10 years later it’s still MillerCoors time in Milwaukee

Cover Story

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:22 pm

It is hard to go anywhere in Milwaukee and not be reminded of the presence of Miller beer. Look to the south while driving on I-94 and there’s Miller Park, look to the north and the Miller brewery stretches out of the Miller Valley. The neon lights in bar windows are more likely to be Miller Lite than Bud Light. The reminders are much more prevalent than the other beers in Milwaukee’s history. Sure, you can still find the names Schlitz and Pabst around town, but not like Miller.

It wasn’t that long ago it seemed Miller might go away, the same as the other brewing giants. Given the way corporate transactions often go, Milwaukee-area residents might have been excused if they were worried in 2007 when SABMiller plc and Molson Coors Brewing Co. announced they would combine their U.S. operations in a joint venture called MillerCoors LLC. Executives said the new company would keep a major presence in Milwaukee and Denver, but it would be hard not to worry when Chicago was picked as the headquarters over the two hometowns.

“There certainly was trepidation because you didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. “I think people thought, rightfully, there might be a pullback.”

A decade after the formation of the MillerCoors joint venture, however, the Milwaukee Brewers still play in Miller Park, bands still rock the Miller Lite Oasis at Summerfest, the Bucks recently announced their new arena will have a Miller-themed bar, the Milwaukee Theatre now carries the Miller High Life name and millions of barrels of beer are still brewed every year in the Miller Valley.

“As most corporate mergers go, the impact from MillerCoors here has exceeded our expectation,” said Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

If anything, MillerCoors, which has about 1,400 employees in the city, has been stepping up its commitment to Milwaukee, investing $165 million into the Miller Valley brewery over the past five years, adding a Molson Coors business center and building a $50 million expansion at the 10th Street craft brewery.

Tami Garrison, community affairs manager at MillerCoors, acknowledged some outside of the company saw the joint venture as a reason for hesitation, but to her there was excitement about the potential of the deal. She said the creation of her position, which focuses on the company’s relationship to the community, helped send a message about MillerCoors in Milwaukee.

“I think that went a long ways to reinforcing what that commitment to Milwaukee was, and that commitment has not changed in that time period,” she said.

The joint venture has also created new opportunities. Before the formation of MillerCoors, Miller did not do internal United Way campaigns. When now-retired executive Tom Cardella co-chaired the United Way of Greater Milwaukee campaign in 2011, the company and its employees raised $700,000. Last year, MillerCoors raised $1.3 million for the United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County, one of just 12 companies in the area to top $1 million, and doing so for its third straight year.

The Miller Valley brewery.
Credit: Jon Elliott of MKE Drones LLC

“It’s been inspiring,” Garrison said of watching the company’s commitment to the organization grow.

Nicole Angresano, vice president of community impact at United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County, said even though Miller’s United Way involvement wasn’t what it is today “there was massive concern” about the community impact when the joint venture was announced.

As MillerCoors’ relationship with the Milwaukee United Way has grown, the nonprofit has reached out to its counterparts in Chicago and Denver to make sure all three organizations are meeting the company’s priorities in each city. Mimi Laflin, United Way GMWC senior account manager, added that MillerCoors executives like chief executive officer Gavin Hattersley and chief legal and corporate services officer Kelly Grebe have made sure the company remains involved.

“They have really helped set the tone that United Way is a priority for them,” Laflin said.

MillerCoors was also one of five anchor institutions involved in the founding of Near West Side Partners, a group dedicated to improving and attracting economic development to that part of the city. Keith Stanley, executive director of NWSP, said the company has been “offering an endless commitment to our community.

“This global brand remains a leader in our local revitalization efforts,” he said.

Changing taste, declining volume

But the past few years have not been all about an upward trend. MillerCoors – which was fully acquired by Molson Coors Brewing Co. in 2016 – has seen its overall volumes decline by 13 million barrels since 2008 as consumer tastes shift toward craft beer, wine and spirits. In 2012, beer made up 53 percent of the U.S. alcoholic beverage market. In 2016, beer was down to a 51 percent share and Molson Coors said in its annual securities filing it expects the trend to continue in 2017 data.

Within the beer market, Molson Coors has seen a steady drop in U.S. market share from 28 percent in 2013 to 25 percent in 2017. Meanwhile, Anheuser-Busch InBev has seen its U.S. share fall from 47 to 43 percent over the same period.

The simultaneous declines have resulted in Miller Lite passing Budweiser to become the No. 3 beer brand, with Coors Light No. 2 and Bud Light on top.

