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Stephen Maher: Thirst for Success in China

Stephen MaherWith his hunger for success, the former military man has risen from sales representative to CEO of Carlsberg China. Now, taking the helm of the world's leading brewer brand, Stephen has a new goal sight, in the biggest beer market of the world.

In the swanky office of Carlsberg China's headquarters, at a large meeting room with the full portfolio of products on display, Stephen Maher breezes in. He's tall, handsome, and immediately puts everyone at ease with his warm handshake. As the CEO of the Danish brewer's China company, Stephen is a man who knows that while his job is highly pressured and important, having the right attitude and treating people well is key. 
Growing up in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Australia, Stephen has spent the majority of his adult life away from home. After graduating from Sydney University in 1988, the Aussie gentleman has been working overseas for a number of well-known, international brands. He started his career with Procter and Gamble in Sydney and stayed on home soil for just a year before being posted to New Zealand and given increasing amounts of responsibility. 
While working on the islands he met a man from Hong Kong, who had changed his career life. "I told him I was thinking of going to Japan," Stephen recalls, "He told me 'No. Learn Chinese. It's the next frontier.' We spent time discussing opportunities and I stayed up all night that night, typing up a business case to courier to HK the next day so it would be the first thing that landed on his desk when he returned. These were the days before computers (1989), so you can imagine how furiously my fingers were typing!" 
Stephen spent the next six months studying Mandarin before he got his first job in China as the District Manager of North China at P&G in late 1990. He still remembers his first trip to Guangzhou before getting the job offer. He was heading to Thailand via Hong Kong when someone suggested him to take a trip across the border to the mainland city because he 'could speak Chinese'. "When I got there, I thought the train station's a complete mess," he recounts. "This was back in 1989 and no-one spoke Mandarin here, it was all Cantonese." He admits, at that moment, he would never have expected that he would be staying in this Far Easter country for such a long period, and make his home here. 
Carlsberg first arrived in China in the late 19th century. As one of the first international brewers who exported beer to China, it began its business in Greater China in 1978 and inaugurated the Carlsberg Brewery in Hong Kong in 1981. By acquiring a major shareholding in a brewery in Guangdong's Huizhou City, the Danish brewing giant made its official presence on the Chinese mainland in 1995. In 1999, it moved all the production from Hong Kong to Huizhou and finally set up headquarters in Guangzhou in 2011. The decision to make Guangzhou home to Carlsberg China is out of consideration of its proximity to the beer maker's Asian headquarters in Hong Kong and production base in Huizhou, according to Stephen, what's more, "Guangzhou has a much better talent pool [than any other cities in Guangdong],"the top executive relates. "Plus you can fly to anywhere in China from here." 
With a history of over one and a half centuries, Carlsberg owns over 500 brands in more than 100 countries, with over 20 brands available in China. Whilst maintaining the classical taste of its Carlsberg brand, the company also developed the tailor-made Carlsberg Chill, Carlsberg Light and Tuborg exclusively for consumers in China, to meet their "less bitter and lower alcoholic strength" demands. "Success in China leverages us in multiple locations around the world," Stephen reveals Carslberg's ambition in the biggest beer market of the world. "If we could achieve our modest ambitions for Carlsberg and Tuborg in China, by 2016, we'll make them the No.3 and No.4 brand in the world." 
To step forward towards its goal, Carlsberg, keeping its motto 'Thirst for great,' in mind, inked an agreement with Chinese Super League (CSL) this March, to make itself the exclusive beer partner of China's top-flight football league from 2014-2016. 
In a market where everybody is competing and every company believes that they can be number one, Stephen has a secret to win - looking at the culture of people is important; connecting with them is essential. "Beer is the easiest thing to sell!" The sales expert chuckles as he takes a swig of his favorite Carlsberg product, Kronenberg 1664 Blanc. "There are rituals in the baijiu (white spirit) culture that you can leverage into beer to make it seem like it's a part of the culture." Another huge aspect of selling beer, according to Stephen, is to consider the reason why people drink. "Here in China it's the occasion that is important. At dinner people drink premium, stronger beers like Carlsberg; in a nightclub people are more likely to drink K1664; drinking games with friends needs a lighter beer. These things have an emotional connection. It's not like saying: Stephen drinks K1664. It's more: Stephen likes this when he's doing this. All this is so much more fascinating and fun!" 
To a person like Stephen, who is thirsty for success in career, working in China is something that will never disappoint him. "I love working in this country," he confesses, "It changes so fast. The west took two hundred years to change from rural to urban; it's taken China just twenty." Stephen is also impressed with the Chinese people for a number of reasons. "They are sincere, willing to endure hardships as much as they are willing to learn." 
To Guangzhou, a city he has been in and out of throughout his career, Stephen also has a long-standing love affair with the city. His first stint was with P&G in the early nineties. "Even when I first got here I felt its vibrancy and energy." He returned for a couple of years at the end of the nineties and spent most of the 2000s here. "When my boys were young we loved walking around the impressive parks." He started with Carlsberg in 2010 and the busy traveler apparently loves his life in Guangzhou. "Now there is a spectacular explosion of business. You can see that from Zhujiang New Town. It has become a world class city." And the thing he loves the best? "The food is better than any other in the world." He certainly is sucking the marrow from life. Long may he continue to do so.

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