* AB InBev, Heineken agree to limit exclusive sales deals
* SABMiller eyes export potential in Mexico
* AB InBev could be biggest beneficiary of shake-up
* Tough to break into rival markets
By Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS, July 17 Last week's settlement to limit the arrangements by which two big brewers have sewn up Mexico's beer market, the world's sixth largest, is unlikely to open the door to substantial competition there in the near future.
After years of complaints from SABMiller, the world's second-largest brewer but barely a blip on the Mexican radar, global leader Anheuser-Busch InBev and third-ranking Heineken have agreed with regulators to curb exclusivity deals with Mexican retailers that have secured them a combined 99 percent of the market through their local units.
Seen from the mature U.S. market, where SABMiller's joint venture with MolsonCoors is strong, Mexico offers much promise - it ranks fourth in the world for profit generated and is growing at a respectable 2 percent plus per year.
The premium segment, an area of faster growth and fatter profits, is a mere 2 percent of the market now, compared with about 20 percent in the United States. And it is just over the border.
SABMiller breweries in southwestern U.S. states are already supplying Miller Genuine Draft and Miller Lite to northern Mexico, where per capita consumption is higher than the national average, and there is a greater familiarity with U.S. brands.
Yet that has given it a mere 0.3 percent of the market.
But far from hailing the deal approved with its rivals by Mexico's competition commission, SABMiller said the effect of the changes would be limited, with restaurants and 'mom and pop' shops now more accessible, but not the bars, clubs and convenience store chains.
The incumbents could concentrate exclusive agreements in the regions of Mexico they dominate - Heineken's Femsa unit in the north, and Modelo, fully owned by AB InBev since last month, in the centre of the country.
"This is reinforcing the status quo of anti-competitive practices against new players," Armando Valenzuela, SABMiller's Mexico chief, told Reuters. "It's legalising regional monopolies." The group may yet appeal.
Written exclusivity deals have accounted for about 30 percent of vendors, and on top there are further informal agreements, such as tying stores to a single brewer in return for a branded fridge.
Such deals are common in other developing markets, too, including those where SABMiller is strong; the London-listed brewer has 98 percent of the Colombian market, 94 percent in Peru and 90 percent in South Africa.
The biggest four brewers have bought into cosy monopolies or duopolies across the globe, making it difficult to encroach on a rival's patch.
Analysts say the changes in Mexico, including a commitment to cut exclusive supply agreements to 20 percent by 2018, should gradually change the market from one where brewers pay vendors to stock their beer to a more developed-world model where marketing spend is consumer-targeted through discounts and advertising.
"It's going to shift the market from push to a pull-driven, and making beer more a matter of consumer choice," said Dirk van Vlaanderen, beverage analyst at Jefferies.
But it will take time, and in the short term, the biggest beneficiary might be AB InBev, since it could make more of an inroad into northern Mexico, currently Heineken territory, where per capita consumption is higher and U.S. brands are familiar.
Anthony Bucalo of Santander wrote in a note that AB InBev would bring in its U.S. brands Budweiser and Bud Light and, with deeper pockets and $1 billion expected from efficiency savings, it should win most "mano-a-mano" fights with Heineken.
SABMiller, lacking a distribution network or local production, will for much of the fight be just a spectator and can only hope for what it calls "pockets of growth", even if all exclusive relationships were ended.
On the bright side, such pockets are likely to include more affluent residents in larger cities, aided by a rise of supermarkets and more developed retail chains offering greater selection.