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Brewing Controversy : Coors Clan: Doing It Their Way

Times Staff Writer

Like most of the men in the family, Jeff Coors, 43, new president of the Adolph Coors Co., is quiet, friendly, totally unaffected and given to startling remarks. Sitting in his office on the brewery grounds, here is the first thing he said:

“Jeez, I hope you don’t try to paint this family as some sort of idealistic, above-it-all kind of family. There are no fairy tales involved in this family. I get really upset with some (media) articles that try to paint this family as somehow Cinderella-like . . . you know, all lovey-dovey.”

He made sardonic reference to a magazine photo he’d seen. “I mean, here you had my mother and father, with all their kids and grandkids, with all these smiling faces. So, you think: ‘Oh, what a wonderful family!’ And my father has a mistress all the time!”

Now, there’s a curious comment. Not so odd, maybe, the son drawing attention to the fact that Dad just ran out on Mom, after 48 years, for a younger woman, and has gone off to live in the lazy, hazy climes of Northern California wine country. The whole town’s been burning up the phone wires gossiping about it ever since, anyway. And if there’s one thing that instantly stands out about the Coors clan, it’s that they’re among the bluntest, most straightforward people around.

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But the Adolph Coors Co. has hardly been deluged with lovey-dovey publicity these last few years. To the contrary, for better than a decade, Coors has been the company Americans most love to hate: boycotted by organized labor, racial minorities, women, gays, students, teachers and countless other special-interest groups.

And the Coors family itself has been routinely denounced as racist, sexist, union-bashing, right-wing fanatics--particularly the two patriarchs, brothers William, 72, and Joseph, 71. In fact, when the senior Coorses announced a couple of years ago that they were turning day-to-day operation of the company over to the younger generation, critics groaned with relief.

Optimists predicted the dawning of a new age at Coors. Even Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, praised the “more positive approach taken by (the new) management” during negotiations last summer, which resulted in an end to labor’s 10-year-old boycott of Coors beer in exchange for the company’s promise not to interfere with union organizing at the brewery.

But never mind that for a minute. Jeff Coors wasn’t finished with his dad (Joe): Joe Sr. is an adulterer and, therefore, a sinner, along with homosexuals, gluttons, blasphemers, murderers, liars and a whole bunch of others. All five of Joe Coors’ sons, inspired by their mother, Holly, 67, are self-described, “born-again” Christian fundamentalists. Hard core.

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The oldest son, Joe Jr., 45, for instance, even lists “Biblical Prophecy” as a hobby, along with golf, on his company resume, and the whole family is awaiting Armageddon, which Joe Jr. believes will occur around the year 2,000.

Meantime, they just hope Joe Sr. can clean up his act in time. “I really love the guy, he’s a neat person,” said Jeff Coors. “But there are certain areas in your life that you struggle with, you know? That you don’t know how to handle, so you do crazy things. We all do. But we’re all praying for him. Regularly.”

But enough small talk.

Highest Paid

As president of Adolph Coors Co., Jeff Coors--the highest paid of the Coors sons at $350,000 per year--has larger concerns these days: Namely, after more than a decade of good riddance, organized labor is back. Union activists are now prowling about his property, lurking in every town cafe and bar, trying to convince Coors employees--the only non-unionized brewery workers in the nation--that they need a union.

Not much can send a member of the Coors family in faster search of the Excedrin than the notion of some pushy bunch of union bosses trying to tell them how to run their business.

In the first place, ever since Adolph Coors, a young Prussian immigrant, then 26, founded his modest little brewery here on the banks of Clear Creek in 1873, Coors has been unique among breweries for its determined self-reliance. It has always either owned or controlled almost every aspect of the beer-making process, from barley farms to hops and malt; it brews all its beer here and only recently opened a second facility in Shenandoah, Va., for bottling only, and Coors is nearly legendary for its reluctance to borrow money. It only went public in 1975--and then sold only about 15% of its stock to outside shareholders, on a non-voting basis.

Also, not since Prohibition has Coors put all its eggs in one basket. It is instead widely diversified, with subsidiaries engaged in everything from the production of ceramics to military technology systems.

