Leader interview

Reyes Gonzalez, Heineken

The brewer’s safety manager discusses the challenges of a global remit, targeting road risk and working on her poker face. 


Words: Louis Wustemann
Pictures: Dave Pelham

Managers in large businesses sometimes have the word “global” bolted on to their titles when they are responsible for a division in their own country plus a couple of further flung factories. In the case of Reyes Gonzalez, who works for the Dutch brewer Heineken, the title global safety manager is no hyperbole.

Gonzalez is responsible for 120 breweries plus a distribution network in 170 countries. These are grouped in four regions: Europe; Africa and Middle East (which includes Russia); Americas; and Asia Pacific. The workforce totals 85,000. 

I suggest she must have had to think a lot about how national characteristics and cultures affect safety performance.

“I think in every country you have a level of maturity for compliance in general,” she says. “Whether it’s for obeying laws or for respecting a bus queue. But that’s also linked to enforcement, because in the UK you know they are going to catch you if you don’t respect the speed limit. In some other countries that’s not an issue.”

Assuming Heineken wants the same OSH standards in all its operations, how does she manage those different levels of maturity? Does it necessitate a harder line in the countries with more relaxed public standards?

Something that surprises me is the way people find thousands of ways to replace something unsafe with something even more unsafe”

“It’s very difficult if people have complete freedom outside to get them to respect safety rules when they are on our premises,” she admits. “I try to look for positive reinforcement in every culture. What will trigger people to follow a particular behaviour? That’s what I try to find. In some cultures it’s the family. My initiatives are linked to the fact you are the breadwinner and if you don’t come home at the end of the day your family is going to suffer. There’s no support from the government and so they would be lost.

“In a more mature culture like Germany you expect people to comply well with the regulations. [There] I need to find a way that is not just punishment, but to motivate them to follow the right behaviours. We need to show them that safety means good business. That in safe workplaces people are better motivated, that they are more productive and you have fewer mistakes that make you lose time or customers. The message is that we can make something sustainable if we make safety an overriding priority.”

Managing all these cultural variations can’t leave her much home time, I say. She laughs, adding: “Yes, I’m paying rent here in Amsterdam for nothing. I should be paying rent to Schiphol airport, that’s where I live!” She says people always think travelling a lot for business is glamorous until they have to do it themselves. “But I like to travel because I meet people who really need help. And I’m lucky because people in Heineken are really proud. I never worked for a company where people weren’t just motivated but genuinely proud. You meet kind people who are eager to learn, which is great.”

But there is a caveat. “Something that surprises me all the time is the way people find thousands of ways to replace something unsafe with something even more unsafe,” she says. “That takes imagination!” 

As examples she offers the employees who responded to an audit that found many vehicle safety belts were broken with the news they had fixed them with safety pins, and the worker whose solution to having a ladder too short to complete some work at height safely was to offer to lash it to another ladder. “Of course, after some discussion – for them this was a perfect solution – we finally found the right ladder for the task,” she says.

Strategic play
Gonzalez joined Heineken in May 2012 on the back of the creation of its first safety function with a worldwide remit. By March 2013 she had the company’s first global safety strategy ready to present to its senior leadership forum. The strategy has five themes, known as the five Cs:

  • Culture and leadership. Line management is responsible for safety and has to cooperate across all functions to drive safe behaviour. “It was the first time we were saying the general managers in every company should be responsible for safety,” she says.   “That was completely new for them; in the past it was the brewery managers.”
  • Competence. “When I joined Heineken I realised there were a lot of people who didn’t have the competence to do their jobs safely,” she says. “So it was very important everyone had the right training according to their needs and the hazards they face.”
  • Compliance. Everyone must meet the requirements of Heineken’s occupational health and safety policy and standards.
  • Calibration. Gonzalez superintended the setting-up of the group’s first global health and safety database, the Accident Reporting and Information Software, which replaced three separate databases. “Finally we have a global system for all functions to report their accidents,” she says. “That was very important because when I joined the chief officer of HR asked me how well we were doing in safety compared with others and I really didn’t know how to answer because I didn’t have the data to benchmark.”
  • Continuous improvement. “Trying to avoid a lack of complacency and to strive for more.”

What groundwork did she do to develop the strategy? “This is a completely different culture from what I was used to,” she says. “I worked before for American companies and they had a top-down approach, where things were decided globally and then implemented locally. Here I learned very quickly about something called stakeholder management. To define the global strategy I had to have a lot of discussions with a lot of people in different areas. So when we came out with a proposal it had the agreement of more or less everyone.”

Middle path
Which culture does she prefer, the US top-down approach or the stakeholder management one? 

