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More a guardian than leader

Charlene de Carvalho-Heineken, controlling shareholder and executive member of the board of directors of Heineken Holding, regards herself as a guardian, rather than a leader, of Heineken

Charlene de Carvalho-Heineken Heineken

At her first ever stage interview the annual Fortune Most Powerful Women International Summit, held in London earlier this month, Carvalho-Heineken said: “My leadership is not really a leadership as such; I feel a little bit as a guardian. I see this as an asset that I inherited – I don’t quite see it as mine. I see it as my responsibility to keep it healthy and keep it growing, and pass it on to the next generation.

“I now have five children, so my next responsibility is to hand this on to those who are interested, and qualified, and capable – and I’m in the process of doing that and figuring out how that’s going to go.

“But me, as a leader, I feel a little bit like a mother hen.”

During the conversation on stage with Pattie Sellers, Fortune Most Powerful Women Co-Chair, Carvalho-Heineken spoke about how she encourages a clear demarcation between the ownership and management of the company, advocating an oversight role:

“As a family, we can do more good for this company from an ownership side, not from a management side. I think we have to know the business, and we have to be involved; we have to make decisions on the people who are going to run [the business], and I think that’s crucial – people is all and everything.

“And I believe we can do that better from the sidelines, and we can do that better by helping the company to grow a different way, but not sitting in the chairman or the CEO seat.”

As an only child, Mrs Carvalho-Heineken inherited the business from her father, and credits her husband with giving her the confidence to assume responsibility:

“I am a very shy and retiring person. As a child, I was appalling – I wouldn’t look up! I think that what my husband did for me was give me confidence – and why I needed a man for that is really annoying! But it did help me.

“He said: you have a responsibility, you’ve got to do it, so I got over it basically.”

Charlene also acknowledged that despite her reticence to take ownership and make demands, she has had to make some difficult decisions, replacing a previous CEO with Jean François van Boxmeer, who subsequently tripled the size of the company. She says that a takeover bid by SABMiller was “quite a crucial moment” and although Heineken did not speak about it publically, Pattie Sellers noted that Charlene did not support the bid.

Charlene remarked: “We think that we would have disappeared and lost in quite a short period of time what makes us special had we done that – yes we could have made a quick buck, but that was not what we were about.”

Despite her strong stance, it is not in the current Heineken family’s nature to be a controlling voice on the board:

“It’s very rare that I – maybe two or three times in the last 15 years – that we actually had the power, or wanted the power to say no. We don’t do that lightly – we realise that we have 75% outside shareholders. I do feel that I’m not there with my 25% waving a flag and saying that I can do exactly what I want; that’s not the way we work.

"I think we have to do things our way. We're not gonna be able to compete head to head with someone who is four times larger – or a little bit more than four times larger than we are. But we are a different type of company. We concentrate – we're very global and we went global very early. So we have great experience on how to be in the most unbelievable countries, where I think other people might find it difficult to operate.

"I think we also have a culture in our company, which is very strong and very special. And even though it has grown,  and the company has expanded enormously, we have managed, I believe, to keep something very special going there. We concentrate on our premium brands. We concentrate on really looking at our customer and seeing what do they want. We innovate  – even create new drinks. We have 240 brands. Heineken is our flagship one – but there's many others.

"And, of course, we try to look ahead, create what our customers are going to want in the future, and serve them well."


The sixth Fortune Most Powerful Women International Summit and gala dinner runs from 12-13 June at the Dorchester Hotel, Mayfair in London. The event brings together the most prominent global women leaders in business, along with select leaders from government, media, philanthropy and the arts. The event is sponsored by Johnson & Johnson, Royal Bank of Canada and Accenture.

Charlene de Carvalho-Heineken studied law at the University of Leiden for two years and French at the Alliance Française in Geneva. Her background includes managing account executives at advertising agency Collet Dickinson & Pearce in England and planning the design and execution stages of a major residential villa at Bureau d’Architecture André Piazza in France. She also spent some three years, mainly in the U.S., working with various photographers. She then served two years for Heineken NV at various office and brewery locations, including Amsterdam and Zoeterwoude in the Netherlands and Paris and Strasbourg in France. In 1988 Mrs. de Carvalho was appointed a member of the management board of Heineken Holding NV. After her father died in 2002, she has assumed her current role as controlling shareholder and executive member of the board of directors of Heineken Holding NV, the company that owns 51% of Heineken NV.

27 June 2017