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And so it was truly a match made in hell when, who did the AFL-CIO dispatch to conquer this God-fearing, archconservative dynasty but that roughest, toughest, most notorious, federally investigated union of them all, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Last summer’s peace treaty with the AFL-CIO notwithstanding, Coors and the Teamsters clashed like a pair of alley cats from the first minute. At issue is whether the Teamsters should be allowed to call for a union vote only among about 1,700 brewery workers, or, as Coors insists, include another 2,000 or so (notably less union-minded) container workers as well. The dispute is now before the National Labor Relations Board--with both sides vowing not to bend an inch, short of a federal order.

And if this new union battle opens old wounds, stirring up all those leftists who have hardly even begun to forgive Coors for its past sins, real or imagined, Coors’ basic position is, the hell with it.

“What else should we do?” Jeff Coors demands. “Just give ‘em the keys to the place? Is that what you do? It’s just like inviting the Russians in to take over America.”

For years, most of Coors’ troubles have been laid at the feet of Bill and Joe Coors.

Of the two, Joe Coors has always been, hands down, the most controversial. A longtime personal friend of Ronald Reagan’s, Coors has been annoying the daylights out of liberals ever since the 1960s when, as a University of Colorado regent, he and his pal, former California Sen. S. I. Hayakawa, did everything they could to drive the Students for a Democratic Society off the CU campus.

Over the years, he’s also contributed to almost every right-wing cause of any consequence, from the John Birch Society to the Heritage Foundation, to wars against the equal rights amendment and the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. Most recently he wound up center stage at the Iran-Contra hearings, after personally donating a $65,000 airplane to the Nicaraguan “freedom fighters.”

However, it was Bill Coors--always more the family businessman and a relative political moderate compared to his brother--who let fly with the single costliest careless remark ever to befall the company, when, in a 1984 speech to black Denver businessmen, he commented that slave traders had done them all a favor by dragging their ancestors to this great country in chains. Likewise, Coors had added, descendants of Mexican “wetbacks” should also give thanks that they got here, even if they had to swim the Rio Grande.

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It cost Coors around $750 million in good-faith, five-year social covenants with enraged black and Latino leaders to dig out of that one.

But it was the labor boycott, begun in 1977, that hurt most. Amid one of the most bitter strikes of recent times, Coors workers (or hired scabs, depending on whom you listen to) voted the union out, after 43 years. Especially controversial was a polygraph test Coors administered to all prospective employees, probing into everything from weekend drug habits and marital infidelities to homosexual activities. And, for all its national notoriety, Coors stubbornly clung to that test until only two years ago.

But here at home, in Golden, in these pretty, rolling Rocky Mountain foothills 20 miles from downtown Denver where the Coors family has lived for five generations, none of it ever seriously mattered. Not then. Not now.

Golden is, in fact, an almost perfect mirror reflection of the Coors clan itself. It is utterly without pretense, unlike some towns surrounding Denver. No phony Wild West saloons here, with their swinging doors and sawdust floors, nor any grand old Gold Rush hotel in the center of town, historically authentic or make-believe, to romance tourists with jumbled visions of Buffalo Bill, Wyatt and Billy, Kitty and Matt or Baby Doe.

Instead, Golden, the county seat, remains a quiet, unvarnished little community, of the rapidly vanishing kind, with about 15,000 overwhelmingly white, mostly Republican, generally middle-income and usually friendly residents who still fully expect that, if you absent-mindedly leave your keys in the ignition while you run into Foss’ General Store, then, by damn, that car better be there when you get back.

And despite the fact that the Coors plant--the largest single brewing facility in the world (Kirin in Japan is second)--now runs in an unsightly, five-mile-long gray concrete stretch of silos and smokestacks down Clear Creek canyon, this is no company town. Only about 700 of Coors’ 10,000 employees live here and, although about 350,000 tourists visit the brewery annually, nobody’s getting rich off them, either; they take their tour and go back to Denver.

Gumption Admired

Not that Golden isn’t pleased to be the home of Adolph Coors. It is. Residents have never had much sympathy for Coors’ political critics. Plus, they admire gumption--and, as some grinning locals love to remind, for all the boycotts and name-calling, the Coors family sure got the last laugh, didn’t they? Today, Coors is the fourth-largest national brewery, and, by all reliable accounts, old Joe and Bill last year moved beyond the ranks of mere multimillionaires to become billionaires.

But, all else aside, Golden citizens seem to genuinely like their resident billionaires. According to locals, members of the Coors clan, now more than three dozen of them scattered throughout these hills--including 23 fifth-generation nieces and nephews--don’t act a bit different now than they did before they became one of the richest families on Earth.

