FEATURE — Winter 2009

(Photo: Jennifer Weisbord, BFA 92)

A Thirst for Basketball and Business

Alumnus and former beer executive Don Blaustein showed marketing acumen early, helping bring men’s basketball back to Washington University nearly 30 years ago.

by Rick Skwiot

Don Blaustein scored a dream career, traveling the globe and drinking beer. As past CEO of Heineken USA and former executive for Guinness LTD in Asia, Australia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Canada, Blaustein mixed beer and business to build an enviable résumé.

“I got to see the world and meet people, to experience cultures, and to market beer where it is a part of a city, a region, a country,” says Blaustein, BSBA ’79. “I saw it all visiting restaurants and bars, retailers and consumers. It was extraordinarily special.”

Blaustein values his business successes and takes pride in numerous civic contributions. One achievement, however, stands out: helping bring back Bears basketball to Washington University. “It’s one accomplishment of which I feel particularly proud,” he says.

An early interest in basketball and beer
At Bellmore Kennedy High School in Long Island, New York, Blaustein played “pretty serious” basketball. But in 1975 he eschewed basketball-scholarship offers to come to Washington University, which his brother, then at Northwestern University, recommended.

John Schael (left), athletics director; Mark Edwards (second, left), men’s basketball coach; and basketball player Aaron Thompson (right) presented Don Blaustein with a basketball autographed by the 2009 men’s championship team. Blaustein was on campus for his 30th Reunion when he received this recognition for his advocacy for basketball’s reinstatement (Photo: David Kilper).

“I hadn’t heard of Washington U., but I visited on a spring day and fell in love with the people and the campus,” Blaustein says. “I thought to myself: ‘This is where I want to go to school.’”

He recalls arriving in St. Louis, “seeing the Arch and the Anheuser-Busch signs. I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, this is going to be an interesting and fun place.’”

But, at first, not as much fun as he thought. “Little did I know, the government was changing the drinking laws. The 18-year-old limit I had in New York was becoming 21 nationwide,” Blaustein says. “Yes, even then I had some interest in beer.”

He also was surprised to learn that Washington University had intercollegiate teams in football, baseball, and other sports, but no men’s varsity basketball. Basketball had been discontinued in 1970. “I did not do my due diligence,” Blaustein says.

Bringing back men’s basketball
Blaustein fed his thirst for basketball by leading intramural teams to campus championships. Yet he still believed a varsity men’s basketball team would contribute immensely to campus life. After connecting with other students interested in reviving intercollegiate basketball, Blaustein started the BBB—Bring Back Basketball. He promoted the organization from his post as Student Life sports editor.

“I had a personal desire to bring back basketball for the benefit of the school,” says Blaustein, who found an ally in John Schael, the newly appointed director of athletics.

“As the ‘new man’ sitting in the athletic director’s chair, I was impressed with Don’s maturity and positive approach to reaching such a lofty goal,” Schael says.

Blaustein started a basketball club that played games against local schools, such as Concordia Seminary and Lindenwood College. “We filled up the old field house for club games,” says Blaustein, who served as player-coach.

He wrote articles, orchestrated events, and helped create a campus “buzz” for basketball.

“With his enthusiasm and focus, Don established trust within the University’s administration, cooperation within athletics, momentum with his fellow students, and renewed hope among alumni looking in from the outside,” Schael says.

Blaustein’s work finally paid off, but not until two years after he graduated. And another three decades nearly passed before he was honored for his pivotal role in resurrecting men’s basketball.

While on campus this past spring for his 30th class Reunion, Blaustein received a basketball autographed by the 2009 men’s basketball championship team. Schael and Mark Edwards, head coach since men’s basketball was reinstated in 1981, presented Blaustein with the keepsake. Blaustein also received a bound book of Student Life articles from his BBB days from Alumni & Development Programs.

“It was one of the more special days in my life,” Blaustein says. “I was so delighted and so touched.”

“Working to bring back basketball gave me an opportunity to learn about my leadership capabilities, to be a part of a special team, and to participate in many social opportunities,” he says. “I learned a ton, and it was a perfect setup for going into the beer business.”

Blaustein’s “renewed connections” with Washington University may bring him back more often. He hopes to help the team, speak to the community, and recruit for the University. “Washington University was and continues to be a special place,” he says. “I was reminded of that during my Reunion.” He also was reminded of the many wonderful friendships he still has from his University days, as many buddies also attended the Reunion.

His return came in the midst of a distinguished business career. After earning an MBA from Northwestern in 1980, Blaustein joined Kraft/General Foods, working to help market KoolAid, Tang, Country Time Lemonade, and other beverages. After five years, he was recruited by Diageo/Guinness PLC’s marketing and sales arm. Over the next 16 years, he held numerous positions for the company, including managing director of Guinness Australia, president of Guinness Caribbean & Latin America, president of Guinness Canada, and vice president sales & marketing in the United States, selling Guinness Stout and Bass Ale to the world.

Blaustein left Guinness in 2001 to start his own consulting business, working with Molson and other brewers and beverage marketers. In 2005, he got a call—and an offer he could not refuse—from Heineken USA. There he served on the company’s management committee as senior vice president of sales prior to becoming, in 2007, president and CEO. He subsequently led the successful launch of Heineken Light in America and built market share for the company’s Dos Equis and Tecate Mexican beer imports.

University “like the beer business”
He credits much of his success to lessons he learned at Washington University—which he likens to the brewing industry.

“One of the great things about the University is that it has a great group of people who are really smart but who also enjoy life—like the beer business,” Blaustein says.

Experience gained as a basketball coach, sports editor, and campus community activist helped him develop skills he later parlayed into a successful business career. “Working to bring back basketball gave me an opportunity to learn about my leadership capabilities, to be a part of a special team, and to participate in many social opportunities,” he says. “I learned a ton, and it was a perfect setup for going into the beer business.”

Beyond his professional life, Blaustein is involved with major charities, including serving on the boards of both Give Kids the World and Family Services of Westchester, New York. He and his wife, art historian Roni Feinstein, have two children in college.

And with regard to his future, Blaustein, who left Heineken in August, is sure to be brewing something good.

Rick Skwiot is a freelance writer based in Key West, Florida.