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A family business, since 1786

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By Adam Freill

One of the biggest challenges that faces a family business is the passing of ownership and management from one generation to the next. Some companies are able to navigate to a second generation, far fewer to a third, but Canada’s second oldest company has been a family-owned enterprise since 1786.

Andrew Molson, a seventh generation Molson who is successfully carrying on the family’s brand, attributes his family’s successful successions to the passing along of not only the ownership of the enterprise, but also key principles and values that influence the management and presence of the company in its community.

”Ownership principles are passed on from generation to generation; not necessarily management principles,” he explained during a recent interview. ”From generation to generation, certain principles and values have been passed on with respect to the way that our family has decided to be an owner of whatever enterprise we are involved in.”

One such value, that of service to one’s community, can readily be seen throughout the country, and especially in Montreal, where the company started.

”I think it goes back to the founder of the business, who came to Canada at the age of 18 and started up a beer business,” said Molson. ”He understood, when he was building a beer business, how important his community was going to be to his business, and how important his business was for the community.”

That relationship between community and business continues to this day, and continues to grow through such organizations as the Deschênes|Molson|Lesage Family Business Centre that operates at HEC Montreal. The centre offers courses and advice for family businesses, helping with succession planning and other management concerns.

Ownership VS. Management



As a company gets transferred from one generation to the next, the structure has an opportunity to evolve to match the skills, abilities and desires of the incoming owner, and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it often holds the key to corporate growth.

”There is a difference between ownership and management. That’s the interesting part to me,” explained Molson, who holds a masters degree in corporate governance and ethics.

Some companies may choose to have the family own and manage the business. Others, he says, will aim to find trusted managers to work with the owner as the business continues to grow. Both are viable routes, but the choice of structure will depend on how the owner envisions their involvement in the company.

It’s all about The Cup



In addition to the beer business, the Molsons are synonymous with hockey in Montreal, so it should come as no secret that Andrew cherishes his memories of the Montreal Canadiens’ most recent Stanley Cup.
”One of the happiest moments of my life was to be at the game when we won the Stanley Cup in 1993,” he exclaimed. ”I was there. It was fantastic.”

Did you know?

In addition to being Canada’s second-oldest company, the Molson Brewery is the oldest brewery in North America, getting its start in 1786.

No pressure, but a good fit



Andrew wasn’t targeting the beer business as he embarked on a path into the business world, even though he did spend a summer working on a Molson delivery truck in his younger days. A lawyer and communications professional, he says that there was no family pressure put on him when he graduated from school.

”The last thing that you want when you plan your succession is to have a son or daughter who feels forced to go into the family business,” he said.

”To have a family business progress from generation to generation is an opportunity, but if it is perceived as a limitation in career choices for the next generation, then they shouldn’t go into that opportunity.”

He appreciates how his parents allowed he and his brothers to plot out their own futures. ”My parents were very much into education,” he stated. ”There really was no intention, on my part, to be in the beer business, per se. I went and found different kinds of jobs.

”As I went along, I discovered during my professional career as a lawyer, and then in communications and studying corporate governance, that I could play a role with respect to the family business, but more at the board level and less at the beer-sales level.”

It helps to laugh



When guiding a company, it is inevitable that, at some point, not everyone will share the same opinions at the board or management level. For a family firm, this can present a challenge that non-related executives don’t have to navigate: keeping office discussions out of family dinners and events.

The ability to separate business and family life can be a tough tightrope walk for some, but the Molsons have a few strategies that help.

”One very important feature in our family when it comes to business and family, and when it appears to be mixing into different situations, is a very good sense of humour,” says Molson. ”A self-deprecating sense of humour and an ability to laugh at oneself.” A focus on humility and modesty also helps.

”The ability to manage your ego; to manage your emotions in different situations; this is extremely important when you are in complex family relationships where business and family are intermingled.”

Finding different perspectives



Managing a company is not an easy task, and sometimes owners or managers can be too close to the action to be able to get a full picture when long- and mid-range planning is required, and that’s where having a board of advisors or directors can help, says Molson.

”I think it is really great for a management team to have a board of advisors or directors who can hover around the enterprise to help management make some of the tough decisions that they have to make,” he says. ”Strong management that’s focused on the day-to-day, but that has a board of trusted advisors around thinking about the enterprise for the long term, that’s a winning formula.” And those advisors don’t have to be from the same generation as the owners.

”Sometimes it is good to have advisors that are a little bit older than the next generation, and possibly a little bit younger than the older generation,” says Molson. ”Sort of a mediator between generations, but not a family member.”