Quilmes – A beer with a German flavour and family tradition

By Rodrigo Basco, Ph.D.

Saturday. I had set my mind on visiting a German city. The fact that I live in small town but have the chance to visit the rest of Europe by train is really wonderful. My eye rested on the city of Cologne. After reviewing its history and checking out its cultural life, I decided to start on a search for the spirit of Otto.

Argentines are very close to the Germans. The German culture is part of our identity (la argentinidad al palo as the song says – the spirit of being an Argentine). Every Argentine, at one time or another, has tasted a Quilmes Beer on a hot summer, and we all remember the beer commercials where Quilmes is the official sponsor for the Argentine soccer team. It’s not surprising that a German immigrant inspired us with his entrepreneurial culture and a true passion for beer (and sometimes we inspired them with our football). My intention isn’t to refer extensively to the passion for beer (either football), even if my German friends would agree to do so. What I really want to stress is the entrepreneurial vision of Otto Bemberg and his family saga. But the story doesn’t have a happy ending. Quilmes is no longer an Argentine company, much less a family business. Otto’s last descendants sold the company to the Belgian -Brazilian conglomerate.

Otto was born in the German city of Cologne in 1827, but he emigrated to Argentina in the 50s, where he married Ms. Ocampo. From the beginning, Otto showed his entrepreneurial streak with a import-export company in the field of textiles and cereals. In 1860 he founded the French-Argentine distillery and in 1988 he founded the corporation that was later called ‘Cerveza Quilmes’ – Quilmes Beer. His son Otto Sebastian was part of this story. He specialized in the manufacture of beer in Munich. Back in Argentina, Otto Sebastian took care of the business growth. In the first third of the last century, the company developed a growth strategy based on expansion, modernization and development of its plants and infrastructure.

The city of Quilmes (in the province of Buenos Aires) gets its name from the indigenous people from the northern region of Tucuman (The Quilmes), who were transferred to Buenos Aires on an excursion organized by the Spanish at the time of the Conquest (which wasn’t exactly a shopping tour as you can imagine). Few centuries later, this city experienced a remarkable growth and development thanks to the company that shares its name (Quilmes Beer). However, in the 1940s and 50s, the troubled political life in Argentina -troubled even today- expropriated property owners and nationalized the company. These properties were returned to their rightful owners by the late 50s.

In the 1980s and 90s, the company managed to be back at the forefront of technology with a quality product and acceptance in the domestic market. Quilmes Brewery and Malting began the new century in full swing and consolidation in all its product lines. But in 2002, the holding Quinsa was divided and sold, and it included the legendary brand Quilmes. This process ended in 2006 when the rumors around Buenos Aires were confirmed: the company founded by Otto and subsequently directed by different generations, whose star product is Quilmes beer, the official sponsor for the Argentine soccer team, was no longer a family or even a local business. The break stemmed from disagreements in the family, and Carlos Miguens, the director of the company at the time, was in the minority group.

What reasons may move a family to sell their century old-company, their emblem business? Why did the heirs decide to forsake family tradition? What are the emotional boundaries that may make an owner stay committed to the brand and the family tradition? Can someone teach responsibility for an active and committed property? What are the steps that should be taken to keep the family shareholders together when the company is growing?

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