Aldaris brews on in a bruised economy

  • 1998-11-05
  • Philip Birzulis
With tireless marketing, quality products and a little foreign know-how, the Aldaris brewery has left its domestic competition way behind in the Latvian beer trade. However, imports are making inroads and the company is finding foreign markets tough to crack, as Philip Birzulis reports.

Even somebody spending just a few hours in Latvia will soon understand which beer maker holds 50 percent of the national business. The red and white Aldaris logo appears on hundreds of posters, billboards and those ubiquitous summer umbrellas.

Most importantly, the customers tempted by the advertising take a strong liking to what they discover in their glasses.

"We have higher service and quality and we listen to what our customers want," said company president Vitalijs Gavrilovs.

Back in 1987, when most of Eastern Europe was just waking from its Communist slumber, Gavrilovs was already seeking a foreign investor to bring his 133-year-old brewery into the modern world. In 1992, Scandinavian group Pripps Ringnes Hartwall bought a major stake in the company, as well as in Lithuania's Kalnapilis and Estonia's Saku. All three have benefited from the deal through modernization, while Vichy mineral water, bottled in Latvia and sold through common benchmarking throughout the region, is an example of successful integration.

However, regional competition has been much stronger than cooperation, especially with the advent of the Baltic free trade agreement. This year, imports of beer into Latvia jumped from 3.5 percent of the total market to 10 percent, with 64 percent of this made up by Estonian beers.

This is partly due to the effect the Russian crisis is having on purchasing power, according to Gavrilovs, since a large part of the increase has been in cheap and low quality products, sold several liters at a time in plastic PET bottles. By contrast, he said his firm has a hard time selling up north.

"Estonians are conservative toward foreign beers, perhaps because they have stronger national pride," he said.

Karlis Tomsons, president of the Latvian Brewers Association, said that some of the incoming product is being sold at near dumping prices and this should be investigated. He hopes these issues can be completely resolved by the time all tariffs are abolished in 2001.

"Free competition must exist, but the economic situation is not the same in the three countries," he said.

Foul play allegations aside, he admitted that Aldaris is the only one of 11 Latvian breweries with the capacity and quality to export, but even the leader sends just three percent of its production abroad.

Gavrilovs said that this proportion was so small because the company had spent several years improving its quality before hitting world markets. It was awarded an ISO certificate this year, while Latvia's entry into the World Trade Organization should reduce barriers to sales in 132 countries.

International taste experts are beginning to take notice as well: The Luksus brand won the bronze medal at this year's World Beer Cup in Rio, while last year it was included in the World Encyclopedia of Beer.

However, he said that the amount of money needed to successfully advertise overseas is going to present a daunting challenge and called on the Latvian government to do more to help exporters.

"First you need the product, then the money to go into new markets," he said.

Unfortunately, the reputation of businessmen in Latvia is often one of shady quick-profit merchants. Aldaris, by contrast, has earned a reputation as a company dedicated to enlightened self- interest, since Gavrilovs believes that what is good for business is good for the community, and vice versa. An example of this policy is its sponsorship of Riga's 800th birthday celebrations in 2001, in honor of which it will launch another brand of beer next year.

As the head of the Latvian Employers Association, Gavrilovs wants the government to recognize the role that business people can play in creating a better environment not just for entrepreneurs but for the whole of society.

"We should be trying to create good conditions for both the country and business so that things get done not through lobbying but according to the rules of the game," he said. "We want to show our loyalty to the country."