They don’t live in mansions; their homes are nice but far from opulent--one son even lives in a middle-income housing tract. And they don’t jet off to European villas on weekends; they own vacation homes in Aspen. They still buy their razor blades down at Foss’ and their sirloins at Safeway.

The wives do their own cooking, pick up their kids at the public swimming pool along with the other town women and none are raving glamour queens forever dressed to kill. The sweet-faced, “born-again” family matriarch, Holly, is renowned for her volunteer hospital work and her perpetual readiness to help any poor soul in need to find Jesus Christ.

As for the Coors men, they look more like John Deere tractor salesmen than tycoons: all of them tall, thin and fair with a near-legendary distaste for jackets and ties; they’re almost always dressed in the sort of plain, open-collared shirts and cheap chino pants that might have come from J. C. Penney. Especially old Bill and Joe, which is what everybody in town calls them.

Family Tradition

True, the Coorses do have a family tradition of sending their children to prep schools (Exeter, followed, usually, by Cornell University, where, in another family tradition laid down by Adolph Sr., every male is expected to get a degree in engineering.) But as every middle-aged parent seems to remember, until they went away to school, the Coors kids ran around town with the rest of the crowd--and some of them came back home to marry local girls.

And, not least, Golden residents remember all the personal tragedies they’ve shared with the Coors family, sometimes on a downtown park bench or in church or just having morning coffee in the corner cafe.

They remember:

The misery Bill Coors endured when it became clear, more than three decades ago now, that his first wife was an alcoholic; then, the awful suicide of his oldest daughter five years ago, when she leaped to her death from a New York City high-rise, leaving a husband and babies behind.

They remember the whole town’s suspense when Adolph Coors III, brother of Bill and Joe, was kidnaped and murdered, in a yearlong ordeal of uncertainty in 1961.

And, going way back, everybody still speculates about whether it was really an accident, when the senior Adolph fell to his death from a Florida high-rise in 1929, at age 82, or another Great Depression suicide.

Locals recall the lesser dramas too--how furious Joe Coors was, for instance, when, first, his oldest son Joe Jr., violated a cardinal family rule 25 years ago (a rule originally decreed by Adolph Jr.) by running off to get married before he’d finished college, and, then, just a few years later, when his fourth son, Grover, now 38, became a temporary hippie, hiding out in California with his LSD, long hair and, even destroying his draft card.

In both cases, locals remember, Joe’s answer was pure and simple: he cut both sons off without a cent until they came to their senses. (Grover saw the light faster; it took Joe Jr. 10 years to return to the family fold--and, by then, he actually had to beg.)

The obvious point being--this is one tough family with a long tradition of doing things their way, and if they’re unrelenting when it comes to outsiders, they’re equally implacable when it comes to their own.

“I wouldn’t call them stubborn--I’d call them principled. The Coors family has always been willing to fight for what they believe in, I think most people here admire that,” says Golden Mayor Marvin Kay, who is also football coach at Colorado School of Mines, a prestigious little engineering university here.

And so nobody around Golden seems the least bit surprised that Coors is now heading for yet another showdown with organized labor.

Besides, most folks are a whole lot more interested in Joe Sr.'s latest escapade, wondering, amid grins and giggles, just who this mystery woman could be, and if old Joe has now maybe even taken to bean sprouts, white wine, tanning parlors and plastic surgeons, like all those other crazy Californians do.

Lunch was about to be served inside the official Coors family mansion, on the brewery grounds. A pretty, white, 22-room Queen Anne house built by Adolph Sr. over a century ago, it hasn’t been occupied for decades, standing now mainly as a museum to Coors family history, still fully furnished, just as the old man left it.

The hosts were Adolph’s grandsons, William Coors, 72, chairman of the board; his brother Joseph, 71, vice chairman, and Bill’s wife, Phyllis, 58.

Bill Coors was initially almost tongue-tied by shyness, or nervousness, standing in the foyer, stuttering, flushing, his Adam’s apple bobbing, apparently without a clue as to what he was next supposed to do. As a photographer went about his work, Joe Coors sat stiffly in a chair, smoothing his hair, trying to muster a winning grin and too self-conscious for even the most casual conversation until the camera was gone.

