Unibra, the Skol brewer has something for everyone

Saturday June 9 2018

Thibault Relecom

Thibault Relecom is CEO and director of Unibra S.A, a Belgium-based brewery that owns Rwanda’s second largest brewery, Skol Breweries Ltd, the makers of Skol beer. PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA | NMG 

By EDMUND KAGIRE
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Thibault Relecom was born in 1982 in the United States of America but grew up in Kinshasa where his father had lived since the 1960s.

When he was 12 years old, his father died and they moved back to Belgium the same year, 1994, where he finished his education up to university level. He has a Bachelors degree in International Business and a Masters degree in Hospitality from Switzerland.

Before joining the family business, Thibault worked in mobile banking in a start-up company he formed and later ran a hotel. By the end of 2008 after the global financial crisis, he decided to join the family business of brewing beer.

He is married with two children — two boys, one five and a half years old and the other two years old. Thibault says he spends a lot of time with his wife Isabelle because he has realised he works too hard and has to create a balanced life.

As a brewer, Thibault says that hard work equals success — of course, with a bit of luck. He believes that the family brewery Union de Brasserie Africaines (Unibra) did the right things for the market and that is why it is successful.

“We were visionary when we started sponsoring Tour du Rwanda six years ago. We came in at a time when the organisers were trying to professionalise cycling in Rwanda. They had a big vision and we decided to be part of it.”

Today Tour du Rwanda is one of the most exciting cycling races on the continent, recognised across the world, followed by more than four million Rwandans.

‘‘We also support Rayon Sports, which is by far the most popular club in Rwanda. For us it has been a win-win situation and we love that. Cycling is in a different place today and Rayon Sports is playing better football. Today, we have a team of about 15 young cyclists we support by training and equipping them,’’ Thibault says.

Unibra produces Skol Malt, Skol Lager, Skol Gatanu and their premium brand Virunga, which they say competes with the best specialty beer in the world. They are looking at exporting Virunga to the region.

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You come from a family that is said to have beer flowing in its veins. How true is this?

Our beer brewing history goes back seven generations. The family business was started in 1827 in Belgium, by Édouard Caulier, who was a farmer and artisan-brewer, in a village called Neufvilles (Hainaut).

Over the generations, the brewing business moved to a nearby city and later to Brussels. Back then in Belgium, there were over 3,000 breweries. Every village had a brewery.

Eventually, the family under Edmond Caulier, who later became a politician, fully commercialised the business and started selling beer from bar to bar.

The two World Wars greatly affected the business, and by then, the 5th generation Cauliers decided to venture into the Congo, which was then a Belgian colony. In 1947 they opened four breweries in Congo.

When the country became independent in 1960, many Belgians moved back to Belgium. But my father, Michel Relecom, who was 26 years old then, moved to Congo and started managing the family breweries in the most difficult of conditions in the aftermath of Independence. He was of the sixth generation.

He succeeded against all odds.

After his death in 1995, we decided to sell the breweries. It was difficult to manage them with a civil war going on. However, we kept the brand which we still own, although we don’t own the plant.

How did the current generation come back to brewing?

In 2008 I was excited to resume beer production as the seventh generation following a lull after my father’s passing. I first started in Madagascar and then Rwanda and later in Ethiopia. We sold our first beer in Rwanda on February 28, 2010.

The company, which is known as Union de Brasseries Africaines (UNIBRA) is the same one that was started by my father in the 1960s.

When we resumed, we started with three breweries but we had to sell two of them — one in Madagascar around 2013, because of political reasons and competition and most recently the one in Ethiopia because of stringent foreign exchange controls. We have only one brewery, in Rwanda.

In terms of the investment value, this year we will hit above the $50 million mark.

Why did you choose Rwanda?

For the business-friendly atmosphere created by the government.

We came in at a time when there was only Heineken, and it has been in this market for 60 years.

But also having been in DR Congo, and knowing how closely linked the people of the two countries are, made it easy for us. The third aspect is the logistical network here compared with Bujumbura or Nairobi, where the traffic is terrible.

Was it easy for you to penetrate a market which has been dominated by one brewer for 60 years?

There is nothing easy in business but I think we had a different strategy. It was also important that we had the investment capital and were innovative. We were the first to brew sugarless beer in Rwanda.

Have you captured the market share you were looking for?

We are actually ahead of our targets and development plans.

What challenges have you faced so far?

Competition in beer markets sometimes leads to unethical practices by competitors, but we are glad that authorities here brook no nonsense. This entrenches fair business competition.

You have invested over $50 million so far. Have you recouped it?

We have a considerable share but for us investment is a continuous process. We are always investing. The thing with the beer market is that the more you grow, the more you need to invest. We are still in the growing phase.

Have you set a target for yourself to break even?

We have been in the beer business for more than 200 years, we know how it works. We don’t operate under pressure to make profits, but rather adding value to our products through investment. We will not quit Rwanda because we are not facing here challenges we had in other countries.

What is the secret of your success?

We are a family business, with two shareholders — my mother and I. We are governed by family values and we are passionate about quality.

Do you drink beer?

Yes. I drink a beer every day but when I go out I have three beers. Drinking has to be done in moderation.

Which one of your brands performs better than the others?

Skol Malt. It is just the right beer for this growing economy, being a symbol of the youth.

How do you retain consumer loyalty?

Through innovation. You need to understand your customers and know what they like. We keep innovating our packaging, and have a brand for each consumer segment.

What do you do in your free time?

I cycle, swim and once or twice a year I do a triathlon. But I also love to be with my family, that is very important for me.

What is your favourite dish?

It is Congolese and is known as Moin moin. But I also love tilapia and the sambaza fish, and avocado.

What is your favourite travel destination?

My ancestral village in Belgium where the brewing business started in 1827. We still own our family farm in the village and I love spending time there.