Lady with a Lemon Beer: In the Hurbanovo Brewery Women Make Decisions

Football, politics, women. Traditional topics for discussions over a beer. However, how often does one discuss a topic of women managing business? And would anyone believe that the 'big beer' from Hurbanovo has the leadership of a woman and female power is not limited only to the General Manager?

The Head of Heineken Slovakia, Door Plantenga admits that in the largest European brewery group her company Heineken Slovensko is an exception in terms of female representation because the world of beer is still largely dominated by men.

Heineken Slovakia is managed by a woman and its financial director is a woman. Is this typical for a brewery?

And it gets even "worse" (laughing). Our brewing manager is a woman. Our packaging manager is a woman. And our quality assurance manager is a woman as well; in the rest of the world of Heineken, men continue to dominate. But I can proudly say that we have really strong women in Slovakia. Perhaps it's another characteristic of this country. It happens very often when we are recruiting new staff that female quality and female attitudes prevail. Currently, we have 60 percent men and 40 percent women in higher management. We don't fit into the Heineken average at all, where the share of women is perhaps 15 percent. I am also familiar with statistical data, according to which Slovakia is on the second place after Finland in share of women in the tertiary education system. So we have a huge potential of highly qualified women.

What are the differences between women and men in business?

For me, there is no such thing as women being good or men good or the other way around. None of the two are even superior. The magic is in the connection. Men have fantastic instinct and nature. I am very much generalising now but women have discipline and loyalty. The instinct of us having to care for the tribe and children is accompanied by certain qualities. Men have other qualities. This week, we had to defend our three-year plan in the regional headquarters in Vienna. I know that when I come there the atmosphere will be completely different as opposed to only men sitting there. I would tell a joke, and we'd laugh. Of course since we are showing excellent results they cannot have great reservations. So the atmosphere is completely different in that the men are not trying to measure up to one another in an atmosphere of testosterone. Women in general have less of an ego problem, so they don't try to strongly prove something to one another.

Have you been working systematically on recruiting women for the company?

Heineken is trying to increase the proportion of women in management but it's not easy. There are very few available and there is nowhere to get them from. You have to hire them from outside and they have to adapt as well to the Heineken culture. For instance we have female managers who are going to go away for maternity leave soon and we have to find a solution because they won't be with us for some time. According to law they can stay home for up to three years. But the managerial positions are too valuable to be left unoccupied. We have examples where women have stayed home for only nine months but gradually started working again, while handling many things via e-mail.

Why does it pay for the company to look for solutions for women at maternity leave?

I do not want to see it as a problem. Pregnancy is a fantastic thing and we should have more children born in Slovakia! In my view it needs to be solved from both sides, the company has to be flexible and willing to look for solutions, the employee on the other hands should also show willingness to cooperate and find suitable solutions for her maternity leave absence; it is very difficult when a woman wants to stay at home for three years and expects to be taken back in the job she had before she left.

How to harmonise career and pregnancy?

Women have their biological clock when they are climbing their career path. As a result, they are confronted with a unique dilemma - going for their career and their motherhood at the same time because of the simple fact that women will have their children between the ages of 28 to 40. They should be allowed to slow down a little because other life's priorities during that time.

Is pregnancy the main breaking point, which decides a woman's career? And do men understand it?

In my view pregnancy does not have to be a breaking point, but statistics still show that in that phase most senior female managers are stopping their career. I also see a shift in the mentality of the men. When I joined Heineken 25 years ago, I was surrounded by predominantly male colleagues. The men behaved quite differently back then. They would wear their suits and be really serious. Then they would come home, remove their ties and jackets and change to nice fathers. Now you can see a smoother mix between private and working life behaviour. They overlap each other. Look at the way we use our smart phones. We take our work home. On the other hand, for example now, during working hours, I have to arrange for my son to be driven to tennis.

How does the new era manifest itself in the behaviour of men?

