Based in Montreal Canada, Andrew is Chairman of AVENIR GLOBAL and Molson Coors Beverage Company.
Andrew talks to Birkbeck about how his family have put their community at the heart of their business and how Birkbeck helped him hone his opinions on business and governance that still influence his business today.
Tell us about you and the work that you do.
I am a Lawyer by training and practiced law for a couple of years before switching into public relations in 1997. During that journey I took some time off to get my Master’s degree at Birkbeck College.
I am also from a family who have been involved in brewing for a very long time. We originate from the UK. The founder of our family enterprise, John Molson, left Lincolnshire in 1782 when he was only 18 years old and set off to Montreal seeking business opportunities. He studied the market for four years and in 1786 he launched a brewery, which still exists – it is now the global Molson Coors Beverage Company. I am Chairman of the company and sit on the board alongside my brother Geoff, so the Molson’s are still very much involved in the business.
What made you move from a career in Law into Public Relations?
I was one day working on a legal transaction as a corporate lawyer and this other firm came in to help with the communication side of things. While I was working on page 234 of a prospectus, checking the detailed legal wording on clause 7.5.3, this firm was working on the story that would be the front page of the paper, explaining why the transaction was needed and the difference it would make. I thought this was fascinating, and it provided my first real insight into public relations. After that, I knocked on the firm’s door, explained my situation as a lawyer and asked if they would take me on. Thankfully they did and put me in their investor relations group. There was a certain amount of re-training involved – for instance, they had to teach me how to become a clear and concise communicator (sorry to the lawyers out there!).
I’ve never looked back and have been involved in public relations ever since. In French we say, ‘Le Droit mène à tout’ which loosely means, ’Law brings you to anything and everything’, and I suppose in my case it led me to public relations.
In your career, what has made you most proud?
I am proud to have made the decision to change career paths. I was a lawyer, in a very good firm and I could have stayed there for a long time. However, sometimes you need to make those instinctive decisions that take you closer to where your fundamental interests lie. I remember at the time explaining to a colleague that I was going to leave law and he just couldn’t understand why; this was back in the 90’s when public relations was perhaps a little less known. However, I stuck with my own mind and, in fact, it made a lot of sense. There are a lot of similarities between the two fields – building an argument for instance.
I also love the characters that you meet in public relations. People with such expertise on how to communicate with specific groups; from the ability to talk effectively with investors, to those who know the inner workings of the government, to those, like a colleague of mine who was previously a journalist, who can write so well. I like that diversity of thought and the different routes that lead people to public relations.
Alongside your work in Public Relations, you of course are involved with Molson Coors, a globally recognized brand. However, some may not know that the Molson Brewery dates back to 1786. What are the main factors that you feel have resulted in its longevity and success?
I know that there are some much older breweries in the UK, so by your standards we are young! However, we are the oldest brewery in North America. There wasn’t much brewing going on in this continent when John Molson arrived in Montreal, so he was one of the first entrepreneurs in this area.
I think a combination of factors has helped our longevity. Firstly, we have had a philosophy of giving back to the community right from the beginning. John Molson created a sustainable cyclical enterprise that would create jobs for locals, make money, contribute to the identity of the community, and give back some of that wealth into the local economy.
We have also been successful through planned succession and have always focused on the continuity and sustainability of the business. It is not just caring about the shareholders, but rather about the overall enterprise, its evolution and how it can successfully transition from one generation to the next. We approach it like having stewardship of the business rather than ownership.
Honestly, there is also an element of good luck involved, as is the case for most businesses that survive over the centuries.
Seven generations of the Molson family have been on the Board for Molson Brewery (now Molson Coors). Growing up, did you always know that you wanted to join the business?
No, not at all. I did deliver beer when I was 19 in northern Quebec with my brother Justin, which was a great summer job, but I never had any real intention of working in the business.
I originally studied Art History. I loved films and really only moved into law as I realized I wouldn’t be any good a filmmaker. Law seemed like something “safe” that I could do and I thought that I could work instead in Entertainment Law. So, I rationalized going into law by always telling myself that I’ll end up in entertainment law, so I would still have a hand in the industry. I ended up enjoying other aspects of the legal field, but I never had any intention of going into the family business.
It was only later when I discovered corporate governance, in part thanks to Birkbeck, that I realized there was a place for me in overseeing this business and that that would be something I would enjoy doing.
What made you chose to study MSc Corporate Governance and Ethics?