“I see the pros and cons of both of them,” she says. “In the American companies the issue was that nothing was really implemented because if you don’t ask people’s opinions and you try to copy and paste everywhere it’s not going to work. Especially in safety – you cannot compare my Italy op co with my DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] op co [operating company]; the challenges are so different. But with stakeholder management everything takes a long time and in safety you shouldn’t lose a second.

“Something in the middle would be good, where we can make a proposal, then consult interest groups and make the whole process a bit more agile.”

She says her spur to a safety career was the death of someone important to her in an industrial explosion. “And I didn’t understand why. So I started asking questions that nobody was able to answer.” This led her to a master’s degree in OSH.


Reyes Gonzalez career history:
May 2012-present: Global safety manager, Heineken
June 2011–May 2012: Regional SHE manager, continental Europe, Aecom
June 2005–June 2011: Regional EHS Manager, EMEA – Tyco

Her first post after qualifying was with fire and security systems manufacturer Tyco. She says it was a good grounding.

“I joined as a country safety manager, so I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to broaden the scope of my responsibility. After one year as a country manager I was given responsibility for Portugal as well as Spain and a year and a half later I was made responsible for all south Europe. So I’m grateful they saw my potential and my managers supported me.”

Tyco was followed by a year at business services corporation Aecom. “They gave me a chance to work as part of the global team with responsibilities in Europe so I had to learn about new markets,” she says.

“So when I joined Heineken I was ready to work with different cultures and to work with managers who didn’t have a strong interest in safety.

“I understand that people are all different. I came from a different culture, a Spanish one, and worked for American companies and had to adapt very quickly. Then I started working internationally, so one day I would be in Africa, the next in South America, then in Singapore, where there are completely different mindsets. So you have to be very open to people.”

No complacency
The important principle Gonzalez felt she had to communicate to the brewer’s management layers was that a lack of accidents did not equate to a safe organisation.

“That was shocking for them,” she recalls. “They would say, ‘well we have an absence of incidents and that means we are doing really well here and you don’t have to worry about us Reyes, you can focus on other things’.” 

She notes that there had been no accidents for seven years on BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico before the 2010 explosion and oil spill that cost 11 lives. So she saw it as a priority to change the mindset that past performance helped guarantee future safety. “There was a lot of tradition in the company of rewarding people for zero accidents. But we can’t reward people for doing nothing because you could just be lucky but not be doing anything positive.”

She said it was important to make people aware of the behaviour and working environment that would maintain a low incident level. 

“That was an eye-opener for them,” she says. “We found a lot of places where we still had a way to go.”

At the wheel
One of her main priorities after launching the new strategy was to tackle road risk. Accidents involving drivers were among the most common in the business but were sidelined in favour of production safety. 

“In the past the focus was only on the breweries. It was only late in 2011 we had a company-wide safety department so road safety is quite new.”

She says there has been a lot of work to change the safety mentality among drivers who are often unsupervised and face different hazards on different routes: “We focus on what we can control ourselves: the vehicle and the driver.” 

Driver safety initiatives include a set of “life-saving rules” that apply to all employees and contractors who drive on company business: be sober and free from drugs, phone hands-free only, wear your seatbelt or helmet, drive at the allowed speed and operate vehicles only when authorised.

Sales reps have gone through interactive “alert driving” training available in 100 languages, tailored to each driver’s risk profile, which uses video footage and covers risks including speeding, intersection safety, distractions and fatigue. Every driver who completes the programme can put a family member through it at no charge.

The global database she commissioned as part of the firm’s safety strategy allows her team to analyse traffic accident patterns across the op cos and intervene if necessary. There is also a micro-site on Heineken’s intranet dedicated to best practice sharing on road risk management. 

In production
Prioritising a neglected area of risk such as work driving doesn’t allow Gonzalez to take her eye off the breweries, which she notes are hazardous environments. 

There is risk from CO2 in confined spaces, such as empty fermentation tanks and beer mixing tanks where the gas displaces oxygen and makes the atmosphere unbreathable, as well as ammonia risk from refrigerant leaks.

Packing machinery, in particular palletisers, can cause serious injury if workers are not separated from fast-moving parts, so strict lock-out/tag-out procedures are crucial. Work at height over tanks and pits is also common.

Gonzalez says the central safety team has pushed managers to pay more attention to activities that have the highest injury potential so that should reduce the number of serious accidents.

The company has also invested millions of euros in recent years upgrading equipment, including bottling, canning and packing lines. The measures have paid off. “We had a decrease in accident frequency rate of 20% in 2015 compared with 2014,” Gonzalez says, “so we met our target of a 10% reduction.”


In the scheme of things

As global safety manager, Reyes Gonzalez is attached to Heineken’s global human resources department and reports to the global health and safety director. The safety function is integrated with the group’s global travel clinic, which looks after the health of expatriates and business travellers.

Gonzalez is responsible for the company’s worldwide safety strategy and ensuring it is understood and implemented in 120 breweries as well as the network of distribution centres.

