Bill Coors: There's Nothing Like the Original

Bill Coors: There's Nothing Like the Original

One of the few things that differentiates Bill Coors' cube from others on the second floor of Adolph Coors Co. headquarters in Golden, Colo., is a tightly arranged vase of red roses.

At 84, the chairman of the parent company of the third-largest brewer in the United States has found a way to smell the roses and still come in to work. Clearly, work is something Bill Coors enjoys. And though the few failures in a long career still nag at him, his successes have projected his pragmatic, forward-looking vision onto the landscape of American business. The Princeton-educated engineer can count among his credits the pioneering of the recyclable aluminum beverage can, a vision of holistic health and wellness that predates the current trend, and the building of his company from a small, family-owned regional beer brewer to a publicly held powerhouse. Adolph Coors Co., which owns the famous brewery and several packaging companies, now ranks among the 700 largest publicly traded corporations in the world, serving markets in North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe and Asia.

In the eyes of critics, his company is no shining example of social responsibility. Bill Coors readily admits the company has had its battles with organized labor over the past decades. Indeed, Coors beer was the subject of a 10-year boycott by the AFL-CIO in the 1970s and 1980s. That battle ended with a pledge from the company that it would not interfere with a union-organizing drive at the brewery.

Yet the company won numerous awards for its environmental performance throughout the 1990s. And in October 2000, some 40 years after developing the aluminum can, Bill Coors was honored for his long-term environmental stewardship by Global Futures, a public affairs and sustainable business consulting group based in San Francisco.

In a wide-ranging interview with LOHAS Journal, the robust octogenarian shared his views on the environment, aluminum, and sustainability. By Nancy Nachman-Hunt.

LOHAS Journal: When did you acquire your environmental conscience?

After World War II there was a lot of agitation about the litter caused by beer and beverage cans. The brewing industry and the other carbonated beverage industries were, I would say, environmentally very irresponsible. In the 1950s, I met a delightful lady by the name of Beatrice Willard. She was running the Thorne Ecological Institute in Boulder and teaching at the University of Colorado. She came to me with some pictures that she had taken in the alpine tundra above timberline. One was of one of our beer cans, then she took the can out and shot another picture of the depression the can had made. Then she showed me another picture she'd taken 10 years later. The depression was still there. It was a very adept illustration of how fragile some of this country's ecosystems are.

Bea Willard became quite a friend and as a result invited me to debate David Brower [noted environmentalist and first executive director of the Sierra Club] at a conference in Aspen [in the mid-1950s]. I was probably dumb to accept it, but I did anyway. I had no problems with the Sierra Club or the David Browers of this country. They all drank beer, hopefully. Brower and I did more agreeing than disagreeing. I came out of that with a great admiration for him. So I think I've always had an environmental conscience.

One of the problems our discussion brought out, of course, is that our industry had to do something about our used containers.

LJ: So how did the aluminum can come about?

The American Can Co. developed that so-called "tin" can around 1936. Then World War II came along. All the steel was used to build ships and guns. In 1946 my older brother came to me—I was in charge of production and engineering—and gave me orders to get the can line cranked up. It was sort of a Rube Goldberg affair. But by the early '50s I knew we were in a great deal of trouble. The aluminum can solved all of the problems of the tin can [porous linings that allowed tin and iron to leak into the beer, which affected its taste and clarity]. And it was recyclable. There is enough intrinsic value in the can itself to more than justify the effort to recycle it.

We developed it all by ourselves. It was the last thing all the container companies wanted. By developing the aluminum can, we obsoleted hundreds of millions of dollars of can-making equipment. Anyway, it was a big hit. We started doing so well that everybody decided to emulate us. Pretty soon, the entire beer industry was converted to aluminum cans. Then the soft-drink industry got wise and they came along, too.

At that point, I wanted to get the industry to maintain ownership of the cans—almost like a returnable bottle. Again, we got a lot of flack. We started paying a penny a can and they came flooding in. It was working out beautifully. The rest is sort of history.

LJ: Coors developed its own environmental principles in 1990. Why?

There used to be a saying that when you're marketing to the American consumer, "There's price, there's quality, and there's service." You had to excel in all three of those areas. But there's another one now: image. Our image has not been all that good in some areas. We've had terrible battles with organized labor, for example.

But what we did, had survival as its objective. And one of our survival strategies is to deserve the image of being environmentally responsible. You can't have that image without being environmentally responsible. You can't give lip service to that.

LJ: What do you think Coors' vision for the 21st century ought to be in terms of sustainability?

For total and complete sustainability, we shouldn't be using fossil fuels, and I can't see any replacement for fossil fuels. But I can see ways of energy conservation. We've spent millions of dollars developing a process to take used beverage cans and turn them back into new cans. Industry uses a different alloy on the lid than on the body of the can. Recycled cans go into the secondary aluminum market and go into things like window shades, not cans.

We developed a system of continuous casting of aluminum into sheets and rolls. But we came up against politics. Ten years ago we owned an aluminum company with two mills, one in San Antonio and one in Fort Lupton, Colo. I've maintained that it was an unwritten industry conspiracy to stop that business.

Here's another one of my failures. We developed a sustainable plastic polymer made from cereal starch. We called it PLA—short for polymerized lactic acid. It was as good as nylon, but it was costly—$1.50/lb. as opposed to 40 cents/lb. It wasn't competitive with lower-cost polymers made from petroleum. We went ahead with the project—and there was no interest in it at all. It was not only completely recyclable, it was totally and completely biodegradable, and you could regulate the rate at which it would biodegrade. We sold the rights and patents to one of the big corn-refining companies. I don't think people at that time were thinking about oil being $50 or $60 a barrel.

LJ: Is there one thing that you wish Coors would do in the next 10 years?

Well, for one thing, I would never have let those [aluminum] mills go. Not only did we spend millions developing that technology but it would have provided huge energy savings. The savings in using recycled aluminum over using primary aluminum in terms of energy is staggering. One pound of primary aluminum requires about 30,000 BTUs to produce. One pound of recycled aluminum requires about 700 BTUs.

I know absolutely that we are going to get sanctions placed on energy consumption. Everybody is going to have to be answerable—whether it's now or five years from now I don't know, but it's coming. And the guy with the best available technology [BAT] is going to get off Scot-free. The farther away a company is from BAT, the more it's going to cost them.

LJ: How difficult is it to keep a publicly traded company on an environmentally sustainable path?

There is an ill in our system and it's the focus on the quarterly return. If I were the czar of American industry, you know the first thing I would do? I would make stock options illegal. When our top executives have a major part of their wealth tied up in stock options, they become obsessed with that bottom line and they become myopic. They don't focus on the long range; they can't focus on it. I don't have any stock options and I never have. I'm always looking way farther ahead.

LJ: Do you think U.S. businesses in general are embracing the sustainability issue with more than words?

I think it's a mixed bag. Image is very important for all of our corporations. They all have public relations firms that are hired to enhance that image. To what degree they are sincere I really don't know. I think you do probably the absolute minimum, because it costs money, and it's just frightfully competitive out there in the marketplace.

Much as I hate to say it, I think we have to have regulations. We have to be pushed and forced and driven in the right directions. For example, the aluminum can thing for which we're famous is absolutely essential to our business because we are a shipping brewery. Our average customer lives 1,000 miles away. You can ship beer in aluminum cans for about half of what you would pay for bottles. We were also concerned about quality, and the can solved all of those problems. The development of the aluminum can was driven by necessity.


Adapted from a story by Nancy Nachman-Hunt for LOHAS Journal. Copyright 2001 Natural Business Communications LLC. All rights reserved.