GOLDEN, Colo. — The delegation from Adolph Coors Co. did not get the Empire State's warmest welcome when it arrived in Albany, N.Y., last March to publicize the brewery's expansion into the New York market.
As the group trotted up the state Capitol steps, they were met by an angry group of union members who unfurled anti-Coors banners and chanted, "One, two, three, four, we don't want no Coors no more." When a Coors wholesaler lunged for a union banner, a scuffle broke out.
The incident was another reminder of the antagonisms that have lingered like a poisonous cloud over the Colorado brewery since a bitter strike brought on a union boycott 10 years ago. The company, run by one of the nation's richest and best-known conservative clans, has been denounced by unions, feminists, minorities and gay rights activists in protests that seemed to occasionally quiet down but never cease.
Somehow, Coors has managed to antagonize even the barley farmers of North Dakota and the National Education Assn.
But now Coors is trying to change all that. Last month the company settled the AFL-CIO boycott, taking the most dramatic step so far to improve an image that has been a dangerous competitive liability.
Led by a new generation of Coors family members, the company has also pumped millions into charitable and educational enterprises, and has signed agreements with black and Hispanic groups pledging that Coors will invest heavily in those communities.
"The boycott stirred up negative feelings for a long time, and the job now is to wipe them away," said Peter H. Coors, president of the brewery division. "Who wants to drink a beer when the guy on next bar stool might say, 'The people who make that beer are anti-union, or anti-this or that'?"
Overhauling Coors' image is a task such as few companies have faced, marketing specialists say. While many businesses contend with public dissatisfaction, rarely is a company the target of prolonged assaults by national groups as Coors has been.
Complicating the job is that Coors family members--plain-spoken, willful Westerners who often disagree with each other--plan to keep taking stands on political issues. "Will we keep quiet? Don't bet on it," declares William K. Coors, 71, who is chairman and chief executive of the company. "Taking part in politics is a duty."
Settlement of the boycott hasn't altered the family's passionate belief that Coors doesn't need a union. Nor has it washed away bitter feelings that the family, as William Coors puts it, "has been the target of a real political persecution."
In politics, it is Vice Chairman Joseph Coors, 70, who is best known. He is a member of Ronald Reagan's "kitchen cabinet" of advisers, a renowned bankroller of conservative causes and a man mentioned in 1984 as a possible successor to then-presidential counselor Edwin Meese.
This summer, Joseph Coors appeared before the congressional committee investigating the Iran- contra affair to explain a donation that he made to Lt. Col. Oliver L. North for the purchase of a military airplane for the Nicaraguan rebels.
William Coors has also been active in politics. And while Joseph Coors' sons, Peter, 41, and Jeffrey, 42, say that they are less likely to embroil themselves in controversy, they, too, speak up for conservative causes.
Coors' efforts to burnish its corporate image come at a critical time for the company, which is the fifth-ranked brewer in the country and last year reported revenues of $1.3 billion. The company's light brew enjoyed an almost cult-like status among young Americans in the early 1970s, but more recently Coors has struggled to hold market share in the face of flat industry sales and fierce competition from much-larger Anheuser-Busch and Miller.
If the company doesn't gain ground on its rivals, it may fade from contention, Coors marketing officials say. "Our future, if we have a future, will be decided between now and 1990," says Robert Rechholtz, the company's executive vice president of marketing.
The Coors family has been known for light beer and strong opinions since great-grandfather Adolph, a stowaway immigrant from East Prussia, built a brewery in 1873 between towering mesas in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
Today, the brewery dwarfs the surrounding town of Golden, which has a population of 15,500 and lies 20 miles west of Denver. With vast concrete walls and steaming cooling towers, the Coors brewery might be mistaken for a nuclear power plant.
Family members control 80% of Coors stock, giving them a collective wealth of over $600 million, Forbes magazine estimated. Rawboned, with prominent jaws, the four Coors senior executives share a resemblance as well as a name.
Coors' problems and the boycott date from 1977, when the Brewery Workers International went on strike. When employees voted to decertify the union a year later, the Brewery Workers protested that the votes of recently hired scabs had tipped the balance.