Sitting in the cheerless, corporate grey surrounds of InBev UK's Luton HQ, it is hard to fathom how MD Stuart MacFarlane remains so sanguine.

He is the fourth man in five years to take the helm at the Belgian brewer and joins at a time where it isn't just the company's star brand, Stella Artois, that's in trouble. The entire industry is suffering at the hands of the anti-binge drinking brigade while the country is in the grip of an economic downturn.

None of this seems to faze MacFarlane, whose unfailing optimism - born, he says of his Geordie upbringing - is standing him in good stead. But will this be enough to steer InBev through some of its toughest challenges yet?

His appointment to the top seat at InBev comes after 18 months as global customer director, following a stint as general manager Ireland. He has been with InBev for 17 years, "man and boy" he says and, despite everything, this is his dream job.

"I think as a company we have a lot to be positive about," he says. "Take the threat of a recession. Actually the beer business does tend to hold up during a recession - more so even than some of the other leisure categories. It is seen as a treat but an affordable one that people are less likely to give up. The other interesting thing that happens is you think people are likely to go to the value end but actually they do the opposite and shift to premium. It's counter-intuitive, but for that reason I think we'll hold up better than most."

The only subject to dent MacFarlane's bonhomie is Stella Artois, InBev's star brand and MacFarlane's troublesome "favourite child", as he puts it. It is a brand which, after years of solid growth, looks to be on the wane.

"We are getting some negative media coverage and that concerns me," he admits. "I think there is a certain trend in the media to talk about Stella Artois in negative terms and, when you think about it, that isn't surprising. We are the number one premium lager brand in the UK by a country mile and we've enjoyed phenomenal growth over the past 10 years.

"I liken it to Manchester United. People love to hate Man U because they are, without question, the most successful team in the past decade - I'm a Newcastle fan so it hurts me to say that - yet when they lose people love to have a pop at them. What's important, though, is they have a massive and loyal fan base."

Stella is, as MacFarlane points out, the greatest brand asset he has and, as such, he is going to increase the company's focus on it rather than leave it to languish while he concentrates on other brands. Part of his strategy involves creating a partnership between Stella and sister brand Beck's, driving NPD and marketing through the two in the medium to long term.

"The UK is the only market where our biggest brands are sold together on any scale. Germany is big on Beck's but not so much Stella, and Belgium is the opposite.

"What I want is for the UK to become a case study, held up as the standard in our business, for the way those two brands are used to lead our brand agenda."

Of course InBev isn't just about two lager brands - it also has an impressive stable of speciality beers, brands such as wheat beer Hoegaarden and Belgian Leffe, beers that haven't done as well in the UK as InBev had hoped.

"They are still doing OK. They aren't growing as fast as we first predicted they would. I think consumer taste preferences are still developing in this area but I think that can change, and they remain an important part of our business. We are a portfolio brewer and intend to stay that way as it is a key element of our business strategy."

Another of these key elements, and one MacFarlane is personally committed to achieving, is a move from the mindset of a traditional brewer to that of a modern fmcg company. "Not a lot of people realise this," he says with obvious relish, "but InBev is the 11th biggest fmcg company in the world. Yes we deal in beer, and breweries have not historically behaved like fmcg companies, but my vision for the company is for us to act and behave like an fmcg business. That is what will take us to different places and tackle the opportunities for growth in this market."

The first department earmarked to make this seismic shift is product development, innovation being the primary area where InBev, and brewers in general, lag furthest behind the Nestlés and Procter & Gambles of this world, believes MacFarlane.

"The beer industry is historically very poor at innovation. I look at the top fmcg companies and I see companies that handle their innovation agenda very well and that's something we need to do."

MacFarlane highlights three problem areas to address. "First, we don't have that fmcg mindset. Second, new liquids and new brands are hard to get right in this sector because there are already so many brand options out there in the UK. The third thing is that, historically, brand innovations have come through the on-trade - extra cold, for example, or new dispensing techniques - but I don't believe that needs to be the case. If we are an fmcg company first and foremost then we should be able to launch in the off-trade. I think you'll see evidence of just that as our innovation steps up."

Moving to the off-trade is a focus for many brewers at the moment as the looming recession persuades more consumers to stay at home and entertain.

"Of all the brewers, we are already the brewer that sells the most in the off-trade and, indeed, we are already the only brewer that sells more in the off than the on-trade and we intend to capitalise on that," he says confidently.

One project MacFarlane is excited about is the Take Home Rejuvenation Strategy. Core to the strategy is "creative thinking, new ideas and innovative concepts for the off-trade", he says.

"The first area we are going to look at will be value. To grow value in the off-trade you have to bring something to the marketplace that consumers are willing to pay more for. We are determined to achieve that," he says. "The second is innovation, which we've already talked about, and the final thing is execution. I believe, having travelled the world with my job, that while store standards in the UK aren't bad, there are some areas that are pretty poor. There are still too many out of stocks, for example, and there is a lot to be done in terms of the environment of the beer aisle."

He points to South America and Canada as markets that can teach the UK a thing or two about excelling in this area. "The execution in Brazil is first class. If you go to a Wal-Mart there or in Argentina you can learn an awful lot about store standards. In Canada it's chilled beers and convenience. It's a far more established market for convenience shopping and a far more established forecourt convenience format as well, and I think we could learn a lot from that too."

But the biggest talking point has to be Stella. Having lost its "reassuringly expensive" tag, MacFarlane confesses himself happy with the profits from the off-trade, though he won't confirm rumours that InBev makes more money there than the on-trade. But the 'wifebeater' tag won't go away and makes MacFarlane shiver when he hears it. "I find it offensive, irresponsible".

MacFarlane promises to "raise our game". Does this extend to a new 4% abv Stella? "We need to take the quality we have in the brand and amplify it, but we intend to raise our game and lead the innovation agenda. As you'd expect of the number three grocery brand in the UK." n