They are much more involved in running the household. They are no longer afraid to say that I have to leave at five today because I have to pick up my children from kindergarten. And people understand that. After joining Heineken I used to work with some colleagues who were ten years older than me. They were typical representatives of the male world. They have only changed after their daughters started their careers and found that they were unable to find conditions and jobs they wanted. Only then they realised, oh, maybe I too could act a little differently.

How have you managed to stay in Heineken even in such environment?

One of the reasons I have managed to last in Heineken was that I had had little children while serving in Africa. I was surrounded by an entire army of domestic helpers and nannies. I didn't have to worry about washing the dishes and cooking. When I came home I was able to be the nice mama. And at work I was able to be professional and continue working on my career.

Don't bury your talent but do something with it, advance. Don't give up.

Do you have any advice for women, how to handle this hard part of one's career?

Rule number one: you have to start with the right choice of husband. If he is very conservative, maybe you should reconsider. Currently, there are only two other women in Heineken in the position of General Manager. If I didn't have a husband who is supportive and has the flexibility of living with me like this, while having a permanent job at the Kramare hospital, it would not be possible. I don't work from nine to five. If my husband was not really willing to help me and take care, it would not be possible. Rule number 2: never give up; always try to continue your professional career.

How is the family life of a woman – manager?

If it works, life has much more to offer. I am exceptionally happy, my husband is exceptionally happy and I think our children are happy as well because they see us happy. I don't think children are very well off if their mother is sitting at home, all nervous because she has to be there even though she doesn't want to. With the combination of my career and my family life I feel like a true, complete person. I do believe our kids are more independent and responsible, knowing that they have to try hard otherwise they would end up having terrible grades at school. And they are ambitious enough to be good pupils.

What else should women do in order to be successful?

I think that in addition to the right choice of husband everyone is born with a certain gift. So don't bury your talent but do something with it, advance. Don’t give up. If you take a five-year break in your career there is very little chance for you returning to a comparable level and jumping right back to the high tempo of work life. But it is wonderful to be living both of these things and that makes me a very happy person.


You have come to Slovakia after twelve years in Africa. How does one do business on that continent?

I was a Commercial Director in Ghana. A day we had enough trucks, pallets, bottles, and labels to supply our customer made me happy because it was not the rule. Logistics are more complicated there. Rwanda, where I worked as well, is a landlocked country. If we needed malt, it took six months to deliver after it was ordered. They had to load it in Antwerp and deliver to the port of Mombasa in Kenya, which is utterly under capacitated. It could take three weeks before the containers were offloaded in the port. After that you had to pass through Uganda and crossing borders in Africa is a nightmare. The trucks could be stuck there for days or weeks.

How does Slovakia compare to Africa?

When we need several tons of malt in Hurbanovo, one just opens the doors and malt is in the brewery. We don't make our own labels but all our suppliers are located in Slovakia. This alone signifies a huge difference. On the other hand, you can come across much fun in Africa; they have great capability of improvising, which we have lost here a little, with all the firm rules and regulations. There was always a certain 'state of panic' in Africa with everyone trying to find a solution. This resulted in an entrepreneurial enthusiasm, which is somehow missing in Holland or in Slovakia. For instance the concept of not having something in a warehouse just doesn't exist in Ghana. Someone will simply search all corners to offer you something.

Brands and people are extremely important. Many companies have used the crisis to get rid of people. We didn't have to lay off a single one.

Were you not concerned over your safety in Africa?

Yes, of course, security can be a problem at times. However I never felt a direct threat from the unsecure environment and on the other hand you have much fun - there is a lot of dancing and singing. Sometimes I miss things like that here. You don't see any war-dancing here (laughing). Our top management meetings in Rwanda, which were held every four months, would always begin in a circle of 35 people with our war-dance. Can you imagine the ecstasy our managers were still feeling right before the start of the meeting? In Slovakia you start your meeting with a computer presentation.

