Coors Lightens Up (1990)
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Holmes Report

Coors Lightens Up (1990)

More than 3,600 Coors employees take part in the compa­ny's volunteer programs, and all the evi­dence is that participation strengthens their ties to the brewery, makes them feel more like part of a family.

Paul Holmes


Rosa Bunn has the enthusiasm of an evangelist. She's not a Jimmy Swaggart or a Pat Robertson, she's not quite so obtrusive, but the religious analogy is still valid: she's someone who has seen the light and wants everyone else to see it too. She talks rapidly, with gen­uine excitement, and for every one in the room who finds her gee-whiz let's-get-involved introduction patronizing there's another who finds himself or her­self getting swept along.

Rosa Bunn is the manager of communi­ty and economic affairs at the Adolph Coors Company, and she's addressing an audience of 50 or so hardened PR profes­sionals at the Public Relations Society of America's national conference. To her right are Carolyn Remigio, manager of special programs, and Mike Wood, group manag­er of corporate communications. They lis­ten intently, their faces bright. One can't help thinking of them as Rosa's acolytes.

The first thing Rosa does is have every­one pull on Coors company tee-shirts. "There's a value to having everyone look alike," she says. "It makes you part of a team." A couple of those in the audience look frankly skeptical. "I've never had any­one refuse to do this," she says, an intimi­dating schoolteacher. "You're not going to disappoint me, are you?"

Towards the back of the room, one large lady has not pulled on her tee-shirt. Clearly she knows from experience that one size does not fit all. It's hard not to wonder whether in this case the tee-shirt doesn't make her feel more isolated, less part of the mainstream. In fact, she's one of the first to leave the hall, once the meeting really gets going.

"How many of you sang in a choir when you were younger?" Rosa asks. A scattering of hands go up. "How many of you were choir directors?" The hands van­ish. "Can anyone tell me what the first thing the choir director did at the start of each session?" Silence. "He handed out the sheet music. And he handed out the same music to everyone. He didn't hand out ten different songs. But that's what many of us do in our own companies. The core problem is that we are not being con­sistent in our information to employees, were asking them to sing several different songs."

The session continues. Rosa cedes the platform to Carolyn. Carolyn passes on the mike to Mike. They discuss the way Coors has empowered its employees, getting them involved in the company through a corporate volunteer program that may just be the best in the country. George Bush thinks so. He presented Coors with the 1990 Volunteer Action Award at the White House earlier this year, urging that: "Every company in America should follow Coors lead."

A few more individuals leave. After the session one admits to having been offend­ed. "It was like 1984," he says. "It was like if you didn't buy into this stuff you were a bad person, not worthy to work for them. I can't believe it works."

Yet work it does. More than 3,600 Coors employees take part in the compa­ny's volunteer programs, and all the evi­dence is that participation strengthens their ties to the brewery, makes them feel more like part of a family. "We have the best employees in the country," says Rosa, and she obviously believes it. "They're so enthusiastic. They really get involved. They're proud to work at Coors and we're proud to have them as employees."

This is not the Coors many Americans think they know. That Coors is usually preceded in magazine articles by the epi­thet "controversial." It is racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Union. It is the Coors of a decade ago, the Coors of Joseph and Bill Coors, the Coors that was subjected to a gruelling ten year boycott because of its unhappy relationship with the labor move­ment.

Coors' problems started in the mid­70s, when the company was the subject of a Equal Opportunity Commission investi­gation. It had few blacks on its payroll, only two percent of its employees were Hispanic (despite the fact that almost 20% of the Denver area population was Hispanic) and the company was reluctant to hire women. It also insisted that employees subject themselves to a lie detector test, which included a question about sexual orientation and was reported­ly used to weed out homosexuals and other undesirables.

A few years later, union problems surfaced in earnest. In 1977 members of Brewer's Workers Local 366 struck over the poly­graph testing and the search and seizure of employees' personal effects by the company, which was apparently concerned about bomb threats. The strike went on for 18 months, at which time the company's employees voted (in a ballot from which the strikers were excluded) to decertify the union. The result was a call from the AFL-CIO for a nationwide boycott of Coors beer.

Joseph Coors, meanwhile, was gaining a reputation for his ultra-conservative politics. As regent of the University of Colorado he had opposed the distribution of birth control information to female students and opposed the formation of the Black Students Union. He was a founder member of the Heritage Foundation, a supporter of the John Birch Society and a member of Ronald Reagan's kitchen cabinet and one of the most outspo­ken critics of the Equal Rights Amendment.

His brother Bill, mean­while, supposedly the more moderate of the two, sparked an even greater con­troversy when, addressing a group of Denver business­men in 1984 he offered his views on the decline of Zimbabwe under a black government. "It's not that the dedication of blacks is less. They lack the intellectual capacity to succeed. One of the best things [the slave traders] did for you is to drag your ances­tors over here in chains."

Unsurprisingly, by the mid-'80s a pow­erful coalition of minority organizations, women's groups, gay activists and the entire labor movement was stunting Coors growth.

The transition began with the rise in the Coors organization of Joe Coors' son Pete, now the company president. Pete clearly understood the realities of the new marketplace better than the older generation, combining his more progressive thinking with some astute political moves. He would take the time to talk to authentic Coors cus­tomers in bars in East LA or on Chicago's South Side to get a sense of what they thought of the beer and—more importantly—the company.

