BY CHRISTOPHER LEONARD
The Associated Press
ST. LOUIS – More than any other beer, Budweiser is an American icon: Its Clydesdale horses are fixtures of Super Bowl ads, and even the label is red, white and blue, with an eagle swooping through the “A” for Anheuser-Busch.
The proposed sale of the maker of the beer that bills itself as “great American lager” to a Belgian firm has become a rallying point for some Bud fans and lawmakers playing to the populist view that America is being sold off, bit by bit.
“I think companies that are American should stay that way,” said Becky Larschied, manager of Harry’s Hide-A-Way bar in Lima, Ohio, where Bud Light is the biggest seller, with Budweiser not far behind.
“We have so many products that we get from different countries right now. What’s going to be our place in jobs and industry if we’re all taken over by foreign companies?” she asked.
Belgian brewer InBev made an offer this week to buy Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. for $46 billion, potentially shifting ownership of the largest U.S. brewer into foreign hands.
And Joe Six-Pack may not take kindly to outsourcing the King of Beers.
A Web site called SaveBudweiser.com claims to have more than 40,000 signatures for its online petition opposing the deal. Another site, SaveAB.com, claims to have 24,000.
“We don’t want another American icon turned over to a foreign company,” one site says.
The political backlash has included both of Missouri’s U.S. senators, Republican Kit Bond and Democrat Claire McCaskill. By contrast, when a London company bought Miller Brewing Co. in 2002, there was hardly a murmur on Capitol Hill.
“Having the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales being replaced with two Belgian ponies and a cart filled with beer does not thrill me,” Bond said.
While Anheuser-Busch is hardly a major employer nationwide, with roughly 31,000 workers, the company spends millions every year to reinforce its image as a bedrock American firm.
Anheuser-Busch doesn’t release its annual advertising expenditures. But Advertising Age magazine estimated the company spent $813 million in 2006 alone.
The brewer was once again the largest Super Bowl advertiser this year. Its Budweiser ads featured a “Rocky”-inspired story of a Clydesdale that doesn’t make the first cut for the carriage team, but succeeds after a year of training with a Dalmatian dog.
The proposed sale comes at a time of economic anxiety. While a bipartisan majority of lawmakers passed free-trade agreements during the 1990s, similar deals have bogged down in Congress in recent years amid worries over job losses and shuttered factories.
“There is a lot of pain being felt out in the economy, and people are looking for who to blame for it,” said James Paul, executive director of the Global Policy Forum, a New York nonprofit group that consults for the United Nations.
Bond also sent a letter Thursday asking Attorney General Michael Mukasey to look into antitrust issues surrounding the deal, which would give InBev control of more than half the U.S. beer market.
“I believe in the free flow of capital. It’s very important,” said Bond, who has supported free-trade agreements. “But in this instance I think we ought to explore all the options. This does not bode well for St. Louis. I doubt that (InBev) would be cutting jobs in Belgium.”
InBev, which makes the Beck’s and Stella Artois brands, offered $65 a share for Anheuser-Busch, well above $58.35 share price before the offer was made. And the Belgian company promises to expand Budweiser’s reach globally.
Anheuser-Busch has been quiet about the offer, which was made Wednesday. The company said its board will consider the offer and reply to InBev “in due course.”
The Wall Street Journal reported the brewer began preliminary talks with Mexico’s Grupo Modelo SAB about a possible merger that could make the combined company too big for InBev to buy. Anheuser-Busch already owns a roughly 50 percent, non-controlling stake in Modelo.
In the meantime, the SaveAB.com group will hold a march Saturday at a St. Louis Cardinals game downtown, passing out fliers outside Busch Stadium to oppose the takeover.
“I think that if you talk to investment bankers and people, they say if enough noise is made, and though points are made, you can have an impact,” said Ed Martin, the site’s cofounder.