The Life and Times of Bill Coors
Bill Coors was an important and unusually successful corporate titan; he was also a plutocrat who sought absolute control over his workers and whose toxic racial politics sparked decades-long boycotts.
William Kistler Coors died in Colorado on October 13. He was 102. Had he died earlier, his passing might have stirred greater interest; as it was, he received a smattering of mostly-sanitized obituaries hailing him as a transformational leader who turned a smallish regional brewery into a national juggernaut. The fact he lived so long was highlighted almost as much as the events of his life. While longevity is noteworthy, however, how he lived that long life deserves more attention because of the ways he shaped both the beer industry and society. Before his life completely fades from memory, let’s look back.
Born in 1916 in Golden, CO, more than a decade before his grandfather, founder Adolph Coors, committed suicide, he was shipped off to private school in New Hampshire, as was the family practice. He bucked tradition, mildly, by attending a different college (Princeton) than the family’s preferred Ivy League institution (Cornell). He stayed long enough to receive a master’s in chemical engineering and was by all evidence a very smart guy.
He wasn’t sure he wanted a life in beer, but ultimately did return to Golden, where he began a 64-year run at the brewery. He served as chairman for an incredible four decades, from 1959 to 2000. During his tenure, two chief accomplishments stand out: he led development of the aluminum can that would become standard in the industry, and expanded a brewery that was making 300,000 barrels in the 1960s to one making 45 million at the end of his leadership. Had he led a quiet private life and let these accomplishments stand as his life’s work, he wouldn’t have been a controversial figure and I wouldn’t be writing this post
And indeed, there has been a tendency to turn him into that uncontroversial figure. Toward the end of his life he started collecting awards from institutions that lauded him with comments like this, from Beer Institute CEO Jim McGreevy:
“Bill’s innovation and commitment to bettering the lives of people around him have earned him the respect and admiration from professionals across the beer industry. From his work designing the modern recyclable two-piece aluminum can to his long-serving commitment to the company founded by his grandfather, Bill has changed the way that we enjoy beer, and today continues to contribute to MillerCoors through his technical expertise.”
Wealth and success have always been enough to launder bad behavior into institutional respect and honor, but we shouldn’t let these statements become canonical. In the decades of his chairmanship, the idea that he had a “commitment to bettering lives around him” would have been greeted with sour laughter by many. Bill Coors had a dark side, and it is at least as important to note as his tenure as chairman.
Like so many cosseted in wealth and privilege, Bill Coors held strong views about people with whom he had no contact. He routinely referred to Latinos as “wetbacks” and did not welcome them at Coors. The company employed less than 2% of Latinos when he took over the reins of leadership—leading to the first boycott in 1966. The racism was entwined in virulent anti-union views and a fear that the labor movement led by Cesar Chavez in the fields of California might visit his brewery:
For many Hispanics, the reasons for the boycotts went deeper than employment discrimination. The Coors family supported grape growers who resisted the labor demands of the United Farm Workers. El Gallo, the Crusade for Justice’s newspaper, ran the headline “Chicanos Stop Buying Coors!” along with photographs of Coors trucks reportedly transporting “scab” grapes to market.
It wasn’t just Latinos. Coors (and, it should be noted, his equally retrograde brother Joe) also held vile views about Blacks. In 1983 Bill mused publically about what must have been decades-long beliefs. From a 1985 account in the New York Times:
Also, he was quoted a year ago in The Rocky Mountain News, in a controversial speech to minority executives in Denver, as remarking that if black Americans visited Africa they would realize that the best thing slave traders did was ''to drag your ancestors here in chains.'' The Denver newspaper further quoted him, in a reference to leadership in Zimbabwe, as saying that ''it's not that the dedication among the black is less, in fact, it's greater; they lack the intellectual capacity to succeed.''
The story goes on and on. For well over a decade, Coors made employees take polygraphs to weed out union sympathizers, gays, and the overly liberal. The 70s were a time of union-busting, sexism lawsuits, support for anti-gay causes at the brewery. The war continued in the 1980s, when Bill, feeling his oats in the newly-conservative Reagan era, started to make his overtly racist comments. It was during this period when the Adolph Coors foundation began funneling millions into right-wing political campaigns (which continues, it appears, to the present).
The company, which was beginning to expand nationwide in the 1980s, recognized how damaging this was to its prospects among “urban markets” (as they were inevitably described in the mid-80s) and began dumping millions into programs to support Black and Latino communities. Although he would continue to lead the company, leaders inside Coors also led an internal effort to silence his racist outbursts. (A successful one, as it happened.) Bill Coors continued on as chairman through the 1990s, but the brewery’s business was decoupled from his politics. For the first three decades, he had been a public and institutional foe of women, labor, the LGBT community, and nonwhites. He no doubt would have continued this public assault had the tide not turned; this was no longer good business.
Indeed, there’s something of an irony in the backlash against Coors, which came to champion LGBTQ and nonwhite communities. Coors spent his life building a company to be not only one of the largest breweries in the world, but one that was a mirror-image of the values he held. But by the middle aughts, his beer was heavily marketed (a practice of which he disapproved), sold to people he held in contempt, and then in 2005, his brewery was transferred out of family hands. He could take solace, I suppose, in the fact that the unions never took over his breweries. In the end, Bill Coors won—but as in all endings it was perhaps not how he’d envisioned it.
For those who have managed to read through to the end here, one further comment. Craft beer is confronting the fact that it is a very white, very male niche in American culture. There are many reasons why this is the case, and a lot of them aren’t nefarious. But it’s no surprise that in this country, with a long and violent history of white supremacy, some of the men behind beer have worked very hard to make it a very white, very male niche. Bill Coors built a big, impressive company. But he was also a malignant force in the lives of many Americans. The latter legacy is the far more important. Please remember it.