Brownstein: No shortage of corporate intrigue in book about former Molson boss

At the book launch of Back to Beer ... and Hockey: The Story of Eric Molson (from left): Andrew Molson, Claire Molson, author and daughter-in-law Helen Antoniou and biography subject Eric Molson at Antonio's book launch8. (Allen McInnis / MONTREAL GAZETTE) Allen McInnis / Montreal Gazette

One might have every reason to assume that an opus about a major corporate figure penned by a member of that person’s family would be a saccharine-laced vanity project. Well, one ought not to assume in the case of the newly published Back to Beer … and Hockey: The Story of Eric Molson by Helen Antoniou, the daughter-in-law of Eric Molson.

The book, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, is a staggeringly candid, page-turner peek into one of the most powerful families in this country: the Molson clan of beer and hockey barons. The book provides rare insight into family infighting and serves up a compelling cautionary tale about corporate governance.

Certainly, it is because Antoniou is the daughter-in-law of Eric Molson that she got to do this book. But it’s because of that connection that she was also able to penetrate beyond the walls generally erected by people in power.

Although Antoniou does point out that Eric may not be the most adept of communicators, she doesn’t hold back in her admiration for her introverted father-in-law, among the least flamboyant of all the Molsons — a man far more consumed by the brewing process and preserving a family legacy that goes back centuries than by basking in the limelight.

But there ain’t no sugar here.

Eric’s laid-back nature may well have led others, both within and outside the Molson family, to believe they could wrest control of the company from him. They were to learn otherwise.

Then there’s the hockey part of the operation. Various members of the Molson family as well as the brewery have owned the Montréal Canadiens a handful of times over the years. Geoff Molson, son of Eric, is now the team boss.

Yet while the Habs saw many of its glory days and parades during Eric’s involvement, he was under no illusions about what the team brought to the Molson bottom line. In going over the company’s 1994 year-end results, he noted that while brewing brought 29 per cent of sales and 54 per cent of total profits, hockey begat but 3 per cent of sales and 4 per cent of profits.

“You must have been happy when the boys (Geoff and brothers Justin and Andrew, the latter the author’s husband) came to you with the idea to buy back the team in 2009,” Antoniou asks Eric in the book.

“No way,” Eric shoots back. “I was very negative. I tried to tell (them) to forget it … It’s a bad investment … But they can be very persuasive. It turned out all right, I think, and Geoff is doing a good job building it into a bigger entertainment business. But there are a lot of factors you don’t control when you own a hockey team. Think about it: a bunch of millionaires running around on a sheet of ice! I wouldn’t have done it. Besides, we’d already been through it twice before.”

On that latter note, Antoniou reports on the acrimony that resulted when one branch of the Molson family sold the team to another, who in turn sold it to a branch of the Bronfman family.

There may have been little blood shed in these Molson family squabbles, but the level of nastiness could rival that of the rivalry between the Bruins and the Habs at its most intense.

This is Antoniou’s first book. A lawyer and executive coach, she hadn’t initially set out to put together a tell-all about the Molsons. She and Andrew wanted to “re-engage” Eric after he had retired from Molson Coors (the current corporate entity) in 2010 and after he had undergone a major back operation.

Though notoriously shy, Eric agreed only on condition that the book would be a “warts and all” account and that it would be published simultaneously in English and French. And so the book has fulfilled both conditions.

“I was surprised how he just sat down and how totally open he was … This is a man who doesn’t do a lot of talking about himself and a man who actually prided himself as being ‘boring and unremarkable,’ as others have described him. But he just said: ‘Go for it,’ and he called our talks ‘sessions’,” Antoniou said prior to the book’s launch on Wednesday evening at the Sun Life headquarters of Andrew Molson’s National Public Relations.molson_clan.jpg?w=640&quality=55&strip=a

At the launch of Back to Beer … and Hockey: The Story of Eric Molson, from left: son Geoff Molson, Claire Molson next to husband Eric Molson, author and daughter-in-law Helen Antoniou, her husband Andrew Molson, third son Justin Molson and wife Julia Molson.

(Ironically, the launch, which attracted a who’s who of corporate and political players as well as Eric’s immediate family, came on the day Molson Coors had its worst trading day since 2005 — largely due to weakness on the U.S. end of operations.)

Antoniou’s exhaustive research — in which she unearthed some startling documents — and writing process took five years, all the while she continued with her day job and took a brief time off for the birth of her third daughter.

“I never considered myself a writer and I didn’t start this with the idea of getting a book published. It was really about trying to help Eric come back from a very serious operation and start talking. We were really worried about him at the time.”

Though her husband and her brothers-in-law Geoff and Justin are clearly gung-ho on hockey, Antoniou has a confession to make: “I’m the worst person to talk about hockey. When I was growing up, we had one TV in the house, and on Saturday nights, my brother and I used to fight. I wanted to watch Different Strokes, The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, and my brother wanted to watch hockey … Of course, I always lost.

“But obviously I’m aware that the Canadiens went through a terrible year, yet the brothers remain optimistic and I trust the team will come back.”

Antoniou paints a picture of Eric as a man most in his element and most content when he served as company brewmaster. He would ruminate about the grain, water and hops ingredients, but comment that yeast, while not an ingredient, is the real activator: “It goes in, does its thing, and goes out. It doesn’t stay in the beer. It makes the beer.”

Which, Antoniou feels, pretty much sums up Eric’s view of his initial role at work. “It was never about the glory,” she says. “It was always about the beer … He felt that this was his family duty.”  

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