If Peter Coors wants to wander down memory lane, all he has to do is glance out his office window, across the gray, concrete manufacturing complex that once was his playground.
Coors and his brothers were raised in the shadow of the giant plant, playing ball and floating rafts in a nearby lake as beer-laden trucks and trains rumbled past.
“My brothers and I used to have the run of the place and I’m sure my mother was constantly in fear that we were going to get run over,” Coors recalled, chuckling. “The trains came right by the house.”
Coors is the fourth generation of his family to head Coors Brewing Co., which has persevered through Prohibition, world wars and a decade-long, nationwide labor boycott to mark its 125th anniversary as the third-largest beer manufacturer in the nation.
“Our challenge is to keep us going so we have an opportunity to be around for another 125 years,” he said. “Are we perfect? Heck no. We’ve got a lot of work to do.
“But we’ve overcome some really huge negatives in attitudes about our company and our family and I think that’s a huge accomplishment for our entire organization.”
In last year’s mostly flat beer market, Coors outperformed the industry, with $82.3 million in net income, up 89 percent, and record net sales of $1.82 billion, up 4.6 percent.
Analysts say the company has improved by refocusing its energies on beer and implementing a successful marketing program. They also credit changes brought by Leo Kiely, the first non-family member to become president and chief operating officer of Coors Brewing.
“They’ve been plugging away year by year, quarter by quarter and they’re starting to show some results from that,” said analyst Allan Kaplan of Merrill Lynch Global Securities.
“They’re on the right track.”
Coors is looking overseas for its future, including China. “We’re not quite sure how we want to do China yet, but clearly at some point in time we want to be there,” Coors said.
In the foothills west of Denver, the brewery was founded in 1873 by German immigrant Adolph Coors and his partner, Jacob Schueler. Then 26, Coors invested $2,000 and Schueler added $18,000 to buy 11 acres in a valley between two mesas and build the plant.
The brewery prospered under Adolph Coors, who fostered a philosophy of hard work and self-reliance in his workers. Beer was shipped by train and mule-drawn wagon to several Western territories. When Coors bought out Schueler in 1880, the brewery was selling 17,600 barrels of beer a year.
“There was really almost a family spirit in the company that I think exists to a large degree even today,” Coors said.
After borrowing money in the late 1890s, Adolph Coors “made a determination that as soon as his debts were paid, he would never borrow money again,” Coors said. “And he never did.”
The next time the company borrowed money was nearly 100 years later to finance a nationwide expansion.
In the early 1900s, Coors purchased a porcelain business that manufactured everything from dinnerware to scientific products. It helped keep the company afloat during Prohibition, when the brewery produced malted milk and near-beer.
Until the 1970s, Coors existed with just one product sold in 11 Western states, prompting thousands to travel west just to buy beer.
But industry changes forced Coors to expand. The two giants, Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing Co., began aggressive marketing programs and introduced new products, such as light beers.
“The rest of the industry, ourselves included, weren’t really prepared for the changes,” Coors said.
Adding to the problems was a labor strike in 1977, which triggered a 10-year nationwide labor boycott of Coors products.
“All of those things came together and hurt us pretty badly,” Coors said. “We needed to buy some time, so we began to expand.”
By the early 1990s, Coors was available nationwide, offering a variety of products.
Today, Coors’ father, Bill Coors, is chairman and president of Adolph Coors Co., the holding company for Coors Brewery. Coors is vice chairman and chief executive officer of Coors Brewing, and about half a dozen other family members work there.
In addition to its headquarters, Coors has breweries in Memphis, Tenn., and Zaragoza, Spain, a packaging facility near Elkton, Va., and its Korean joint-venture. It has about 6,200 employees worldwide.
Coors’ goal for growth is modest: to outperform the industry by 1 percent to 2 percent a year and to push for product improvements.
“We haven’t made our best bottle or can of beer yet,” he says.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Coors milestones A summary of major events in the 125-year history of Adolph Coors Co.: 1868: Adolph Coors leaves Germany, stowing away on a ship to the United States. 1872: Coors works his way across the country as a bricklayer and laborer. He settles in Denver, where he purchases a bottling company. 1873: Coors and Jacob Schueler form The Golden Brewery, selling their product to miners and settlers in the West, shipping it by train and wagons. 1879: The brewery has 12 employees, with a payroll of $700. It produces 4,000 barrels of beer. 1880: Coors buys out Schueler to become the sole owner of the brewery. 1913: Coors becomes president of The Herold China and Pottery Co. 1916: Coors keeps the brewery in operation during Prohibition by focusing on a family porcelain business. The brewery manufactured malted milk and a near-beer. 1933: Coors, under the leadership of Adolph Coors Jr., begins a six-year expansion program to sell products in 10 Western states. 1959: Coors introduces the first all-aluminum beverage can and launches a recycling program, offering a penny for every returned can. 1977: Labor unions launch nationwide boycott after a bitter 20-month strike. Many of the strikers are replaced and the union subsequently is decertified. 1988: Coors employees reject Teamsters representation in a vote that ends the nationwide labor boycott. 1990: Coors purchases its first brewery outside Colorado, a Stroh Brewery Co. plant in Memphis, Tenn. 1991: Coors finishes a 10-year expansion program to offer products nationwide. 1994: Coors buys a brewery in Spain and enters into a joint venture for a brewery in Korea. -Associated Press