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Lessons For Intrapreneurship From Within AB InBev

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Internal strategy of EverGrain CEO Belt steers brewer’s “mother ship” into big new B2B ingredients venture.

As manufacturers continue to innovate, they can tap the outside world, or they can encourage intrapreneurship. Greg Belt has been helping the world’s largest beer maker, AB InBev, do the latter by spearheading an inside venture that led his company to invest in a $100-million factory renovation and pivot to a promising new B2B business after centuries of focusing on consumer products.

Belt is founder and CEO of EverGrain, an emerging operation within AB InBev that “upcycles” spent barley from the brewing process into ingredients in a growing number of consumer packaged goods including barley “milk,” inclusions in nutritional supplements, and the nutrients in a new line of sports drinks. The grain is low in calories and high in stuff that makes dietitians swoon including protein, fiber and antioxidants, and Belt is making a run at established protein-ingredient commodities including whey, soy and peas.

EverGrain has a big advantage in that its raw material essentially is free, what with AB InBev alone producing about 1.4 million metric tons of spent grain each year, part of worldwide industry production of about nine million metric tons. All Belt has had to do is figure out how to convert the barley into useful ingredients—and how to do it at scale.

“It’s important to recognize the grain is already there, in food grade, at the brewery, and now we just need to save it,” Belt told Chief Executive. “AB InBev leadership truly now understands this opportunity and looks at it as a long-term opportunity for the company for five, 10, 20, 30 years from now.”

EverGrain started out repurposing about 50 tons of barley each year at its $15-million, small-scale production facility at the company’s Newark, New Jersey brewery. But recently, AB InBev retrofitted an old fermentation cellar by its St. Louis brewery at a cost of about $100 million that will exponentially boost upcycled barley protein output to about 7,000 tons annually.

“The best thing was to be able to work as close to the brewery as possible, for supply chain, emissions and so on,” Belt said. “And we had the space available. We rehabbed this building and got it done in a remarkable amount of time. From shovel to first production run was about 15 months.”

And depending on demand, Belt said that EverGrain eventually could build 15 small facilities around the world near breweries to process the ingredient.

But all of this depends in part on Belt and his small brain trust at EverGrain being able to continue to navigate a dependent relationship on the much larger AB InBev, which is headed by CEO Michel Doukeris.

Here is some of what Belt has learned so far about effective intrapreneurship:

• Communicate the vision. Time horizons can be long in the brewing business; Stella Artois, a distinguished brand in the AB InBev stable, literally was founded 600 years ago in Belgium. But over recent decades, the brewing industry has come to operate more on a tripwire footing, responding to fast-changing consumer trends and marketing openings.

It’s been up to Belt to bring top leadership along in the idea that EverGrain is a longer-term bet. “In the B2C world you measure things so quickly, thinking about them in six-month or yearly timelines,” said Belt, who previously was global vice president of sustainability for AB InBev. “The ingredients business takes decades. So a five-year plan is great for an ingredient company but too slow for fast-moving B2C.”

• Leverage the right strengths. As the founder and leader of EverGrain since its inception about 10 years ago, Belt has learned how to use “the strengths of a startup: quick action, design frameworks” and so on.

But he also understands what his larger employer brings to the table besides permission for EverGrain to pursue its opportunity. “We work with AB on quality, on [scheduling], sharing utilities. We’re brother and sister; we’re family members.”

• Dare to involve the outside. EverGrain has found it necessary to tap outside expertise extensively, including academic partners and customers who understand the chemistry of polyphenols and an advisory council that Belt constructed consisting of members internal and external to AB InBev.

“If you think about the mother ship, a beer company is accustomed to doing nearly everything themselves, but taking that attitude into what we’re doing at EverGrain would make it impossible,” Belt said. “AB InBev has amazing executives growing up within the company that are super familiar with beer and B2C models, but we’re a B2B and a health and wellness [enterprise], and ingredients.”

Thus, external experts on the EverGrain advisory council, including “some of the best food [scientists] in the world, have been absolutely critical to us,” he said. “It’s almost acting like a governing entity within us. It provides advice and guidance that you might not get from a parent company in this case because these people have seen a lot more” of the B2B sector EverGrain has entered.


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