An American Dynasty

By Dan Baum

William Morrow 367pp $27

A generation ago, when U.S. corporations began feeling pressure to hire blacks, many companies resorted to poaching each other's college-educated African Americans. But Adolph Coors Co., the Colorado brewer, had a different idea. It recruited urban unemployables right out of prison and sent them through a rigorous Outward Bound course in the Colorado mountains, to learn teamwork and initiative. The survival course included a night spent alone in the wilderness--terrifying for those who had seldom before been out of sight of a street lamp.

"The only thing that got me through it was knowing I had a job waiting for me at the end," one man told me in an interview. And what had he done before going to work at Coors? I asked. He glanced at a Coors official, then said with a grin: "I was the second-biggest pimp in Kansas City."

The Coors family did it their way, and it usually wasn't easy. In the 1970s, Chairman William K. Coors refused to engage in costly ad wars, arguing that consumers picked beer for the taste. So Coors lost market share. The company refused to get rid of an awkward press-tab lid: It was environmentally friendly, never mind that beer drinkers hated it. And light beer? A fad. Bill once said that consumers were smart enough to figure out that a handful of pretzels made up for the lower calories in the light beer. But of course, consumers weren't: another Coors mistake. The family refused to rein in its right-wing president, Joseph Coors, causing liberals to defect to rival brews. And it endured a painful boycott rather than "to bend to any kind of coercion," as Bill put it.

Writing a book about the Coors family isn't easy, either. Refusing to cooperate with former Wall Street Journal reporter Dan Baum in his gothic tale of business, murder, adultery, politics, and religion, the Coors family gave only a few short interviews. That's a shame for both author and subjects because, despite impressive research, Citizen Coors: An American Dynasty is a sour, lopsided account that is about as satisfying as warm beer.

The story has all the elements of an American epic. In 1868, company founder Adolph Coors arrived in America from Germany at 21 as a stowaway. He established the brewery in 1873, guided by what would prove enduring bywords: quality and family control. By switching to malted milk and near-beer after 1916, the enterprise survived Prohibition--but Adolph did not: In 1929, he leaped from a Virginia hotel window for mysterious reasons.

Adolph Jr. then ran the company until his death in 1970. His three sons shared an unpretentious office with gunmetal-gray desks and a linoleum floor. In the heady post-Prohibition days, Coors couldn't make beer fast enough: By 1948, its brew was sold in 13 states. Few beer drinkers cared that the family was a bit wacky, particularly on the subject of free enterprise.

Adolph III, who was allergic to beer, was in line to become the third president, but he was murdered in 1960, in what was a botched kidnapping. Bill, as next-oldest, took over as president. When Bill became chairman, third brother Joe served as president--when he wasn't engrossed in right-wing politics. Among other things, Joe became a member of Ronald Reagan's "kitchen cabinet." He eventually divorced his wife of nearly 50 years, wed his mistress, quit Coors, and moved to California to grow wine grapes.

Baum covers the family's quirks and indiscretions, along with Coors's labor problems and failure to understand marketing. Joe's son Jeffrey, a born-again Christian, killed Halloween ads featuring vampirish actress Elvira on the grounds that they were "satanic." And Joe ordered that family friend Eva Gabor be hired for a TV commercial. That ad, too, was spiked after a test group of young males thought she looked like a hooker.

There are details on a toxic spill cover-up and a questionable operation to find drugs in employees' possession. Baum writes about the ineptness that, after 125 years, forced Coors to bring in an outsider to serve as president and chief operating officer. He portrays a family so paranoid that for years it administered lie-detector tests to job applicants. Joe justified this by saying some people had sworn to kill him, and he didn't want them in his plant where they would get the chance.

But ultimately, this is an unsatisfying account. Baum's heroes are boycott leaders and the outside marketers known as Visigoths--the word is used six times on one page. And some of his assertions aren't credible: He says he interviewed Bill only once and spent most of the meeting trying to get Coors and his three nephews, also present, to talk. How then is Baum able repeatedly to tell us Bill's thoughts? Also worrisome is the abundance of reconstructed dialogue.

More important, Baum seems determined to emphasize the negative. He pays little attention to the company's contributions to the arts and education or to its environmental leadership--among other things, it pioneered a successful recycling program. And he fails to describe the family in full, neglecting, for instance, the relationship between Joe and Bill that allowed them to co-run the company. The Coorses also have a warm side, and Bill, at least, has a sense of humor. Once, at a luncheon, I overheard Bill's wife complain she was late for a meeting and chide him for not telling her the time. "I'm not your keeper," Bill told her. "Just my brother's."

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