Are you less bothered by problems due to your experience from Africa?

Yes. I think I'm very hard to be put out of my tranquillity. There is almost always a solution for everything. That's why I don’t panic easily. If I get into a situation I'm not sure I can resolve or influence, that's when I start to feel a little uneasy. But most of the things in life have solutions. On the other hand I'm very happy about coming here because here we have a company with very determined and enthusiastic people. The big difference compared with Africa is mutual trust.

Were you not able to trust people in Africa?

It wasn't that they would want to lie to you or that there was a lack of trust but if you had asked in Ghana whether a problem had been resolved, they would answer you either yes, or yes I'm working on it. To a Dutchman it means "don't worry we shall resolve it". Six months later I learned that this phrase really meant that we should be really worried because no one had the foggiest idea how to resolve the issue, they just didn't want to disappoint you. So when someone would use the phrase "I am on it" I would say, let's discuss now because we seem to have a real problem.


What is different about problem solving in Slovakia?

People in Slovakia are proactive even if sometimes hear say that Slovaks are lazy. I would never say that in my entire life. What I like about them that they can take a respite. They don't overload, having some kind of brake somewhere inside that prevents them from starting to burn out. Perhaps sometimes they would say, I am overworked too easily. In that case I say you can still do a little more. On the other hand what needs to be done is done. Almost every day I am surprised by something I think of needing to be done then it's usually done by someone else.

Is managing really that simple?

For example Zlaty Bazant is a very important brand for us. We have licence agreements in Austria, Belarus, Hungary and Czech Republic. And this month (October – editor's note) we shall exceed one million hectolitres production worldwide. Nearly half of that is made in Slovakia. So I e-mailed our Brand Manager whether we shouldn't do some marketing event about it and then I let it out of my head. My colleagues came to see me the next day saying they had a nice plan. All it takes in Slovakia is a spark and someone feels ignited and things start to work.

So is it enough for you as a director just to think of something and send an e-mail?

Yes, and I really mean it. For me it is all about people management, inspiring and motivating. All I was taking care of in Africa was basically just satisfying the ever growing demand. Volumes would grow yearly by 40 percent. I have come here in 2009 when the crisis really struck us hard. We even had a decline in sales that year. The challenges and problems were completely different. We knew that brands and people are both extremely important. Many companies have used the crisis to get rid of people. We didn't have to lay off a single person. That's exactly what I'm personally proud of because I saw great motivation, commitment, and loyalty.

Are you happy about the way people work in Slovakia?

Yes. But I also have another rule, which I've probably brought from Africa. It goes like this: We work hard and we play hard. For instance we have regular management meetings and we can look forward to two beautiful days of hard work but in the evening, we party hard as well. Or we would have our annual Company party our Beer fest and look, I have even received an invitation with my name on it. They even gave me these two vouchers for free beer for the opening day (laughing). Which, by the way, I like in comparison with Africa. There, they would sometimes treat me as though the Queen had arrived. Here, I can just have my beer with my voucher (laughing).

How do you like fun in Slovakia?

I think we're slow starters. We need to get some kind of lubricant into the system but after three-four beers it'll get going and nothing can stop us until three-four o'clock in the morning. We try to support fun as much as we can. We want people to work hard but we also want them to feel rewarded afterwards. If you have succeeded in that, there is much positive energy as a result. When you don't like your job, minutes seem to take hours and a day seems to last an eternity. Today it's Friday (at the time of interview – editor's note) and I don’t even know how the week has passed. I'm having so much fun and there is a lot of fun around me as well. And in the meantime the company has very good results.

For instance we would try some experiments, such as warning ATTENTION! if you don't get your beer with a smile, you have it for free.

You stated several times that people in Slovakia should be smiling more. Why do we smile so little?

