October 29, 2020

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Brewing up success

From hops to hockey, Eric Molson bio paints a picture of perseverance

The Canadian Press files</p><p>Eric Molson (right, with sons Andrew, left, and Geoff) has faced a number of serious business challenges, most notably from his cousin Ian.</p>

The Canadian Press files

Eric Molson (right, with sons Andrew, left, and Geoff) has faced a number of serious business challenges, most notably from his cousin Ian.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/6/2018 (873 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If you’ve ever been in a bar, a beer store or a hockey rink, you’ll recognize the Molson name. Members of the family have been in the Canadian beer business since 1786; they also happen to be the current (and past) owners of the fabled Montreal Canadiens hockey team.

According to Helen Antoniou’s new book, Back to Beer... and Hockey: The Story of Eric Molson, the family retention of the brewery and its reacquisition of the Habs is due to the herculean efforts of one man — Eric Molson, her father-in-law.

This is an inside story, with all the advantages and disadvantages that the term implies. Antoniou was given unlimited access to Eric Molson and his papers, and interviewed many of his business associates. The one person who refused to be interviewed by her is R. Ian Molson, Eric’s cousin, who is portrayed as the greedy, Machiavellian villain of the story. His side of the story would make an interesting counter-narrative.

Eric’s upbringing as a son of privilege is not especially interesting. He liked hockey and loved beer. Rather than engineering, he studied chemistry and wrote a thesis on yeast, an important component of beer. He admits to being boring; in fact, his entire life may have been unremarkable had he not been running the brewery at a time when the beer industry was changing dramatically.

By the mid-1960s, the Molson brewery was Canada’s second-largest. But beer companies were expanding, consolidating and diversifying. They were in jeopardy of being swamped or overtaken.

Eric joined the family business in 1960 at age 23 and was appointed to the board in 1974. Throughout his tenure on the board and especially as chairman beginning in 1988, he was focused on preserving the legacy his father Tom had passed down to him. He faced a number of serious challenges from both inside and outside the company. His problem: though he was capable and determined, he was "confrontation averse" — his style was non-interventionist.

Acquisitions of non-beer companies made by Molson over a period of about 30 years — including Beaver Lumber and Diversey, a chemical cleanser company — proved ill-fated. Eric disagreed with many of these moves, but did not intervene until it was nearly too late. Increasingly, he was determined to get back to the company’s strength — brewing.

Some of the CEOs hired to make acquisitions and increase the brewing side of the business over the years were not up to the task. Eric’s story as company overseer increasingly becomes a series of major challenges and tense confrontations. Against his nature and principles, he is forced to make difficult decisions and fire people. The company’s future seems to be on the line constantly.

One of those difficult decisions (difficult because the Molson family had owned the team from 1957 to 1971 and again from 1978 to 2001) involved selling the Montreal Canadiens and the Molson Centre, both "hemorrhaging cash." So, it had to be done.

The survival of Molson as a company is most in jeopardy, ironically, when Eric’s cousin Ian Molson comes on board and begins to take on duties beyond his rank. Ian secretly undermines Eric’s power and goals, seeming to prefer short-term profitability to long-term survival. Forming cliques on the board of directors, he aims to oust Eric as chairman of the board and tries to execute a hostile takeover.

The point of friction was about mergers. Eric preferred a "merger of equals" between Molson and Coors, both family-run operations; Ian favoured a more immediately lucrative affiliation with Heineken, where he had connections.

This battle is the climax of the book and it is written like a good novel or even a Shakespearean drama. It has lively supporting characters, knotty plots and tantalizing foreshadowing, with Eric acting like Hamlet in his indecisiveness. As business books go, it is clearer, more readable and more compelling than most.

Back to Beer... and Hockey is more hagiography than "warts and all" biography.

Eric is portrayed as an honourable man throughout, with the best interests of his company and his family topmost in his decision-making. He is the man mostly responsible for making Molson/Coors the global giant that it is today. He saved the brewery for his sons, and they bought back the Canadiens in 2009.

Gene Walz was able to go back to drinking beer and watching hockey this year.

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