Garrison said it is “no secret” volumes have been trending down, but she added MillerCoors’ employees take a lot of pride in what they produce and there’s a belief internally that the company can turn the tide.

“None of us want to see the trends continue to decline,” she said.

When the MillerCoors joint venture was created, the idea was that SABMiller and Molson Coors could combine their resources in the U.S. to be more competitive against Anheuser-Busch, which grew even larger when it agreed to be acquired by Belgian brewing giant InBev just after the MillerCoors joint venture started.

The plan for the combination of Miller and Coors was to create a company with a stronger brand portfolio, able to optimize production, eliminate duplication of corporate and marketing services, and get beer to market more efficiently.

“This deal will create a stronger U.S. brewer with the scale, operational efficiency and distribution platform to compete more effectively in the U.S. against large scale brewers, both domestic and global, craft brewers, and wine and spirits producers,” a 2007 securities filing said of the MillerCoors deal.

Executives said the two brewers had complementary operations and that all six major Miller breweries, and the two major Coors breweries, were needed to make the deal work. But executives also said they could find $500 million in annual cost savings through the deal, with 46 percent coming from the U.S. supply chain, 39 percent from marketing and overhead expenses and 15 percent coming from brewing and packaging.

By many measures, the joint venture has made MillerCoors more efficient. Net sales revenue – after generally trending upward during the first six years of the joint venture – has been down the past three years as volumes continued to fall. But taking the volume decline into account, per-barrel net sales revenue is up 23 percent since the start of the joint venture.

Take the cost of goods sold into account, too, and the positive trend continues, with gross profit margins improving from 38.2 percent in 2008 to 42.3 percent last year. The improvement equates to about $14.75 more in gross profit per barrel, or about 4.5 cents more per 12-ounce beer.

Those improvements have come while the company has generally decreased spending on marketing, general and administrative costs from $2.08 billion at the start of the joint venture to $1.78 billion last year. As a percentage of net sales, those costs declined from nearly 28 percent in 2008 to a low of 22.3 percent in 2014. Costs were up in 2015, but they’ve trended back down to 23.7 percent of net sales in 2017.

Flat in ’18, growth in ’19?

Reducing costs and being more efficient is great, but at some point revenues and volumes need to grow. MillerCoors CEO Gavin Hattersley has laid out a plan to do that, aiming to be flat in 2018 and return to growth in 2019.

To get to those goals, the company is trying to address offerings throughout its portfolio, from economy beers to premium, to above premium and craft offerings. The idea is to stabilize economy brands like Miller High Life, Keystone Light and Hamm’s, continue share growth made by premium beers like Coors Light and Miller Lite, and accelerate growth for above premium brands like Blue Moon and Leinenkugel’s.

Reaching those goals requires a mix of pricing strategy, marketing investments and the introduction of new products. MillerCoors added Mexican import beer Sol last year through an agreement with Heineken N.V. to help round out its portfolio. It also introduced Arnold Palmer Spiked Half & Half, a hard iced tea/lemonade mix, to its above premium lineup and Two Hats, a light beer with subtle fruit flavors, as an entry point for new legal-age drinkers.

The company plans to invest more into Blue Moon and Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy – which had its best year in brand history in 2017. Those investments would include a 24-ounce can and a 15-pack of Blue Moon. MillerCoors is also investing in its regional craft brands – Saint Archer Brewing Co., Terrapin Beer Co., Hop Valley Brewing Co. and Revolver Brewing LLC – by expanding them into new markets. The company acquired those brands in 2015 and 2016.

Mark Hunter, president and CEO of Molson Coors, told analysts stabilizing volume is a strategic imperative, but broader circumstances in the beer industry may make it more difficult to reach the company’s goals.

“We’re not chasing stabilization and growth at any cost, but growth in a measured and balanced way,” Hunter said during the company’s February earnings call.

In a Feb. 15 research note, analysts from Barclays said the company’s initiatives “may present reason for optimism this year,” pointing specifically to the potential of smaller brand efforts like Arnold Palmer Spiked and Sol.

“In fact, we think Arnold Palmer may be one key reason that management didn’t totally walk back from its seemingly very unlikely goal of achieving flat volume,” analysts wrote.

Barclays also highlighted a planned update to the packaging and marketing for Coors Light, refocusing on the theme “most refreshing.”

It wasn’t that long ago the Miller Lite brand was among the biggest challenges for MillerCoors, and while it continues to face headwinds, the company says the brand has gained market share for 13 straight quarters.

