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Geoff Molson is the last member of his clan at the 224-year-old family brewery. (Sylvain Dumais)
Geoff Molson is the last member of his clan at the 224-year-old family brewery. (Sylvain Dumais)

ROB Magazine

Can Geoff Molson save the Montreal Canadiens? Add to ...

"We used to goon it up a little bit...we played hockey all the time," says Geoff, who's now 40. Today he patrols the blue line in "an old man's league" a couple of times a week; the most accomplished player of the three, he played varsity at St. Lawrence University. Andrew, 42, still plays in a men's league in Montreal's west end. And Justin, 41, played in high school and later coached.

Every emerging generation in a business dynasty needs to reconcile itself with the family company: Who will join it? And of those who join, who will lead? Starting with summers working as a sales rep to depanneurs and bars in his teens, Geoff Molson seemed marked to take up the torch at the brewery.

Molson's first job after college was a year spent with Coca-Cola Co. in Atlanta. After completing an MBA at Babson College, he took a consulting gig in New York and then Boston. He joined the family company in Toronto in the late '90s, and then spent about five years at Molson USA. (The job's Colorado location reflected a distribution relationship with Adolph Coors Co.) By 2005, when Molson returned to Montreal-where he became vice-president of marketing at HQ-the beer business was well into its dramatic transformation, and the family was digesting the biggest decision in its history.

Long-time rival Labatt had long since been swallowed by Belgian giant Interbrew SA-part of a wave of mergers that began in the 1980s, when Molson and Carling O'Keefe joined forces. And south of the border, dominant brewers like Anheuser-Busch were vying for supremacy in the global market, with players like Heineken, Carlsberg and Mexico's Grupo Modelo also jockeying for position. Then, in 2002, South African brewery SAB acquired Miller, the second-largest American brewer. Two years later, Interbrew merged with Brazilian colossus AmBev. (That entity

in turn united with Anheuser-Busch in 2008.)

The writing was on the wall for Molson Inc. In 2004, Eric Molson announced the company would merge with Coors-another family company-in a bid to become a global brewing concern and achieve $175 million (U.S.) in annual cost savings.

Like the sale of the Habs to Gillett, the deal was seen in some quarters as an early entry in the annals of the Great Canadian Hollowing Out. Officially, it was as a merger of equals. That's the sort of cover story for a proud junior partner that is often quickly abandoned once a deal is in the public's rear-view mirror. But six years later, it appears it may indeed be the case-or at least it seems that Molson is no more the junior equal than it was to begin with.

According to David Kincaid, of Level 5 Strategic Brand Advisors, who has a long history in the beer industry, "compared to the other consolidations and mergers that have happened, this one is probably as close to a merging of equals [as possible]" The two families share voting control of the company, and each is allowed ao nominate five board members. But the company's main decision-making centre is in Colorado, its board is chaired by Peter H. Coors (Eric Molson retired as chairman in 2009), and the brewery is run by Peter Swinburn, a Coors hire. The Canadian arm has its own president and CEO, long-time Molson executive Dave Perkins.

Though the merged company had early growing pains, it seems to have stabilized of late. Molson Coors reported a 27% increase in profits in the second quarter of 2010, and the Canadian operation remains a bright spot in an otherwise flat North American industry.

But the future won't necessarily include a Molson in the company's management ranks. Geoff Molson, who hasn't been a VP since 2009, estimates he still spends one day a week at the brewery-he continues to sit on the board and plays an ambassadorial role at community events. "I was-and am-having a really hard time leaving an operating role at Molson, because I've worked there a long, long time and grew up in the environment," he said late last year.

All that's now left of the Molson family's operational role is vestiges-a parking space, a little-used office, an e-mail address.

In May, 2009, two of the Molson brothers pitched up at Eggspectation on de Maisonneuve Boulevard for their monthly breakfast date with their father.

Unbeknownst to the others, Geoff Molson had something big on his mind. He had hatched the plan with an old private-school pal-he won't say who. Together they gamed it out on a piece of foolscap during a flight to Las Vegas, where they were headed for a bachelor party. "It's funny: If you pull out that game plan, with a few exceptions, it came to life," Molson says.

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