She has six direct reports, project managers and safety specialists, who advise the 84 country-based operating companies (op cos). “I have one person who is responsible for safety in production, so his focus is breweries,” she says. “There is a person fully dedicated to the Africa and Middle East region because of the challenges there.

“In every op co I have a safety manager who is my business partner, working closely with the management team in that company to translate our global framework and initiatives and the minimum standards we set.”

The managers also focus on compliance with local legislation. 

“We recently restructured and removed layers,” she says, “so the managers in those op cos report directly to me.”

That’s 84 managers who might want a piece of her time. Is that a challenge? “Yes,” she says, laughing.

But she is helped by a recent innovation to encourage communication and ideas sharing between the op co managers. There are now regional “safety communities” and centres of excellence, networks centred on themes such as process safety or behavioural safety. “So I don’t have to contact each of them. I can contact the community.” 

These networks are already operating successfully in Europe and are now being established in the Africa and Middle East, Americas and Asia Pacific regions.

Right stuff
She takes pride in her ability to influence business leaders to improve standards.

“In my career I’ve met many leaders and I still haven’t met one who didn’t care about safety – maybe I’m very lucky,” she says. “But they didn’t always know what to do. They were starting every meeting with safety [messages], they were having safety weeks, those kinds of things. 

“What I like is when, after several meetings, they finally ask ‘Reyes, what can I do? Because it’s not working.’ And what really makes me feel proud is the point when they begin to change and understand that you can put a lot of effort in and still get nothing because it’s not efficient.

“The other thing I’m really proud of is changing management culture,” she says. “Because you don’t want to decrease the number of unsafe behaviours and unsafe conditions in a workplace. What you want is that 100% of the time you see safe behaviours and that is not going to be achieved through punishment.

“You have to get a balance, of course,” she says, adding that people who are completely unwilling to behave safely can’t be tolerated in the workplace. “But we need to have a balance of positive reinforcement.”

She is a firm believer in linking safety to performance management systems and rewarding small improvements. “And the behaviour goes where the reinforcement is and the more you reinforce, the better behaviour you are going to see.

“We have to learn that you can’t manage people, you can only manage their behaviours. So in safety there are only two things you can measure: results in numbers [of accidents] and behaviours. And people are very used to thinking they have to manage people but it’s not true. You have to focus on watching for the behaviours you want to see and reinforcing them. So if I see something I don’t like in my team I need to find a way to decrease that behaviour and if I want to see something more often I need to find positive reinforcement to increase it.”

What is she working on to be an effective leader? “Not to be so transparent. You can read anything in my mind just by watching me. I have very strong body language. I need to give people more room to express themselves without them feeling intimidated by my body language. Then we can exchange opinions.

“I need to hear their views on what works and what would have a bad impact on them because safety has to be part of the business. We have to be able to run a profitable business with the best-quality products and do it with safety. So I need to give them room to express concerns and then provide them with knowledge and expertise.

“Self-confidence is another aspect [I’m working on]. In a safety career you meet people who are really not interested in what you are saying. It would be easier working in the finance department, that would open doors.

“Do you meet many women in the area of health and safety?” she asks. “It’s something I miss when I have benchmarking meetings with other multinationals or when I go to the European Union [institutions] – I see very few women there.” (Heineken is a campaign partner of the European health and safety agency EU OSHA on its initiatives, including stress management.)

She would like the chance to talk to more female leaders and to “discuss with them the perceptions, stereotypes and behaviours that we as women uniquely face and how we can transform them into effective strategies and solutions in the business”.

Her ambition is to move into a health, safety and environment director post. 

“This is the first company I’ve worked in where the three disciplines – health, safety and environment – are divided,” she says. “I work on safety full time and there is a specialist for environment in production and we have a person responsible for health.

“I miss the integrated part and I think the disciplines should work closely together. With separate managers sometimes we duplicate effort because the areas border each other closely. My ideal scenario would be to have the three together.” 



Louis Wustemann is former editor, IOSH Magazine. He was previously editor of Health and Safety at Work magazine and Environment in Business. He has written, edited and consulted on health and safety, environmental and employment matters for more than 25 years.


  • This is a brilliant article,

    Permalink Submitted by Chris J Ward on 17 March 2016 - 12:23 pm

    This is a brilliant article, and her appearance at the IOSH Conference last year was very impressive too. There are plenty of practical solutions here to a complex global environment. She has highlighted the different approaches required for cultural issues. Well done.

    Is this article copyrighted or can we use it for disemination/case study please?

  • Great article and good to

    Permalink Submitted by Jane Watts on 21 March 2016 - 03:29 pm

    Great article and good to read a down to earth story! Do you have a contact email for Reyes if she's looking to liaise with other female leaders?


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