Garrison said returning Miller Lite to its original white can and original logo is what helped the beer address its struggles.

“People really responded to that,” she said, pointing to the brand passing Budweiser. “That, to us, was the endorsement.”

As the flagship beer of the Miller half of MillerCoors, Miller Lite remains the top product coming out of the Milwaukee brewery. And MillerCoors beer remains a major part of Wisconsin’s beer production, combining with Chippewa Falls-based subsidiary Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. to account for 75 percent of the taxable barrels produced in the state last year, according to the Wisconsin Department of Revenue.

MillerCoors produced 7.7 million taxable barrels and Leinenkugel added another 241,000 taxable barrels. MillerCoors’ volume in Wisconsin has also increased over the past three years, up 3.6 percent in 2016 and 1.3 percent in 2017.

More beer, more investment

The joint venture and acquisition by Molson Coors has also meant the introduction of other brands into the Milwaukee brewery. In 2016, for example, the company spent $30 million to be able to accommodate the production of Blue Moon, including installing a new spice house.

Other upgrades included equipment to handle yeasts for flavored malt beverages, along with new brewing, packing and bottling equipment.

This spring, the company plans to relocate the Gettelman farmhouse across West State Street as part of a project to improve the logistics of the truck yard.

The farmhouse dates back to the 1850s and was once the offices for A. Gettelman Brewing Co., which created the “Milwaukee’s Best” brand in 1895. Miller Brewing acquired the company in 1961 and the Gettelman plant closed in 1970.

Other former Gettelman buildings are used for employee beer sales and an employee fitness center. MillerCoors originally sought to demolish the farmhouse, but decided on relocation as a compromise with the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.

The company also brought forward a proposal to improve pedestrian and traffic safety along West State Street. The plan – which calls for going from four to two lanes and installing medians – was approved by the Milwaukee Common Council in October.

Closer to downtown, MillerCoors has also made an investment in its 10th Street brewery, which is one half of the inspiration for the name of the company’s Tenth and Blake craft beer division. Blake is a reference to the address of The Sandlot Brewery at Coors Field, where Blue Moon was developed.

For years, the 10th Street brewery has given the Leinenkugel’s brand prominent visibility along I-43, but the brewery only had capacity for 25,000 barrels per year. The $50 million expansion, expected to be completed in June, will increase capacity to 250,000 barrels.

The expansion project got another boost recently when MillerCoors announced it would close its Colfax, California cidery – which has 33 employees – and move production of Crispin Cider to Milwaukee. The 10th Street project was originally projected to create 65 new jobs, but the company expects that to grow with the addition of cider production.

Milwaukee was also a beneficiary in 2015 of additional volume coming to the Miller Valley, when the company decided to close its Eden, North Carolina brewery, citing declining volumes and a distribution overlap with its Elkton, Virginia brewery.

More recently, Milwaukee won out over Kentucky to be the site of a Molson Coors business center. The decision will keep 85 MillerCoors jobs in Milwaukee and add another 65 positions. Garrison said Milwaukee already has much of the needed infrastructure in place for the shared services center.

“From a business perspective, it makes sense, and from a community perspective, it makes sense,” she said.

Molson Coors will be making $600,000 in capital expenditures to establish the center in existing space and another $2.45 million on training. The center will provide support in finance, accounting, human resources and procurement for the company’s North American operations. Average wages range from $26.92 to $48.08 per hour and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. is offering up to $2.45 million in tax credits and grants to support the project.

Making Milwaukee home

Even though the decision to put the joint venture headquarters in Chicago meant the loss of some corporate jobs, Garrison said the company’s Milwaukee offices continue to have the same feel they did a decade ago.

“This city and this community mean something to us,” she said. “Milwaukee has been a tremendous place for our company to grow.”

Barrett says he is holding out hope the company might one day decide to return its headquarters to Milwaukee.

“If they wanted to make that small itsy bitsy move from Chicago back to Milwaukee, our arms are open,” he said.

Barrett and Sheehy both suggested the company has gone beyond what it might be expected to do given its presence in the market.

“They’ve been a model corporate citizen here,” Sheehy said. 

“I don’t think anybody here feels unloved by MillerCoors,” Barrett said.

Garrison pointed to MillerCoors’ First Choice Learning Center as something that brings people to Milwaukee for training, and added the company has remained committed to things like Holiday Lites in the Miller Valley, the UPAF Ride for the Arts and investing in the Milwaukee County parks.

“I think we’ve proven that this is our hometown,” she said. “It will always be our hometown.”

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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