I'm not an anthropologist and I have to say that perhaps there is more laughter in these offices than somewhere else. But I don't understand it because when people smile, they look really nice and even their lives appear to be nicer. To smile is not a primary human instinct but once it appears it is very natural and radiant. I don't know why we don't smile more in Slovakia and we really want to do something about it because we can see that companies where people smile more also tend to have higher revenues. If I'm nice to you and you to me and I ask if you would like another beer or coffee, you would say yes before you realize it. And I would bring you the receipt with pleasure and a smile!

Are you testing the power of smile in practice as well?

We try to have management meetings all over the country. We would always meet there with the local sales team and we would go out visiting pubs in the evening. One major benefit of working for a brewery is that you can go out and still pretending to be working. And of course you need to test the quality of it too! (laughing). My husband keeps making fun of me when he says, "you call me at one AM and you say that you're still working?" And I'd say to him, "yes, this is very serious work, we’re checking the beer here". Whenever I would come to some pub I'd take a bet with my management that I'm not going to leave before everyone is having a laugh and fun with me. We're always trying various tricks and in the end they work!

You can't make the whole country laugh just by yourself.

For instance we would try some experiments in bars, such as placing a warning ATTENTION! if you don't get your beer with a smile, you have it for free. Of course, it is risky because you can't just keep on smiling all the time but the waiter or waitress should be smiling at least when they're meeting a customer. But it is starting to work and the owners can see increased sales. And at the end of the day, that’s exactly what it's all about. So it's something like my life's mission.

Is good mood capable of changing the operation of business?

Strong, healthy, and positive atmosphere in your company can increase efficiency by up to 30 percent. It has been confirmed by studies and we’re the living example of that. Take 2009 for instance, and it has nothing to do with me, in 80 percent of the companies you could see decline in business results. Our profit rate was growing by 15 to 17 percent. The reason for that is enthusiasm of the people. They want look to for solutions, decrease costs, be more efficient, and increase revenues. Because it makes them feel good they're willing to take that extra step. We have less medical leave of absence, less staff turnover. All of this is decreasing costs. With ten percent staff turnover you have some people in your company who are not doing anything else than just hiring new people. Recruitment and training are very expensive for a company and loyal employees are an important asset with high returns.


Are you the type of manager who needs to have a clear system to follow in her head or are you driven by instincts instead?

I would say it's a bit of both. I think that I have a clear system in my head and also the company has a simple and comprehensible mission and vision. Everyone can tell you our three main goals by 2015, whether it's Monday morning or Friday afternoon. We have clear rules the company is following. But within them there is much room for freedom and flexibility. I think I can be flexible enough if necessary while still remembering the goal. In addition, I think that you gain something with your age. I have been working in Heineken for 25 years and I have at least a little idea what I'm talking about (laughing).

What exactly do you mean by "little"?

It means that you have a little stronger intuition and you feel that you can rely on that internal feeling more than someone just starting their first year because of the rich experience you have gained over time.

But you also have moments when you're just not sure?

Yes, of course but not so often. For instance Radler was not invented in Slovakia. They had it in Austria, Hungary. I was in Vienna on several occasions and I said to myself, let's do it because I think we're ready. I didn't have any research or any consumer survey results, it was just my internal gut feeling telling me that this will work here and that it will work under the Zlaty Bazant brand. Then we began to try and find out among our consumers – do you like this taste or that, what about this design or that label, or would you prefer one more lemon? But I never had any doubt that it would work.

How important is the inner feeling in your decision making?

For instance we had no research agencies in Rwanda. In 80 percent of cases I had to rely on my own gut feeling. Of course that percentage is much smaller here; we have agencies that will research anything you want. I think it's very dangerous to rely on marketing surveys and mathematical results alone and not to have that internal feeling, hey, this could work and this not. The same goes for our advertisements. I am participating in them quite strongly even though the language is the biggest obstacle for me in this country. I don't understand the little nuances, however I think that we, Dutch, have much in common with Slovaks in our sense of humour.

What is the basis of your marketing strategy?

