Leo Van Munching Jr., Empire Builder for Heineken, Dies at 89


Photo

Leo Van Munching Jr., left, with Alfred Heineken. Mr. Van Munching persuaded Heineken to start brewing a low-calorie beer for export, Amstel Light.

Leo Van Munching Jr., whose stewardship of the importing company started by his father made the Dutch-brewed beer Heineken and its low-calorie sibling, Amstel Light, familiar brand names in the United States, died on Sunday at his home in Darien, Conn. He was 89.

The cause was heart failure, his son Philip said.

Heineken, which was first brewed in the 19th century, was the first European beer to be shipped to this country after the end of Prohibition. It was Mr. Van Munching’s father, Leo van Munching (the father preferred the lowercase v, the son the uppercase V), who recognized the business opportunity, and persuaded Heineken executives to allow him to represent the brand in the United States.

He arrived from the Netherlands with 50 cases of beer and his young family shortly after the repeal in December 1933 of the 18th amendment to the Constitution that had banned the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. Earlier that year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed the Beer and Wine Revenue Act that legalized (and taxed) beverages containing no more than 3.2 percent alcohol. “I think this would be a good time for beer,” the president declared.

Exports from the Netherlands were curtailed a few years later during World War II, but in 1946, the elder Mr. van Munching established Van Munching and Company as the lone American distributor of Heineken products.

Spurred by the beer’s popularity among American soldiers, who had enjoyed it in Europe, and by an advertising campaign that underscored its cachet as a foreign beer, sales were brisk. In 1951, The New York Times reported that sales of Heineken in the United States totaled more than 4.6 million bottles, an increase of 49 percent from 1950, a period when beer sales as a whole increased by only 1.2 percent.

That was just about the time that the younger Mr. Van Munching went to work for the company, shortly after graduating from college in 1950. He worked closely with his father for a quarter-century, establishing regional offices and, through advertising and marketing, helping to lift American recognition of the Heineken brand.

The Van Munching name grew in prominence as well, largely because of radio ads for Heineken that closed with an announcer saying: “Imported by Van Munching and Company, New York, New York.” By the mid-1970s, Leo Jr. was running day-to-day operations; he was officially named president in 1980.

By then, Heineken had been the best-selling imported beer in America for eight years, and according to Advertising Age, in 1979, it accounted for a whopping 41 percent of all imported beer sales in the country. Under Mr. Van Munching, the family company introduced other brands to the United States (including Grizzly, a Canadian-brewed beer, whose radio ads featured a not terribly well-known comedian named Jerry Seinfeld).

But perhaps more significantly, he increased Heineken product sales: He persuaded Heineken, which had bought the Amstel brewery, then in Amsterdam, in 1968, to begin producing a low-calorie beer for export; it arrived in the United States as Amstel Light in the early 1980s, initially marketed with women as a target.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, he marketed Heineken with television advertising for the first time, focusing on the beer’s distinctive green bottle and a slogan promoting its documented popularity: “America’s No. 1-selling imported beer.”

By the late 1980s, fending off a challenge from Mexican beers that were being marketed to younger drinkers — by then, the decade had minted (and named) a new demographic, yuppies, who gravitated to trendy imports — Heineken changed its advertising direction, which was focused by a tagline: “When you’re done kidding around, Heineken.”

Mr. Van Munching sold his company to Heineken in the early 1990s (he ran it for them until 1993), and when he left, it was still the leading American import. By 1997, however, Heineken had yielded the top spot to Corona Extra. As of 2015, it had yet to reclaim it.

Mr. Van Munching was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, on April 7, 1926. His father had been a ship’s steward for the Holland/America cruise line before he began importing beer. His mother was the former Maria Molt.

The family lived in Weehawken, N.J., where Mr. Van Munching attended high school. He joined the Navy, serving in Hawaii at the end of World War II. Afterward, he studied business and management at the University of Maryland on the G.I. Bill of Rights.

In later years, among his many philanthropic donations were gifts totaling $11 million to his alma mater, where Van Munching Hall is the home of the Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Mr. Van Munching married Margaret Pratt, known as Peggy, in 1953.

In addition to her and their son Philip, who worked for Van Munching and Company in advertising and marketing and who is the author of “Beer Blast: The Inside Story of the Brewing Industry’s Bizarre Battles for Your Money,” he is survived by four other sons, Leo 3rd, Pieter, Paul and Christopher; three daughters, Jan Phillips, Anne Ardery and Maria Van Munching; a sister, Anne Wilsey, 13 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Correction: February 15, 2016

An earlier version of a picture caption accompanying this article misstated when Heineken began brewing Amstel Light. The beer was introduced in the United States in 1980; it did not begin brewing in 1968.



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