SABMiller Expects Colombia Volume Sales Rebound In 2011

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Colombia, a key market for global beer brewer SABMiller PLC, will likely see a rebound in lager volume sales this year after suffering a contraction in 2010 spawned by higher taxes on beer.

Richard Rushton, president of SABMiller’s Colombian unit Bavaria, said in an interview Tuesday that “we would expect volumes to start to reflect growth in the low to mid single digits in a reasonable short term such as in the next 12 months.”

The company’s medium-term guidance is for 4% to 6% volume growth, but Rushton said he was unsure that growth for this year would be within that range.

“I’m not sure it’s going to be 4% to 6%,” he said.

The company’s main concern now is a harsh rainy season, which can affect distribution. “I’m a little cautious until we see the clouds lift,” he added.
SABMiller’s volume sales declined 6% for the 12 months through March 2011, the company said in a statement. The contraction in Colombia was fueled by an emergency tax levied in February 2010 that the government used to plug a deficit in public health services.

After keeping prices mostly unchanged for a few years, the company also hiked prices by 8.3%, something which “had an immediate impact on our volume performance,” Rushton said.

The last tranche of the tax hike came into effect in February 2011, increasing the consumer tax on beer from 14% to 16%, but the company decided not to increase prices.

“We’re pursuing price constraint aggressively,” Rushton said.

Adding to the impact of the higher tax on volume sales, 2010 was an electoral year in which alcohol sales were banned during several weekends. Another woe facing the company was a devastating streak of torrential rains in November and December that crippled roads and made several regions inaccessible to delivery trucks during months in which beer consumption usually jumps.

“A perfect storm hurt us,” Rushton said.

But the impact of the higher tax is “bottoming out,” he said, and the company posted beer volume growth in February and March from a year earlier.

“We’re seeing reasonably encouraging signs that the clouds are lifting,” he said.

An ongoing concern, however, is the downpours that have recently restarted in much of the country, once again blocking key roads. But it is only a matter of time before the rains cease, Rushton said.

“We’re optimistic that we will see the end of this weather and with the end of the weather we will start to post some volume growth,” he added.

SABMiller has a dominant position in Colombia, controlling 97% of the beer market. Strong economic growth should filter down to higher consumption, which should help fuel growth, Rushton said.

“We’re cautiously optimistic that some of the benefits of higher economic growth will filter through,” he said. Government officials have said that economic growth in 2011 could surpass 5.5%.

The government is taking the right steps in making efforts to upgrade Colombia’s shaky infrastructure and broaden its tax base, something that could also help the unit, Rushton said.

“The government is trying to allow the private sector to grow and to create conditions for growth,” he said. SABMiller pays nearly 3.7% of the total national tax intake.

The government is also taking steps to curb the sale of contraban and adulterated liquor, something that should help boost SABMiller’s beer sales, Rushton said.

Beer consumption in Colombia is still below other countries in the region, something that gives “plenty of room for growth,” he said.