The result of his research was a pact between the brewer, a black coalition included the NAACP and PUSH, and the Hispanic Association for Corporate Responsibility. Signed in 1984, the agreement called for Coors to invest $700 million in minority-owned business­es, ranging from the banks where it deposited its money to suppliers of goods and services. The pact was Pete's creation, opposed by many within the company, and it was a valuable first step back to respectability.

Pete then sought a reconciliation with the labor movement—again overriding the hostility of Bill and Joe Coors—agreeing that the AFL-CIO be allowed into the plant to attempt to organize a union. Despite some hiccups, particularly stemming from the involve­ment of the uncompromis­ing Teamsters, the boycott ended (and Coors employ­ees voted again against unionization.)

Bring up this aspect of Coors history in the atmo­sphere of a public forum, however, and it sounds unbelievably cynical. Rosa Bunn ducks the question, falling back on the statistic that 3,600 of Coors current employees participate in the volunteer program, and emphasizing again how loyal and enthusiastic they are. A member of the audience leans over and whispers: "Over the years they must have got rid of everyone who has a mind of their own."

After the meeting, however, Mike Wood is prepared to answer some tough questions. He insists that the AFL-CIO action was unjustified, citing the fact that the company's employees had voted to take themselves out of the union, and bringing up a 60 Minutes segment that portrayed the union action as misguided and founded on some dubious complaints.

The company's outside consultants, and it employs several, are a little more forthright.

"I think the labor dispute hurt Coors," says Gwin Johnston, who runs The Johnston Group in Denver. "But I think that's all history now. Coors is one of the best employers in Denver. It pays well and it has a wonderful involvement with the community. I've worked with them for 12 years and I've seen them work to make sure that people's perceptions catch up with that reality."

Cathy Lugbauer, general manager at Creamer Dickson Basford in New York, echoes that. "They've gotten involved in some very important community relations projects," she says. "Their work with the Foundation for Family Literacy is exem­plary. Their commitment to minority-owned organizations is one of the best in the country. They work with veterans groups. They really get involved."

Of all the programs Coors has created, however, the volunteer program is the most exceptional. The process by which it came into being began in 1980, when the company began a program for employees to address economic issues. Called Living Today, the program set out to explain to employees the role they and their compa­ny played in the regional and national economy, and the impact of outside eco­nomic factors on the company and its employees.

Out of that program sprang the realiza­tion that employees wanted to get more involved, both in the company and in the community. The Coors VICE (Volunteers in Community Enrichment) Squad was born. Extending he Living Today program, it was stressed that the company could only fulfill its role as a good corporate citizen, putting something back into the communi­ty, if the company was profitable. One of the strongest messages of the Living Today program was that "it's okay to be profitable," says Carolyn Remigio. "Our profits allow us to contribute."

"The most important thing about this program is that the employees own it," says Rosa Bunn. "Only employees can submit ideas, and those ideas are then reviewed by a board of employees drawn from all Coors companies and from all levels of the company. We have this concept of one hundred per cent responsi bility, which we carry into the work envi­ronment. For us to go forward with an idea it has to do good for the community and it has to do good for our employees and for the company."

In fact, suggestions are awarded points based on a range of criteria: employee involvement, impact on special audiences (for which read minorities, women, those groups that traditionally have shunned Coors), television coverage potential, beer sales potential, distributor promotion opportunity, community goodwill, inter­departmental involvement, personality tie­ins, print publicity potential, and customer relations opportunities.

Once a program is approved, the employee who brought it forward is-given a budget, and responsibility for making it work.

The programs Coors has committed itself to have been diverse. When Hurricane Hugo swept through South Carolina a year ago, the company worked with The Salvation Army and Denver Mayor Federico Pena to collect more than 15 tons of canned goods, baby food and cloth­ing for needy families. After the San Francisco earth­quake a few weeks later, the company delivered 67,000 quart bottles of pure moun­tain spring water to victims within weeks.

On the environmental front, Coors introduced a for Cans" recycling campaign in 1970 and has recycled more than 1.6 billion pounds of aluminum since then.

The VICE Squad has been supplemented by an ADVICE Squad (Additional Duty VICE) which includes family members and retirees. "Some of our most active participants are our retired employees," says Bunn. "They maintain a link with the company and we maintain a link with the community."

No one pretends that the company's motivation in all this is purely altruistic.

Programs are not accepted unless they will benefit the company, and the spirit of volunteerism has been harnessed to pro grams that explicitly sell Coors product, in some cases overriding the suspicion of sales and marketing professionals con­cerned about "amateurs" trespassing on their turf.

One such program, developed by employees, was PULL (People United to Leverage Light) which was designed to promote Coors Light. PULL teams visited more than a hundred Coors accounts, carrying informa­tion about alcohol and envi­ronmental issues, buying drinks for Coors drinkers, talking with customers and retailers, discussing the eco­nomic impact of the compa­ny on the community, answering questions.

"When customers found out that the people visiting them were not part of our sales and marketing divi­sion, that they were ordi­nary employees on their own time, we think it sent out a very powerful message about our company," says Mike Wood. "Our people are our public relations department, in a sense, the most credible PR people we have."

The credibility that employees give the public relations effort is just one advantage to the campaign, according to Wood and Bunn. They also insist that the "empowering" of employees through vol­unteer programs also leads to a greater commitment in the workforce, and a higher level of involvement in all aspects of company life.

Coors is so impressed with the effect that employee empowerment has had on its workforce it created a ParaDynamics team, including Bunn, Wood and Remigio, which visits other organizations to teach topics ranging from problem solving to customer service to team building. An extension of the Living Today program addresses issues such as personal eco­nomics, shopping smart and today's eco­nomics.

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