Helen Antoniou felt some trepidation about her book project.
After all, the subject was her father-in-law, Eric Molson, who agreed to the idea provided she write it “warts and all.”
“I was very nervous and I remembered joking with a friend of mine … ‘I’m going to get fired from the family,’” recalls Antoniou, BCL’92, LLB’92, who is married to Molson’s son, Andrew.
Back to Beer … and Hockey: The Story of Eric Molson (McGill-Queen’s University Press) chronicles Eric Molson’s 50-year career in his family’s iconic Canadian beer business that dates back to 1786.
She also covers his early life growing up in Westmount, a time when his father Tom, and uncle Hartland, had leadership roles at Molson. An honours chemistry student at Princeton, Eric Molson went on to become a certified brewmaster and started working as an apprentice brewer for Molson in Vancouver. He became the company’s chairman in 1988.
Antoniou delves into his discomfort with the company’s diversification strategy and his conviction that it needed to “get back to beer”.
The compelling look at the company’s operations also includes a family feud – the rift between Molson and his cousin Ian, then deputy chairman – and the fraught period leading up to the 2005 shareholder vote on the merger with Coors.
The book, which appeared on Canadian bestsellers lists shortly after its publication, has attracted plenty of attention. La Presse columnist Nathalie Petrowski describes Back to Beer … and Hockey as a mixture of a “family saga and an economic thriller,” while the Montreal Gazette’s Bill Brownstein credits the book for being “staggeringly candid.”
Antoniou and her husband initially suggested Molson write a book about himself in a bid to get him engaged in a project as he recovered from a difficult back operation. When Molson nixed the idea, Antoniou, who was on maternity leave, decided to take it on.
She spent hours interviewing her shy, introverted father-in-law and found him more expansive than she expected in those sessions.
“In fact, it was really funny because at one point he started looking forward to them. He’s like ‘are we going to have our session?’”, Antoniou says.
“I was very lucky because I think he was very at ease and trusted me. So that’s a real privilege because he opened up.”
Antoniou interviewed more than 40 people, including former Molson executives and board members, who like Molson, speak with refreshing frankness in the book. She also read all the books on the Molson family, and combed through old newspaper articles and Eric Molson’s archives.
“I love research,” says Antoniou, who worked on the McGill Law Journal as a law student. She later went on to earn master’s degrees in international commercial arbitration at Université de Paris II, Assas, and in public health at Harvard.
“The discovery part is something that I really enjoy. And then eventually I had to write it because I’d interviewed so many people that people were like, ‘well, are you doing something with it?’”, Antoniou laughs. “I actually had to sit down and write it.”
Molson’s second precondition was that the book be published simultaneously in English and French. But he didn’t want to read it ahead of time. Antoniou says her husband was her “safeguard.”
“I figured if Andrew’s okay with it, [and] I’m okay with it, then it will be okay,” she says.
Antoniou acknowledges that there are times in the book where her father-in law “doesn’t come out as being the superhero.” He “has the courage to make tough decisions and act on them,” she writes in the book, “but perhaps not always as quickly as some would want.
”Molson’s principles are what make him unique and “a leader in his own quiet way,” writes Antoniou. He followed them, worked quietly in the background, “and took the brewery to a new level.”
When the company offered a special dividend to sweeten the proposed merger with Coors to make it more attractive to shareholders, Molson stood to earn tens of millions of dollars. However, he decided to forego that payout, not wanting people to misinterpret his motives for backing the deal, Antoniou says. He believed the merger was the right thing for the future of the company.
“There’s sacrifices that you have to make to stand up for your principles and he did it. I don’t know how many people would say no to that [money],” she says.
The leadership message – that “you don’t need to be the in-your-face, Double-A personality to be a good leader” – was important to Antoniou, who works as an executive coach for corporate leaders and family business owners.
“I’m delighted that people are reading [the book] … I think Eric’s message, the way he was, that you don’t have to be a bully or some kind of a Jack Welch to make it in business, I think that’s a great message,” she says.