Beer Buyout Battle Spills To the Hill

(Andrew Harrer - Bloomberg News)
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By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 28, 2008

The chief executive of InBev, a large Belgian brewer, flew directly to Washington and was sitting down with Sen. Claire McCaskill, an outspoken opponent of his company's proposed takeover of her home state's Anheuser-Busch, when she offered him a beer.

McCaskill (D-Mo.) opened the noontime meeting in her office with Carlos Brito two weeks ago by pointedly offering him and his two aides a choice of three Anheuser-Busch drinks. He chose Bud Light, as did the senator. "To Anheuser-Busch!" McCaskill toasted, and they clinked bottles.

Then she lit into him. "You really need to spend a lot of time working to win the hearts and minds of Missourians," McCaskill told the executive, according a person in the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity. "And I'll be honest with you: I don't know how you'll do it."

InBev's unsolicited bid for the St. Louis company this month has sparked a struggle over one of the country's most iconic brands. In Washington, each side is in search of influential allies to help sway public opinion -- a factor potentially important in a proxy fight -- and enlist the aid of lawmakers, or at least blunt their opposition.

If federal officials turn against InBev, they can complicate or even move to stop the merger on antitrust grounds. Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) has already written to the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission, asking them to examine the merger for possible ill effects on American consumers.

After InBev's $65-a-share offer, Anheuser-Busch's management and board initially remained silent as they studied the proposal.

But late Thursday, the board announced that it had unanimously rejected the offer as inadequate, and in Washington, the phones of lawmakers from Missouri -- and several other states -- started ringing with calls from Anheuser-Busch's D.C. office. Lobbyists for the King of Beers wanted to let them know right away that the company had rejected the $46 billion offer.

Thus the battle over the nation's most popular brew, Budweiser, was joined in Washington.

InBev, the maker of Stella Artois, Beck's and Bass, so far has been the more aggressive of the two companies. Over two days in mid-June, Brito, accompanied by newly hired lobbyists, held a series of meetings with five members of the Missouri congressional delegation, as well as James E. Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking Democrat in the House. The welcome ranged from cool to outright hostile.

Meeting with Bond, Brito asserted that he intended to keep Anheuser-Busch's headquarters in St. Louis, its breweries open and its jobs intact.

Bond was skeptical. "I'm sorry. I'm from the Show-Me State," he said. "You'll have to show me."

Brito, a natty Brazilian educated at Stanford University, argued that he intended to make Budweiser as important and popular a brand around the world as Coke or Pepsi. That would only improve Anheuser-Busch's prospects, including in its home city.

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