When I came here, we could see that we were facing many challenges with Zlaty Bazant. Its share was slightly declining and we decided to try something new in our communication. We have decided to take a proper look at Slovaks, inside them, and try and find out what it is they're really proud of. We had to probe very deeply inside them and find out what Slovaks are really proud of and we tried to find a way of connecting it with the brand. I think we found some very nice and interesting insights. Slovaks are proud of being a part of the modern, developed world. We're proud of being a part of our strong economy. We're proud of wearing Hilfiger, Replay, or Diesel clothing. But at the end of our day we like going with our friends to a cottage-style traditional restaurant or a pub and we'd have a goulash and our beer. And that was a very nice bridge to a strong Slovak tradition and to young people.

Does the discussion about suitable advertisement help you improving the sales?

Our recent market research indicates that the Zlaty Bazant brand is growing and is very healthy. When we have meetings with brand managers, we would always start with their opinion and then we would discuss it. Somehow I have discovered that I understand brands. I love them very much; they're like people or children to me. If you want to be good for your children you have to understand what they are like and what they like. We’re doing completely different things for Corgon as we do for Zlaty Bazant. Kelt is an entirely different child and Heineken yet another one.

In what other cases does your intuition show?

Strong sense of intuition and internal feeling also manifests itself when hiring people. There are many brilliant techniques available, however in most cases I wouldn’t even look at the applicant's CV. I would look in their eyes, listen to what they're saying and observe their attitudes. People may come with all kinds of diplomas and certificates and, though it may be sad, I don't care that much about the papers, I recruit for attitude.


What portion of the brewery business is standing and falling on good marketing?

A very large portion. You can't find bad beer in a country such as Slovakia. There are better beers and not so good beers but in my opinion there is no discussion about basic condition as good quality. Instead, we're addressing the question why would a customer choose this beer and not that one. That's when the brand comes into play and marketing is becoming extremely important. You are trying to catch emotions in your customers and transform them into their decision of buying your brand. Something like – this is the beer I feel good with, I want to be seen drinking it with my friends, because I'm proud of it and I like it are motivations why people choose for a certain brand.

Usually, customers tend to develop more sentimental relationships towards local brands. So was it not risky to close down breweries, such as the one in Nitra?

It was a very emotional and difficult decision, just like in Martin and Rimavska Sobota. We have global brands, with Heineken being the crown jewel. It’s a worldwide brand, for which people are really willing to pay a relatively high price because of the strong international appeal and image. However, Heineken does realise the importance of our local business and brands. If you were to compare us with companies such as Mars, Unilever, or Procter & Gamble I guess you wouldn't care where the chocolate bars or detergent soaps come from. If your child is using Pampers diapers, you don't care whether they come from Spain or from Netherlands. Quality assurance is enough for you.

To what extend can globalisation be under way in the brewery business?

Thank God, we don't have huge European breweries producing tens of millions of hectolitres of beer somewhere in Spain or France. Yes, within the country there is consolidation and we're trying to achieve synergies and savings from scale. You don't have to be a genius to realise that with four breweries our fixed costs are four times higher than with one. In that case you have to adopt some painful decisions and close some because it just doesn't work economically. Of course, I have to be careful when I’m speaking with someone from Nitra, who would like us to make Corgon there!

Many in Nitra say that Corgon is not the same anymore...

It’s an absolute myth. We're using the exact same ingredients as in Nitra. And we have it scientifically proven that people didn't recognise any difference. While still producing in Nitra we have tested Corgon from the Hurbanovo brewery as well and no one was able to tell any difference. On the other hand, men like to talk about women, football, and beer. What they're saying doesn’t always reflect reality. But we'd never be able to eradicate all such myths. But I get offended by stories of European beer that all beer brands are the same. People can just take our beers, each one varies considerably from the other. And I’m willing to argue with anyone claiming they’re all the same. Because it’s simply not true.