It was quite a change of direction for me. When I decided to go to Birkbeck, I had been with the public relations firm for over three years and I had worked on some great projects. Over time, however, I started getting interested in corporate governance (which wasn’t very well known back then). So in 2001, I asked my boss whether I could take some time off to study the subject, knowing that I could bring some added value back to the firm by doing so. At that point, I also had it in the back of my mind that this would be how I could become a good corporate director or shareholder of a company.
Why did you choose to study at Birkbeck?
I wanted a place that would allow me to return to my job after my studies, so I didn’t want to take too much time off. I wrote to one of my gurus, Robert Monks, a shareholder activist in the USA who wrote some books on the role of owner of a company and its importance. I told him about my situation and asked if he knew of any place that taught corporate governance. He recommended Birkbeck; at the time, it was one of the few institutions in the world that gave this course. So, it was on his suggestion that I signed up.
During my studies, I also got a job at the National Association of Pension Funds, so was able to work part time in London. They complimented each other perfectly. It was great to be able to explore and learn whilst working — what better place to do that than in a wonderful city like London!
Do you think that the course did help your career?
Absolutely. Thanks to Birkbeck, I wrote a thesis that basically defends a hypothesis I had built around the ownership of a company. It all centres on a dual-class share structure, which our company has, that allows for some shareholders to have more votes than others. Many consider such a structure as being anti-democratic, but I believe it can be very fair and effective if managed properly. My thesis allowed me to defend this view and hone my own opinions. Many Canadian Institutions still use a dual-class share structure, as do big names across the world, such as Google and Facebook.
You have studied in Canada, America and London. What do you feel the benefits to an international education are?
The huge variety of people that you encounter. I found this to be especially true at Birkbeck. To study and learn together with people from all over the world widens your horizons and shows you that there are many more perspectives than those that come from your little hamlet. It is very inspiring.
With over 230 years of history, Molson Coors has no doubt had to regularly adapt and innovate. What do you see as the future of the brewing industry and has Covid-19 changed that?
As board members, we give advice and guidance to the CEO and management of the company who seem to be adapting to everything well. Our business, however, is fundamentally a social one; we are all about having people get together to share a beer. In these difficult times we are all craving a chance to be with friends and family. At Molson Coors, we’re just hunkering down and waiting for these moments to come back again; moments when we can all get together and talk about normal things – life, politics, family and news – but face to face rather than on Zoom! I think that many people need that social interaction and, although things will change, I do believe that when it’s safe to do so, having a drink together will come back strongly.
You and your family have always been actively involved in philanthropy and supporting your local communities. Why is this important to you?
Our family has been in the beer business for a long time and when we took the company public, we created a family foundation. Started by my grandfather and great uncle, it is dedicated to the betterment of society and my family’s been involved ever since. We know that the business will only thrive if our community is doing well. A healthy community gives you a healthy company. I guess in a way that’s the selfish reason to give back. Fundamentally, however, we strongly believe that we should help grow and contribute to the place we operate in. Health and education are the major areas of focus of our family foundation, mostly in Montreal and Quebec, but also throughout Canada.
At the moment, the foundation is busy ensuring that we continue our support to those we already help, assisting them to get through the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition, we are also working on a few projects to help identify better processes in dealing with the situation. We are trying to stay as involved as we can be and help where possible.
What are the main things that sustain a business’s success for over two centuries?
Integrity, quality and culture. Integrity depends on all levels of the business, including at the top, as well as in the continuity of thought from generation to generation. Then the quality of your product is of course vital. And finally, the culture of the organisation is very important. It’s like yeast, which of course is used to make beer, in that it is living; there are points where it is strong and points where it is weak. You must always monitor and reinforce the culture of the enterprise.
In short, why is education so important?
Education brings reason and comprehension to people. It keeps you enlightened, curious and open minded. It is only through education that you can grow as a society. It is the only way to overcome difference and hate.
I think every day is an educational experience – this interview right now, for example. You must stay curious. It’s just like the song title by Toby Keith: ‘Don’t Let the Old Man In’ — keep on learning!
What were the main things that you took away from your time at Birkbeck?
I was exposed to different people from different countries in a way that I probably wouldn’t have experienced were it not for Birkbeck. It was clear to me that Birkbeck attracts talent from everywhere, which is very cool. It also showed me that you’re never too old to learn something new.
Principally, I discovered an institution that’s very open minded, flexible and has a loving approach to the individuals who study there.
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