Peter Swinburn is a native Welshman running the second-largest U.S. brewing company.
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The Molson Coors president and CEO’s passion for beer transcends good taste. Now, it’s all about fostering America’s growing beer culture.
The hard choices Swinburn and his Coors team made during the worst of the recent financial crisis have paid off. The proof of that lies in Coors' sales growth during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. In 2009, total sales for the company were at $3.03 billion. Last year, sales totaled $4.21 billion, and are forecast to grow to $4.25 billion in 2014, according to data compiled by FactSet.
Strong Roots, Strong Values
If you’re going to be a beer drinker, there’s no better place to have your first taste than in Europe. And for Swinburn, his placement in the world couldn’t have been better.
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He has a top position in the industry now, but Swinburn comes from humble beginnings. Born and raised just outside Cardiff, Wales in England, Swinburn was the son of a British Navy veteran and a sales clerk. As he was growing up, his mother’s biggest hope was to make her boy into a self-reliant man.
“Those values found (me) in good stead,” he said. “Basically, being self-sufficient, being a social animal, making sure you help society if you can, but also taking on personal responsibilities,” he said.
Taking her advice, Swinburn graduated from the University of Wales in 1974 with an economics degree. But despite his hard work, his eyes were on another prize.
His fascination with hoppy-brewed adult beverages began when the job offers began rolling in, including an interesting opportunity from Bass Brewing. The job, though it didn’t directly use his college education, taught him everything he ever needed to know about the industry. He began peddling Bass to bars and clubs in hopes of persuading them to stock their shelves or fill their taps with his beer.
“What it teaches you is the people who actually pay for your product keep you in a job…and many people do incredible work in an organization and (it teaches you to) respect that,” he said.
It was a job that required work on nights and weekends, but one he truly enjoyed.
“I used to visit clubs on a Sunday morning and put beer in the back of my car and deliver it,” Swinburn said. “If the landlord was busy, I’d go behind the bar and help him.”
The work he did, and the time he spent in ground-level jobs gave him the perspective that being part of a team is what matters in a booming global business like Bass, and Coors. That teamwork mindset is a value that stuck with him and now it’s become one of his company’s philosophies: The team comes first.
“It’s not about the individual. And I think that you have to shape that (idea) from the top,” he said.
A Way to Stay Recession Proof
Swinburn stayed on with the company that gave him a start in the industry he’d fallen in love with right up until it was acquired by Coors in 2002. At that point, he was asked to stay on and take charge of the newly combined company’s international business, a challenge he gladly accepted.
But the transitional period for the company wasn’t over. Just three years later, Coors merged with Canadian beermaker Molson to create a combined company known today as Molson Coors Brewing Company. At that point, Swinburn took the helm as president and CEO of the new company’s Europe and Asia operations before taking over the whole company in 2008 as president and CEO, the role he still holds today.
But the celebration wasn’t long-lived. The year he took the reins at Molson Coors was the same year America plunged into recession, which meant many families and individuals cut back on discretionary spending. And that meant spending less on beer.
“My timing has always been perfect,” Swinburn joked of his transition into the chief executive role.
He said he drew heavily on his roots and the lessons his work at Bass taught him during the tough times.
“You have to have a business that believes in itself. And that belief if usually framed in its culture and where its trying to get to. That holds a business together,” he said.
After that, you have to get down to brass tacks and figure out the best way to run the business day-to-day. And that’s exactly what Swinburn had to do as he saw his company through the depths of the Great Recession.
His best advice is to concentrate on what’s really important for the business: That means putting the dollars required behind the brands you believe in most, while still innovating, being creative, satisfying the customer and keeping costs as low as possible.
“I’ve been through a number of recessions. The idea is always to keep investing in what’s going to make the business successful when you come out of the recession,” he said.
Swinburn said it might have been the promising allure and attractiveness of the beer industry that drew him in in the first place, but it’s been a satisfying love that’s kept him in it for more than 40 years.
To a younger generation, his advice is simple.
“Do something you enjoy. Because you won’t be successful otherwise. Do something that interests you because it won’t work otherwise – you’ll earn a lot of money, but you won’t be happy,” he said.