand in the country and India becoming one of the top 4 markets for Budweiser globally. Although the company did not want to share exact revenue and growth figures, it says overall volumes have been growing by strong double digits, with over 22% growth this year, as of November 2023, compared to the same period in 2022. “Across our brand portfolio, we have experienced substantial growth both in volume and value, with robust double-digit increases across the board. Revenue also saw a significant uptick by strong double-digit percentages,” said a statement shared by the company.
This year, the company says it has outperformed the market, which is growing at around 20% year-on-year, by growing at the rate of 30%. Alongside, the company also launched a “Beyond Beer” portfolio with products like the non-alcoholic Budweiser Beats and Hurricane Energy drinks; non-alcoholic beers like Budweiser 0.0; Budweiser Magnum Double Barrel Whiskey; three variants of Hoegaarden Gin; and Seven Rivers Spiced Rum.
Sharma is also excited about the entry of craft beer into the Indian market. In fact, he bet big on craft when in 2020, a few months into the pandemic, he signed a deal with IHCL, which runs the Taj hospitality group, to create a new craft beer brand called Seven Rivers. The first Seven Rivers brewpub was opened at Taj MG Road in Bengaluru in September 2020, and a new one opened in Goa in March this year. The Seven Rivers Brewing Company also sells its own bottled craft beer in several Indian markets—it is clear that Sharma does not see the growth of the craft beer industry in India as a threat. “We are quite excited that people are talking about beer because it’s remarkable how little beer gets talked about. If it allows for consumers to come and reimagine beer, because they are walking into an establishment and saying, I can actually see the product being made here, we are happy because we always talk about how beer is local, natural and inclusive,” says Sharma.
As we wrap up the interview, Sharma regales me with another European anecdote. This time, it’s about how his small and intimate wedding in the historic Austrian city of Salzburg, held at the famous Hellbrunn palace, ended up being featured in the local newspaper, making him and his wife local celebrities. “I don’t know why I am telling you all this!” he says suddenly, picking up his bottle of (non-alcoholic) Budweiser Beats and taking a nervous sip. Possibly, even talking about beer makes people open up.