Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Drug Cop Turns to Brewing

Heineken's chief of Russian sales and distribution was infiltrating drug gangs and learning to size up people quickly when he first entered the working world more than two decades ago.

Cobus van Rooijen, who moved to the Dutch brewer's St. Petersburg office in August, served as an undercover policeman with the narcotics division in South Africa before he delved into the beer business.

The police job prepared him for many harsh experiences, but surviving the Russian winter was not among them. He said he was curious to see how he would cope with this year's fast-approaching deep freeze, having never experienced such cold before.

A native of Cape Town, van Rooijen, 44, spent the first 25 years of his life in Africa. He faced compulsory military service after secondary school because, he said, he could not afford "the luxury" of a university education at the time. He decided to serve out his term in the narcotics division of the South African police force.

"It's a kind of career you see in 'Miami Vice,' I guess, but not as glamorous," van Rooijen joked.

The most valuable skill to come out of his drugs-busting days was an uncanny ability to read people. "You become an instant judge of character," he said.

People skills have helped him build a high-flying career in the beer business, which van Rooijen has learned from the ground up. After completing his police service, he accepted a job as a security guard with South African Breweries, or SAB, in 1988.

"The brewery gave free samples of their products and the banks didn't," van Rooijen quipped when asked what prompted this early career choice.

He proved himself on the job and moved on to the production facilities, knowing that academic credentials were necessary for getting ahead. He made hoppy brews at SAB during the day and studied human resources and logistics at the South African Institute of Management and the University of South Africa at night.

By 2002, he was SAB's international exports division chief. Having served in several marketing and sales jobs with the company, he decided it was time for a change and joined Namibian Breweries.

Becoming head of marketing at Namibian Breweries, a subsidiary of Interbrew, paved the way for van Rooijen's transition to Russia.

After Heineken & Diageo bought shares in Interbrew, van Rooijen became the global sales and distribution development manager at Heineken's international headquarters in Amsterdam.

Three years in the Dutch capital made for an interesting change for van Rooijen, but he yearned for the excitement of an emerging market.

Yevgeny Filonov / For MT
Van Rooijen began his career in the beer business as a brewery security guard.
"Western Europe's business environment doesn't provide as many challenges as Russia," van Rooijen said.

Like South Africa, Russia is dynamic and "culturally very diverse," he said.

Western giants were frantically buying independent Russian brewers last year, as the beer markets of Western Europe and the United States showed sluggish growth. With virtually no attractive assets left to snap up, brewers must find new ways to compete.

"The days of easy volume growth are gone. Now, it's going to be a battle for market share," van Rooijen said.

Heineken is working on improving its supply chain, leveraging its brand portfolio and finding new ways to appeal to consumers, van Rooijen said.

"We are encouraged to spend as much time as possible in bars, interacting with people," he said.

Hanging out at watering holes to learn more about consumers could also help van Rooijen improve his Russian, which is one of his aims for the near future. Another is seeing more of the country. "I've heard great things about Kamchatka," he said.

Traveling is not the beer professional's only hobby. Van Rooijen calls collecting classic vehicles his true love.

"My passion for cars is only mitigated by the size of my garage," he said.

His favorite is a cream 1958 Volkswagen Beetle, parked in his Cape Town garage.