Last week, Molson Coors shocked Colorado by announcing that it would close its central offices in Denver, lay off hundreds of employees here, and relocate everything to its existing space in Chicago as part of a massive restructuring and name change aimed at keeping the corporation competitive.
In a separate note, on the MillerCoors blog, there was an equally surprising bit of news: “At the end of 2019, Pete Coors also will retire as the company’s chief customer relations officer, stepping back from his day-to-day duties at the company. He’ll continue to serve as vice chairman of the Molson Coors board and as an ambassador for the company.”
In the aftermath of these bombshells, the Coors family has been silent. Pete Coors has given no interviews — or even a canned quote. It’s a silence that speaks volumes.
Almost exactly two years ago, I entered 1801 California Street and took the elevator to the 46th floor, one of three floors that MillerCoors has leased in the skyscraper since 2015. I was there to interview Pete Coors, who is the Coors family patriarch and former CEO of the beer company, and his two sons, Peter J. and David, who had agreed to talk with me for my upcoming book, Denver Beer: A History of Mile High Brewing, which is set to be released on March 2, 2020.
It was my second time on the 46th floor, a beautiful setup that includes sweeping views of the Front Range and a bar that serves every Coors product, including its small brands. The first time had been just six months earlier, when I’d been invited up to meet all of the Coors executives as part of a happy hour with some local beer media.
I asked Pete and his two sons (he also has four daughters) a lot about the Coors name, about their long family history and what it was like to grow up with the honor — and burden — of having their name on the can. We touched on politics and labor unions, big business and craft beer, but I was also interested in hearing about what Colorado meant to Coors, and about what Coors meant to Colorado.
The answer: Everything.
“It’s an older brewery, and it has its challenges, but it’s deep into the DNA of what makes us Coors,” said Peter J., who has held several management roles at the company and currently serves on the board with his father. “The Golden brewery is on the same piece of land that we started back in 1873. None of the original buildings are still around, but with the land, with the Rocky Mountain water, that’s what made the Coors brand.”
And the Coors brand helped establish Colorado as a beer destination. In addition, the company employed hundreds of thousands of people over the years, brought baseball to Denver, and created an entire culture, one that defined this state for many outside of it in the ’70s, when Coors beer had such a mystique that it even inspired the film Smokey and the Bandit. And that was just the start of the company's contributions.
Pete Coors has been part of the Colorado landscape for decades, and even ran for U.S. Senate as the state's Republican candidate in 2004. He told me in 2017 that if he could do it over again, he would have insisted that when Coors joined up with SAB Miller in 2008, the headquarters stay in Colorado rather than get split between Denver and Chicago. “I’m probably going to get into trouble for saying this, but one of the biggest mistakes we made was moving it to Chicago,” he said with a laugh and a glance at Peter and David. “We lost the connection to the brewery. Knowing the beer, being able to smell it and taste it in this environment. It’s important.
“It might have been better to go to Milwaukee, even,” he concluded.
So how does the Coors family feel about last week’s announcement? Perhaps they understand it. Maybe they even voted in favor of it (after all, the news also included a $100 million pledge to update the Golden plant). But my guess is that they don’t and they didn’t. In fact, I believe they are steamed enough to melt every ounce of the snow that fell in the Rockies in October and turn it into Rocky Mountain spring water.
The move has been alternately attributed to marketing, to the lack of tax incentives in Colorado, to cost savings, and to the fact that new Molson Coors CEO Gavin Hattersley owns a $4 million home in Chicago.
But the decision also has the markings of a power play — one that reduces the influence of the Coors family on the company and shifts it toward new management. That's the kind of thing that outsiders have been trying to do for decades to the insular and sometimes antiquated Coors family — the kind of thing they have almost always rejected, preferring to go their own way. Coors almost went out of business a couple of times because of this stubbornness, but it also forged new ground repeatedly, becoming a global force.
This dedication to the Coors commitment also made the company stand out.
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Now that Coors is part of a larger conglomerate, however, that mentality doesn’t work, not with analysts and investors to please. Not only that, but some of the prominent family members have been polarizing, repeatedly having to distance themselves from the company when its comes to politics and their staunch right-wing viewpoints.
So perhaps, as Hattersley said in the release, “the company is at an inflection point,” one where “we can continue down the path we’ve been on for several years now, or we can make the significant and difficult changes necessary to get back on the right track.”
But as Peter J. Coors told me, Colorado is in the company’s DNA. So that path should have remained here, along the roads that lead from Golden to Denver and back.