Competition Sutra #6: The Coors went national

This is the sixth part ‘in Competition Sutra’ series. This series is an attempt to distill the core learnings of Bruce Greenwald’s seminal book “Competition Demystified”. We explored in previous posts what does growth do to incumbents. But we never did explore the effect of lack of growth on competitors who are trying to enter the market. This post aims to correct that.

It doesnt take much for Brendon Elliott Mills to stay amused. This is 1998 and his sharp mind, keen eyes and deep intellect has enough of the feed to keep him amused. For another lifetime. For the 67 year old Mills, amusements comes in three flavours- funny, damn funny and business hubris.

And why not, Mills have seen such an act of hubris from very close quarters. And he has been involved in it far more than he would like to admit. But Mills, today admits being struck with the fine predictions of untold riches due to a shiny new thing called internet. The Coors can of beer resting by his side, he glances through the business newspaper scanning the important news of the day. It took a lot for some people to spot others mistakes. For Mills, it comes easy.

Some one once asked him what interested him so much about failure and he couldn’t properly answer her. At 67 years, he understood himself better. He looked at the Coors can resting on the sofa side and his thoughts went 30 years back.

To his time in the company which didn’t have to pay a single penny to two greatest icons of his time to promote its products.

Because Paul E. Newman and Henry Kissinger drank Coors beer.

At the turn of the decade of 1970s, Coors had everything going in its favor. It produced a unique unpasteurized form of beer. Its devotees claimed it to have a certain “draft-like” taste of beer. Coors went one step further and touted the gifts of “Rocky Mountain” spring water with which it manufactured the beer. As a mid manager in Marketing division of Coors, Mills was aware of the strengths of the brand. However his sharp eye didn’t prevent him from seeing the differences between Coors and its bigger competitors like Anheuser- Busch.

Integration: The Coors way

For one, Coors was integrated vertically to a staggering degree. It produced its own strain of barley, mined its own coal and aluminum for the energy and cans respectively. It even owned the land from which the Rocky Mountain spring water came up from. It owned one big brewery in Colorado of the size of 7mn barrels in 1970. For the 37 year old Mills, it was a source of strength, for the 67 year old he has its doubts.

“Coors was a regional player till 1975. It produced and was consumed in 11 Midwestern states only. This lack of volume prevented the scale of economies kicking in for its various feeder businesses. That implied a higher cost and a higher management bandwidth to maintain it.”

These problems, Mills recounts, the management was aware of . But they drew the wrong lessons from it. He remembers “Old Jeremy”- Jeremy Wilkins, Head of Marketing and mentor of Mills , to have fought tooth and nail against the lesson which the management took from this.

At that time, Wilkins was seen as a dinosaur, a remnant of the past.

10 years later Wilkins was vindicated. But that didn’t matter- he died in 1980 and Coors started having trouble shortly thereafter.

“Old Jeremy correctly saw what the problems were and what its solution was. When you see the problem as lack of scale you will infer that the solution was building scale. And the management bought into it. Jeremy understood that things were not as easy. If you tried to build in a scale, that would imply expanding into untapped markets and territories. That strategy puts the company fortunes in terrible jeopardy. Expansion and growth is never free. And expanding into unknown territory with other competitors firmly entrenched can prove to be very costly. And indeed it was. Old Jeremy saw it.” remembers Mills.

It was not that Coors management are to be solely blamed for its harakiri. In 1975, Federal Trade Commission mandated Coors to go national. It was just the excuse that management needed. They expanded with gusto and shipped with passion. Till 1975, a single can of Coors earned almost twice an AB can did. At 11%+ net profit margin on a $520mn sales, Adolf Coors and Co. eked out more than AB did out of every single dollar of sales- $85mn profit on a sales of $1.65bn.

The Cost of Growth

” Coors when it expanded into new markets, had to buy its way in. We had to forge new relationships and new wholesellers. Often the stores with whom we signed the contracts were fringe players themselves. The larger ones were all taken and locked out by the heavyweights. That’s one. Coors flagship product was High Life brand of beers- which were unpasteurized. This implied tight cold chains, fanatical inventory management and the entire works. And that’s two. In business its hard enough to survive with three strikes. In beer business, two is all what it takes. Somewhere in late 1980s, we realized we have lost the plot.”

