William K. Coors, the former chairman of Adolph Coors Co. who took Coors beer to a national audience and revolutionized the beverage industry by pioneering the aluminum can, died Saturday at his home in Golden, Colo. He was 102.
The grandson of Adolph Coors Sr., a stowaway from Germany who founded his namesake brewery in Golden in 1873, William, known widely as “Bill,” served as chairman of Adolph Coors Co. from 1959 to 2000 and vice chairman until 2002.
The Princeton-educated chemical engineer started his career at the company in 1939. During his more than 65 years with the company, he contributed heavily to the company’s rise from a regional brewer, distributing in only a few western states, to one of the world’s largest breweries. Under his watch, Coors survived and prospered while hundreds of breweries went out of business. “The fact that we survived and even grew over the years when so many breweries went out of business was an accomplishment that all Coors employees can be proud of,” he would say.
“Our company stands on the shoulders of giants like Bill Coors. His dedication, hard work and ingenuity helped shape not only our company but the entire beer industry. We honor his memory by rededicating ourselves to continuing the work he loved so much — brewing the best-tasting, highest-quality beer to share with family and friends,” Mark Hunter, president and CEO of Molson Coors, said. “Perhaps the most remarkable achievement was his ability to steward the company through its greatest period of growth and expansion, while preserving a culture where people matter most.”
Molson Coors chairman Pete Coors, Bill Coors’ nephew, called his uncle “an extraordinarily kind and gentle man with enormous passion for our company, our beer and business. Bill considered everyone he met as either family in the broader sense or friend.”
Among Bill Coors’ most noteworthy achievements was pioneering the recyclable aluminum can, which took place in 1959 at the start of his tenure as chairman. The idea of an aluminum can captured Bill Coors’ interest for two primary reasons — aluminum cans could be recycled, and they didn’t have a welded seam, which made them easier to sterilize.
Despite facing significant resistance from companies unwilling to change, and even from the aluminum industry itself, he stuck with the idea, which revolutionized the entire beverage industry. Bill Coors often said of that time: “Would the aluminum can have ever arrived without me? Of course, its advent was inevitable. All I did was hurry it along.”
The release of the can led to one of the most successful recycling programs in the country — Cash for Cans, in which Coors offered a penny for each can’s return.
In addition to his groundbreaking work on the aluminum can and leading the company through a period of substantial growth, Bill Coors also championed quality. Barley was a particular focus. “Barley is to beer as grapes are to wine,” he would say. Bill and his brother Joe in 1949 purchased land in the San Luis Valley in Colorado to start an experimental barley farm, launching a quest to develop the finest brewing barley in the world. Bill Coors also forged close relationships with barley growers who supplied Coors Brewing. His passion for malt was memorialized in a variety of barley called Bill Coors 100, a name that celebrated his 100th birthday.
Bill Coors also was a pioneer in corporate wellness programs. Under his guidance, the company in 1981 started one of the first employee wellness centers in the country. The Bill Coors Wellness Center still exists today.
He remained active at the company through his retirement, serving as an official beer taste tester until his 100th birthday. Fellow tasters said Bill Coors was so talented he could tell at which brewery each beer was brewed.
William Kistler Coors was born Aug. 11, 1916, the second son of Adolph Coors Jr. and May Coors. He grew up in a bungalow tucked behind the Adolph Coors Brewery with his two brothers, Adolph III and Joseph, and his sister May. The brewery grounds became their playground, where they shot home movies, rowed a canoe along the creek and made model airplanes out of wood in the company machine shop.
Bill Coors attended primary school in Golden, Colo., and, at age 13, enrolled at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., where he joined crew, an activity he continued when he attended Princeton University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1938 and a graduate degree in 1939.
After graduation, he returned home to Golden to work for his father.
In 1941, he married Geraldine Jackson, together with whom he had four children: Missy, Margaret (Maggie), May and William (Billy) Kistler Jr. Missy and Billy preceded Bill Coors in death. A second marriage, with Phyliss Mahaffey in 1963, resulted in another son, Scott. Later in life, in 1995, Bill Coors married Rita Bass, who died in 2015.
Bill Coors’ first job was working for Coors Porcelain Company, which has evolved into today’s CoorsTek. In 1946, he transitioned to the Golden brewery, where he’d go on to cement his legend in beer history.
In the 1980s, Bill Coors began handing off the reins to his two nephews, Jeffrey Coors and Pete Coors, who were the sons of his brother Joseph Coors. Jeffrey took over as company president and Pete became president of the brewing division.
Bill Coors was a trustee of his family’s philanthropic foundation, which has given millions to environmental, educational and cultural causes. He retired in 2003 from the boards of the Adolph Coors Co. and Coors Brewing, but he remained a technical adviser until his death.
“Bill was our family’s patriarch in every sense of the word,” Pete Coors said. “We all leaned on him for advice and comfort even up to his last days. He never lost his sense of humor or his sense of seriousness, even up to the end. As a family we are turning the last page of the third generation of the family of Adolph Coors Sr. Our family opens a new chapter knowing that he leaves us with advice and encouragement to always do the right thing.”
Bill Coors is survived by two daughters, Margaret Coors Beresford and May Louise Coors; his son Scott; seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.