Power Players 2017: Alex Behring, the Force Behind Zero-Based Budgeting

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Alex Behring.
Alex Behring. Credit: Kevin Lorenzi/Bloomberg

Normally our Power Players are brand marketers, not global investment firm co-founders. But Alex Behring's influence over marketing is immense via his advocacy for zero-based budgeting, an austere practice by which companies must justify all of their annual expenses.

While 3G didn't invent ZBB, the firm and its Brazilian founders have wielded the cost-cutting tactic across the companies they control, reshaping the food and beverage industry. Through various funds, 3G Capital is a major shareholder of the Kraft Heinz Co. and Restaurant Brands International, which owns Burger King, Tim Hortons and Popeyes. Partners at 3G Capital sit on the board of Anheuser-Busch InBev and through various holdings own a big stake in the world's largest brewer. Behring, who holds an engineering degree from a Brazilian university and an MBA from Harvard, is a particularly influential force because he sits on the boards of all of the 3G companies.

"We can't think of any entity that has had a greater impact on the consumer-goods sector over the last 20 years, both in terms of their consolidation in the beer industry and food and restaurants as well as introducing ZBB into the vocabulary of investors and management," says Robert Ottenstein, a senior managing director at Evercore ISI, a global independent investment banking advisory firm. That influence has trickled into marketing departments, which now must watch every penny spent.

Even companies 3G doesn't control have tightened the reins to ward off a potential takeover. The approach, naturally, has plenty of haters.

"They create a lot of fear and angst," says a former Kraft exec who now works for a marketing-services vendor. "And in doing so they have caused an immense amount of damage and increase in short-term thinking [and] mercenary cost-cutting."

3G Capital did not respond to an emailed interview request.

"ZBB's intent is great, as it should make brands take a fresh approach to marketing, and inspire new innovative and efficient operating models that drive better business results," says an agency executive who has worked with 3G-affiliated companies. "But often, ZBB is approached at a divisional level, resulting in shaved budgets in silos, but ignoring the opportunity chances for efficiency across groups within marketing. The forest is lost from the trees."

In a May interview with the Financial Times, Behring defended ZBB as "not simply a cost-cutting measure. It's a daily mindset that's resistant to complacency and promotes responsible stewardship of our resources."

And it's not like 3G has turned off the marketing spigot. Burger King, for instance, has unleashed enough hit advertising lately to be named Cannes Lions Marketer of the Year in 2017. The chain also gained attention via innovative stunts like its "Google Home of the Whopper" campaign, which won a Grand Prix at Cannes. It featured a TV ad that triggered a response from Google's virtual assistant speaker.

Known for its meritocratic management style, 3G sees smart, often young, executives climb the ladder faster than they might elsewhere. They "attract and keep people who fit in their culture," says Cristiane Correa, who wrote a book about 3G's founders called "Dream Big." Behring, she says, is now one of its evangelists, spreading its message globally.

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