April 18, 2011

Coors talks of growing a family business into an industry leader

Family means a lot to Peter H. Coors '69, head of a brewing empire that bears his name and includes more than a few of his close relatives.

The success of that family business, Molson Coors Brewing Co., which has survived and thrived for more than a century selling suds, has required a willingness to think big, take some risks and be creative, Coors said in kicking off the Entrepreneurship@
Cornell Celebration 2011 the morning of April 14.

The first to exhibit those traits was patriarch Adolph Coors, a German immigrant who made his way west from New York City with basic brewing skills. He began making beer in Golden, Colo., in 1873 and selling it at a string of taverns he opened. That set the foundation for a company that survived Prohibition and an industry shakeout in the 1960s and '70s before going public, Coors said.

His is a global company now, following merger agreements with brewing giants Molson and Miller that Coors describes as strategic alliances that put his products in new markets and helped fend off potential buyouts.

Through it all, the Coors clan has stuck together. "As long as the business grows faster than the family, we're doing fine," Coors quipped, noting that control issues do crop up among relatives sharing the corporate reins. To keep the next generation on track, Coors said he requires all family members to work for at least two years outside the inner circle before returning to the fold.

"It gives them other career options and offers some credibility among their fellow workers who would suggest they got their jobs because of their names," he said.

In directly addressing his breakfast audience, Coors said a spirit of entrepreneurship remains critical for businesses as large as his brewing enterprise. The Coors brewery has, over the years, created companies that developed a process for manufacturing aluminum cans and focused on ceramics. Even the brewery's network of 1,400 barley growers grew from a single sack of seed, he noted.

"It's a building block of our company. When we hire people for the brewery we tell them we need your brains, your ideas, brought to work," he said. "Our employees are providing good ideas on improving our operations, and that's the spirit that keeps us on the cutting edge of innovation."

Looking forward, Coors said fresh approaches are needed to market beer, including the use of social networking websites and media outlets like YouTube. Of more immediate concern is bouncing back from the recent recession, he said, as the unemployment rate is high, and many people don't have much disposable income.

Still, he's confident his business will roll with the punches. "What we are dealing with now is determining the value of the family name. It's a question for the next generation, as they try to build value from a family business," Coors said.

Jay Wrolstad is freelance writer in Ithaca, N.Y.