Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto

Main Content

Processing. Please wait.
A man of character in an age of personality: the story of Eric Molson and how he saved Molson Brewery

According to an editorial in the Montreal Gazette in 1980, ‘the most remarkable thing about Eric Herbert Molson, 43, was how well he succeeded at being unremarkable.’ In a talk sponsored by the Johnston Centre on December 5th, Helen Antoniou, daughter-in-law and biographer of the former President of Molson Breweries Canada, provided an intimate account of how a man who was defined by his quiet disposition, took a failing conglomerate in Molson Brewery and helped steer it into the seventh generation.

The Molson Brewing Company was founded in 1786 when John Molson set up a brewery near the St Lawrence river in Montreal. Almost two centuries later, Eric Molson joined the company as a young brew master and later became chairman of the board in 1988. The eighties and nineties were a time of tremendous economic upheaval when companies had to navigate the disruptive forces of globalization and regulation. While Molson’s Canadian rivals such as the LaBatt Brewing Company faltered and were eventually bought out, the Molson Brewing Company defied the odds and continued to thrive in the 21st century. Today, the Molson Coors Beverage Company, which was formed by the eventual merger of Molson (Canada) and Coors (US) in 2005, is the seventh largest brewer by volume world-wide. So how did Eric Molson, a painfully shy introvert, negotiate a world of inflated egos, boardroom politics and the machinations of rapacious family members to salvage the company when a meagre 3% of family businesses survive into the fourth generation or beyond?

Antoniou attributes Eric Molson’s success at the helm of the brewing giant to three fundamental traits – his passion, character and humility. Eric Molson was equally passionate about beer, hockey and Canada. As a young brew master he was captivated by the intricacies of brewing beer and even wrote his undergraduate thesis at Princeton on the subject of yeast. As a chairman of the company’s board, he assessed new boards members as much on their competency and skill, as their compassion and character. At a critical juncture, when there was strong pressure to sell the company and make a handsome profit of some 70 million dollars, Eric Molson made the unpopular decision to forego the large windfall to ensure the long-term survival of the company. Finally, he understood the power of humility, of being grounded. He regarded himself as not only a ‘steward’ of the company, but of Molson as a Canadian institution that valued beer and hockey as much as community service.

According to Antoniou, Eric Molson’s decisions were predicated as much on his principles as his astute business sense. To this extent, Antoniou points out, Eric Molson as a leader typified a bygone age first described by historian Warren Susman, when ‘character’ mattered more than ‘personality’, self-sacrifice was prized over self-expression, and integrity over charm. Susman argues that it was only at the turn of the 19th century that an age of ‘character’ gave way to an age of ‘personality’ in North America; as Americans migrated into the cities and began to value consumption over production, they also placed greater merit on the brasher qualities of individual leaders such as boldness and audacity.

Thus, perhaps above else, Eric Molson’s true legacy resided in the recognition that the long-term interest of a business depends fundamentally on the preservation of private virtue.


© Rotman School of ManagementThe Rotman School of Management is accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AASCB)