Then, there was Phyllis Coors--formerly the company secretary until she married the boss 28 years ago.

Bundle of Energy

Attractive and vibrant, smartly dressed in a tailored white suit and silk shirt, she is afflicted by none of her husband’s social inhibitions. An exuberant bundle of energy from the minute she burst through the front door, she seizes upon strangers, particularly other women, with the instant, intimate zest of a long-lost friend, gabbing about everything from the glories of Retin A to Estee Lauder’s instant suntanning lotion.

And, in the next breath, Phyllis Coors, mother of Bill Coors’ only son, Scott, a student at Stanford, was chatting about her husband’s first wife.

“She was an alcoholic, you know. It was so sad. It finally killed her.”

“Naw, it did not,” said Bill Coors, stirring for the first time since the woman talk had begun. “She finally threw it off, remember?”

“But she died from it anyway, from abusing her body for so long,” Phyllis Coors insisted.

‘Naw!” Coors growled, sounding mildly annoyed. “She died more from tobacco than she did from alcohol.”

“Well, how do you know? " she countered, exasperated.

“She was a three-pack-a-day smoker all her life. She had emphysema. That’s what killed her,” he declared. Period.

Phyllis Coors gave it up with a wry smile. She’s been married to Bill Coors long enough to know that if there’s one thing he’s touchy about, it’s the bad rap given booze in some quarters.

A Favorite Speech

Not that Coors is encouraging alcoholics to drink. But, he declared, launching into one of his favorite speeches: “Beer is a food product, it’s actually good for you . . . there’s a growing body of clinical evidence that people who use moderate amounts of alcohol enjoy a better degree of health than those who abstain . . . you can reduce your health risk by (consuming) an alcohol equivalent of about two or three cans of beer a day.”

He was now relaxed, composed, and, from that point forward, it was plain to see that, never mind if the junior Coorses now have some fancy new titles, it’s the elders who are obviously still in full command at Adolph Coors.

It aggravates him no end, Coors was saying next, how Adolph Coors Co. has been persecuted over the years, how innocent remarks are so often twisted by the family’s enemies that “it’s become difficult for any of us to say anything.”

Take the equal rights amendment. Adolph Coors has suffered the wrath of the entire feminist movement, all because of Joe Coors’ outspoken opposition. But, Bill Coors bristles: “I’m on record supporting the ERA. How come that doesn’t count for something?”

As he sat there, leaning forward in one of old Adolph’s overstuffed, hand-embroidered, satin easy chairs, bony wrists dangling loosely from atop his knees, pale eyes earnestly direct, tone so sadly resigned, wearily mellow, Bill Coors looked for all the world just like Henry Fonda, playing the flip-side of “Grapes of Wrath,” the kindly, gentle old tycoon who would never have even dreamed of foreclosing on poor Tom Joad.

But a brave, stubborn, old tycoon, make no mistake about that, because next Bill Coors was resurrecting his incendiary 1984 “slave trader” speech.

It still annoys the hell out of him. Not just because of the money--both the Good Lord and Fortune magazine know Coors could afford that. Instead, fumed Coors, it was “the way the media took my remarks out of context . . . and just blew me out of the water"--and, also, “the way the so-called black and Hispanic leaders came down on me! My God! I’ve never seen anything like it!

“What I was trying to point out was, people take this free society of ours for granted, and I tell you . . . this is one of the last places in the world where anyone can go into business, regardless of what their background is. And so, I said: ‘This is a great country, and regardless of how we got here, we all ought to be glad we’re here.’ I said: ‘There’s no reason for a Hispanic to be ashamed that his father or his grandfather was a wetback . . .’ ” (Coors also called his grandfather, Adolph, an immigrant who stowed away on a boat from Hamburg, Germany, a “wetback.”)

“And then, I extended it to the blacks. I said: ‘You ought to be so delighted you’re here . . . your ancestors for the most part were dragged over here in chains . . . none of us can tolerate the concept of slavery, but that act in itself got you here, so they did you a favor!’ ”

What’s more, declared Coors: “It’s absolutely true, if you will look at it in the true sense! I mean, what caused (immigrants) to come here: economic freedom! Economic opportunity that (they) didn’t have in (their) own land!”