By 1985, Coors sold in 44 states across US, completely negating its local advantages of scale. On top of it, Coors ran a remarkably integrated ship. Its hub and spoke model of beer distribution centered around Colorado also increased the transportation costs. The story of Coors cuts across two big developments- beer is seldom seen as an aspiration product and expansion in a commodity business is fraught with immense risks. But what about the endorsements by Newman and Kissinger?

Priceless Mystique

The mystique of Coors didn’t translate quite well into profits.

In 1977, Coors collected $41.50 per barrel whereas AB without all the mystique collected $46.The trend continued till 1985 as well.

That mystique is no mystique when it is sold for free.

With the absence of such differentiation, Coors beer reduces to just another beer and thus a fiercely fought commodity war ensued. On top of it, while AB expanded its production capacity aggressively it was able to pick up the economics of scale quicker. In 1977, Coors production costs per barrel was $29 compared with $36.60 of AB. In 1985, it was $49.50 for Coors compared to $51.80 for AB.

 

But what changed between 1970 to 1985 that made Coors turn into an also ran? Mills takes a long gulp of the beer and recalls:

“Coors before 1975, was a regional powerhouse. We had 8% of our market share in our pocket by merely focussing on three Pacific Coast regions. Two out of these three, Coors was the dominant force. And in the other we ranked equally with AB. Post expansion, we still had 8% market share but we trailed AB in every state.

For Coors, expansion meant dispersion and dispersion meant costs. When Coors went national, it sacrificed its local home advantages and chose to compete on a level playing field with AB. For the national beer market, AB was the incumbent and Coors was the player outside looking in. AB was saved by the lack of growth in the beer market. It grew by only 3% annually in that period. And for Coors this lack of growth implied that scale advantages couldn’t be achieved fast.

The result? Coors operating income margins fell from once mighty 20% to a mere 9%. AB expanded to 15%. The difference is more stark in the details.

While AB spent 3 times as much as Coors for advertising, but $4 less per barrel.

Coors had this equation inverted, when it stayed limited to a region. Advertising costs are fixed on a regional basis. So AB coming in and trying to wrest away markets purely on an advertising spree will not be on a terrific advantage (just because of its deeper pockets).

Mills remembers somewhat wistfully- “If you take a look at the numbers of AB and Coors from 1970 to 1990 and hide the years you can perfectly imagine it as a zero sum game. Coor lost and AB won. Almost to the exact decimal point.”

Its inevitable that Mills doesn’t feel some chafing at the great fall. He saw the giants make mistakes and saw its demise from a very close angle. He quotes von Clausewitz these days to make sense of it all.

 

“Perhaps, Coors should have read ‘Vom Krieg’ , Clausewitz said- concentrate your best forces on your central line. Coors should not have expanded into unchartered territories. And when pressurised by FTC, should have done it only sparingly, trying to meet the bare minimum requirements. Perhaps we could have charged heavily for each can so that real demand stays low. Its counterintuitive, who kills a demand after all, but perhaps necessary”- offers Mills if somewhat presciently.

There is no guarantee that the “think local” strategy would have worked. But there is a fair chance that it would have made lives of AB executives a little bit more tougher. Beer drinkers are remarkably fickle. Footloose customers often signify lack of differentiation. So what remains is in essence branding and promotion to take care of it all.

As the markets make new highs, one is tempted to ask what he thinks about the new dot coms.

“Make no mistake”, Mills says – “Internet has made everyone an outsider looking in. There are no incumbents here. It is just the opposite of the beer industry. We are seeing a spectacular growth and everyone is competing. Growing a scale advantage or any other advantage is easier said than done here.”

“At the end, every site is a toaster. Zero differentiation.”

 

The post is a fictionalised version of the brilliant chapter in Competition Demystified. The characters are imaginary.

 

Edit: Discovered there were bucketful of grammatical errors. Fixed them all.

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