Having a Beer With the Boss of Molson Coors

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Molson Coors’s top brew is winning over drinkers, but is that enough to overcome a flat beer market?
Molson Coors boss Peter Swinburn can have a beer whenever he wants, of course, but recently he had good reason to crack open a cold one: Coors Light, his firm’s top American brand, overtook Budweiser to become the nation’s No. 2 best-selling beer. For the first time in almost two decades, a brew not made by Anheuser-Busch InBev emerged as one of America’s two favorites (Bud Light remains No. 1). “I went and had a Coors Light to celebrate,” Swinburn says.
Still, for all the merriment that often surrounds drinking it, the business of making beer has been pretty tough lately. Indeed, while liquor and wine sales have grown significantly over the past few years, the U.S. market for beer has been flat. It’s even worse for mainstream brands, prompting some industry watchers to question whether there’s a generational shift away from the beers that baby boomers and older Americans craved. Despite Coors Light’s new ranking, Molson Coors (TAP: 42.87, -0.08, -0.19%), the world’s seventh-largest brewer, is selling less beer now than it did in 2010. The Denver-based firm has missed profit expectations for four straight quarters; its stock was down 11 percent last year. Some analysts wonder how Molson Coors can increase its business considerably, because the firm is already the top beer seller in Canada and No. 2 in the U.S. “It’s hard to grow when you already have a big part of the market,” says Edward Jones analyst Brian Yarbrough.

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.Swinburn, a 37-year veteran of the beer business who took the helm in October 2007, is looking to tap other markets — the firm sold 50 percent more beer internationally in the first three quarters of 2011 than it did in the year-earlier period. At home, the firm has grown its craft-beer sales significantly, thanks to its successful Blue Moon brand and its recently launched Batch 19 — a crisp, earthy brew based on a pre-Prohibition recipe found in the company’s Golden, Colo., archives. Coors Light grabbed the No. 2 beer spot in part because of its neat bottle (the white mountains on the bottle turn blue when the beer is very cold). The company has also cut costs since Molson and Coors merged in 2005. But all those moves are small beer compared with the problem of getting people to drink a lot more of its core brands, Molson Canadian and Coors. SmartMoney sat down with Swinburn at the company’s headquarters to discuss how he plans to woo his top customers, why his investors should stay patient and when he tasted his first Molson Coors beer.

What was it like taking the helm at the firm during the recession?

It was a bit like being hit by a tsunami. Our core consumers, who in the U.S. are 21- to 25-year-old males making between $20,000 and $40,000 a year, got hit tremendously hard. I mean, virtually overnight. It made us focus on innovation, which we had not done a good job of at all until then, and it also accelerated our move into other international markets.

Do you think the growth in those new markets will make up for what’s lost here?

No. Eventually they will contribute significantly to our growth, but our core business is so big that that’s what we have to continue to concentrate on.

How do you compete with other alcoholic beverages?

When you look at the needs of our consumers, undoubtedly there’s white space that we’re not filling and that is being filled to some extent by non-beer products. We need to ensure that we address the space while also making sure our existing brands are relevant. In some instances, we can address it with beers. Our new Batch 19 is a pre-Prohibition beer. It has a sort of rebelliousness about it as a brand, and we’ve been building off that.

So how is Molson Coors innovating to fill more of that white space?

The cold-activated bottle for Coors Light has been a tremendous success. Where we need to build is from a product point of view. We launched a brand called Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy, which was the most successful craft launch this summer. But unless you understand what needs you’re satisfying, just coming out with a flavor or color or taste is like throwing mud at a wall.

The stock hasn’t performed well lately. What should investors think?

In three years, we grew profits by over 30 percent, and we’ve paid off debt. We’re throwing up twice as much cash now as we were three years ago. Understandably, what investors are saying is, ‘You are a company that is very deep in some very big markets; we don’t know where growth is going to come from. Until you prove to us that you can show growth, we’re cautious.’ That’s what’s happening, in a nutshell.

You grew up in Wales. When did you try your first Molson Coors beer?

When I came to the States 20-plus years ago, we brought our children to Disney World. We were here for three weeks. The first few days, I tried every beer I could, and I didn’t like any. I eventually found Coors Original. That’s what I drank all the time I was here. About 12 years later, I began working for them.