And, even if blacks didn’t originally get here of their own volition, they’ve still cashed in on the same boundless opportunity: “I mean, Alex Haley and his ‘Roots’ notwithstanding,” Coors said with a dry smile, “if you go back to these idyllic situations that were supposed to exist in Africa, and you won’t find ‘em. I mean, I just don’t see Jesse Jackson, or any of these other blacks, making any mass exodus to back to Africa, do you?”

And then it was Joe Coors’ turn.

Within five minutes of opening his mouth, he had assailed Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) as “a common murderer,” taken a few healthy swipes at House Speaker Jim Wright and Frank Sinatra, then moved on to American Indians.

More specifically, Coors was annoyed at the flak his friend Reagan was taking for his remark in Moscow earlier this year that perhaps the white man had done Native Americans a real disservice by “humoring them” in their desire to retain their “primitive life style” on U.S. reservations.

“He was absolutely right! Indians chose to stay on the reservations, versus becoming Americans! And now they’re upset that the government didn’t give them more money! But they were given a choice! They could’ve come into any community in America, like the Mexicans did, and become a part of it. But they couldn’t cope with it. . . .”

Change of Subject

Bill Coors tried to change the subject. Not that he necessarily disagrees with his brother on the finer points of American Indian history--he doesn’t. But he has a decidedly better ear for balance.

It was a disgrace, Bill Coors thought, the way the United States government had treated American Indians. All those broken treaties, the influx of the white man’s diseases, and the “incredible culture, and the talent, the creativity of those young Indian kids, it just makes chills go up and down your spine to see it.”

(Coors, not incidentally, is spending a small fortune on drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs on the reservations. But he barely mentioned that. As it would turn out, that’s typical. If the descendants of Adolph Coors spend a whole lot of time and money lately trying to appease various displeased ethic minorities, as well as women and gays, they are by nature not the kind of people to personally boast about their good deeds. A small army of public relations officials does it for them.)

After dessert, Joe Coors had to run to catch a plane back to California where, he said with a cryptic little smile: “I’m enjoying life for a change.”

On the way to the door, however, he had more to say on the high cost of doing business in this country today:

“I know my political activities have brought, uh, negatives to the brewery, so I’m trying to keep a low profile, and not say some of the things I otherwise might . . . but it’s hard.”

Worse, the stigma has hung to him so firmly it’s ruined any hopes he ever had of becoming not just a brewer but a public servant. Years ago, his nominations by both Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford to sit on the Public Broadcasting Corp. board were killed in a Senate committee after furious debate over his right-wing politics.

But even more personally hurtful, he says, was his failure to get former Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III’s previous job as White House counselor to Reagan in 1984. Coors was high on the list of candidates being considered.

Blames Mrs. Reagan

But somebody else got the job, and Joe Coors blames it on Reagan for paying too much attention to Mrs. Reagan. As Coors sees it, Nancy Reagan has done her husband more damage than good these last eight years, mainly through her choice of such confidants as now-alienated former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Michael K. Deaver.

And so, here is another surprise about the Coors clan, all longtime Reaganites and a driving force behind Western-state Republican politics for the last 25 years:

Today, with the exception of Holly Coors, none of them has a single good word to say about Nancy Reagan, and, if they all applaud the President’s handling of the economy, the whole family is openly disenchanted with their man. They think he’s basically been a lousy manager--you just don’t run a company the way Reagan has run the White House, surrounded by aides the Coors brothers wouldn’t even trust as janitors in their brewery.

(As for George Bush, forget it. The Coorses, who enthusiastically headed the Colorado Reagan-Bush election campaigns in both 1980 and ’84, are so unimpressed with Bush that, for the first time in memory, not a single family member even bothered to attend the Republican National Convention this year as a delegate.)

“My criticism of Reagan is this, and it goes back to his days as governor,” says Joe Coors: “He’s never wanted to be involved in personnel problems, and he’s way too influenced by Nancy. And she’s worked against his best interests, because she would only listen to Deaver . . . and he couldn’t stand strong people around him.”

Anyway, Coors shrugged with a crooked little grin, that’s why “there are no politicians in our family--except, of course for (his estranged wife) Holly. Reagan appointed her Ambassador of the Americas, you know.”

That is, as Coors well knows, strictly a roving, essentially ceremonial post. But he sounded proud of it anyway. “She’s a great lady, a real credit to our country,” he remarked of his wife, with greatest respect, as he hastened to the door, wearing a sheepish face.


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