After quite some time, this summer had brought first innovation on the beer market in the shape of Radler. Wouldn't you be able to maintain beer consumption at higher level, had you come with something similar in 2005 – 2006 when consumption fell dramatically after introduction of new taxes?

It is difficult to judge things with hindsight. You’d have to look at Central Europe from historical point of view as well. In 1994 international breweries thought Nirvana was opening up to them. They saw huge markets with high beer consumption per capita and they all wanted to enter here. We have arrived in 1995 when we acquired Hurbanovo, later Nitra, Martin, and Gemer. What we found, however, wasn’t very healthy. Companies were owned by the State, people didn’t care whether they produced profits or losses. They only made beer, and in many cases, not very good ones. But people were used to it and it was very cheap. The initial euphoria was replaced by sobering up and it became clear that a lot had to be reorganised to change the business to profit. Quality is one of the main components of Heineken’s DNA. We had had to overhaul the entire business, which was very expensive. I can tell you that Heineken kept producing losses in Slovakia until about 2005.

So the main goal was primarily to clean up own plants?

We have entered a market where everything was growing and then in 2002 – 2003 the Government had increased the excise tax for beer by 100 percent. Consumption plummeted by 10 litres per capita. It was very difficult to recover from this steep decline. Yes, had we begun introducing many innovations in 2005 – 2006 perhaps the beer market would have looked different now. Also SABMiller had arrived at that time, buying Topolcany and Presov. They too had to undergo a recovery phase of their business. And I'm not ashamed to admit that for a long time our company had to focus mainly internally, returning to profitability and only then try and see what new things the customers would like.

Is the later arrival of innovations the result of internal problems of breweries after their takeover?

The blame for current status can maybe be seen there, but you have to take into account that new tastes have appeared in Western markets only recently as well. Beer has always been a traditional product. For instance it cannot be compared with mobile phones at all. Look at the current smart phones. Every year they need bring something new. Beer is different. Why is Pilsner Urquell still successful? It is standing on tradition and heritage. Rather, attention is paid to the fact that nothing is touched if someone were to propose a tasty strawberry Pilsner it is likely the consumers would refuse it completely. We live in a rapidly changing consumer environment, but we have a traditional product and consumers still expect traditional values from this category.

How much does the world of beer differ from the rest of consumer products?

While the rest of the world started innovating and introducing new products, such as health products, low calory products and new flavours, for instance aloe vera flavour, we remained very careful. Now we’re opening up much more and we’re asking our consumers what they want and we have discovered they are ready to experiment other tastes. On the other hand had we asked a few years ago if they want a tablet computer, nobody would have had an idea what you are talking about. It is true that if you want to be part of the future you have to invent it yourself. It may be a simple slogan but it is well founded.

When you decided to bring Radler to Slovakia, did you proceed in similar fashion?

When we look at the success of Radler, which accounts for about 10 percent of revenues, there was not a large group of Slovak customers chanting: "We want Radler, We want Radler!" However, at a certain time we felt the timing was right and the right moment was there, the right number of LDA – people who can drink alcohol legally- are willing to experiment new things. This generation has grown up on beverages such as Coca Cola and that's why they prefer sweeter flavours as opposed to those who grew up on water alone. Transition to beer is a little harsh for them, because beer has a bitter and strong taste. Radler has become a fantastic and smooth link for them. It is still beer, it has the bitter beery taste but it is much more subtle and accessible.

Door Plantenga (52)
Dutch director of Heineken Slovakia loves to laugh.
She would say of herself that making people laugh
is her life’s mission. She joined the world’s third
largest brewery group in 1985. She spent half of her
career in Africa. She arrived in Slovakia in 2009
from the position of brewery General Manager in Rwanda.
She is married and has three children.


Translated from original article appearing in November 2011 edition of Forbes Slovensko: "Dáma s Citrónovým Pivom - v Hubanovskom Pivovare Rozhoduju Ženy", by Juraj Porubský, Editor in Chief.