Sue Albion, chief legal officer at Molson Coors Europe

Sue, can you summarise your role at Molson Coors?
I head up the legal function for Molson Coors Europe. I report to the global chief legal officer and also the CEO of Molson Coors Europe so I have both legal and commercial reporting lines. As both a business leader and a lawyer, a big part of my role is to find ways to unlock the potential of our brands. This starts with recruiting and retaining great people who can bring their expertise to all corners of the business. Given the diversity of functions which exist in our business (supply chain, procurement, brands marketing, technical services, sales etc), one day I could be dealing with the complexities of a merger or acquisition, while the next I could be reviewing our long range plans and strategy. I guess you could say my job is as diverse as the beer brands we brew!

Can you give readers of The Brief a quick overview of the organisation?
Molson Coors is a global enterprise which brews and sells world famous beer brands that delight the world’s beer drinkers. With 14,000 employees and sales of billions of pints per year, it is an exciting, diverse and fast paced business. Our brands include Staropramen, Coors Light, Carling, Blue Moon, Cobra and Doombar.

How big is the in-house legal team and what jurisdictions do you cover?
Our European team comprises c 40 lawyers, covering UK & Ireland, Czech Republic, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Bosnia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, and Bulgaria. In addition, we have legal teams at our Denver HQ, which also supports our international business unit, and also our Canadian business.

Molson Coors is a brand led business so what are the specific challenges you face?
At a macro level, the beer market continues to evolve at pace as social, political, economic and environment factors influence drinking habits. Increasingly, drinkers who in the past may have exclusively drunk beer are now consuming a broad repertoire of beverages that includes cider, wine, spirits and noticeably drinks such as coffee.

Lifestyle choices of where they drink have also radically evolved in a generation. Thousands of local pubs and clubs have closed across the UK; whilst at the same time, at home drinking has grown in popularity. One implication of this shift in market structure has been the move from kegged beers to bottled and canned products to ensure our brands remain agile.

For a brand like Carling – the UK’s No1 beer brand – the task is to remain relevant and exciting in an increasingly congested market. Keeping the interest of existing drinkers whilst also finding new ways to appropriately reconnect with others is another constant challenge. This relentless re-thinking of how the brand can meet changing tastes is illustrated by the recent introduction of the award winning Carling British Cider - the first time Carling had moved into a non-beer market.

To maintain market leadership requires a suite of tools, each with their own legal compliance challenges. We work closely with our marketing and innovation teams, who are continually working on new ideas to bring to market. We partner with them to ensure that new products are protected from an IP perspective, and are also compliant with the various regulations governing product manufacture, packaging, labelling and advertising.

New advertising, sponsorships, labelling and social media are some of the mechanisms which are essential for our brands. We have even worked with the brands team on giving the humble pint glass a full make-over with the introduction of ‘nucleation technology’ designed to deliver the perfect pint.

And finally, I think it is a source of pride that as a business we chose to be at the forefront of the responsibility agenda. Through the introduction of lower strength beers such as Carling Zest (2.8% ABV) and Carling Coolers (2%) we have led the way for a new category and proven that partnership working with the government and industry can be successful.

You work in a highly regulated industry so how does that drive your work?
There are obviously laws and codes of practice that are very specific to the manufacture and supply of alcohol, and we work closely with industry bodies and government in this regard. However, regulation does not mean that creativity should be stifled; quite the opposite. If I look at the innovations our business has delivered over recent years, we have introduced exciting new brews and packaging formats which have delighted both existing and new drinkers.

As mentioned, Carling Zest is a powerful illustration. Through working in partnership with the government and the health community in the UK, tax regulations were redefined to incentivise the industry to invest in an emerging lower strength beer category.

The reshaping of government policy, combined with the untapped drinker need to access ‘great tasting’ lower alcohol alternatives, has created a vibrant category symbolised by a steady stream of new entrants over the last two years. In this instance, a highly regulated industry created the opportunity which met all stakeholder needs.

Molson Coors is, of course, a global organisation with cross border opportunities and cultural challenges. How difficult is it to manage the firm’s legal requirement in different territories?
Having a common cultural framework - we call ‘Our Brew’ - provides a unifying blueprint for how we choose to do business. This guides how we work with each other, suppliers, our customers and drinkers and as a legal team it provides sound foundations from which we can operate.

As for the legal nuances of each territory, sure they exist, but it again comes down to great people and great attitudes. I have an excellent team of lawyers who are located in each of the countries where we have operations. Each country has a senior lawyer on its country leadership team, so we get great visibility of the issues facing each business and are able to influence effectively as we are part of the management team.

Because we have local lawyers on the ground, we are able to provide expertise in both the formal legal systems but also local custom and practice. Our lawyers are all closely integrated with the business, so we really understand the challenges and opportunities facing our business and are able to provide pragmatic and commercial advice. Certainly when I look at my team across Europe, or further afield to my colleagues in Canada or the US, there is a willingness to collaborate and to find ways to enable our brands to succeed irrespective of territory. That, for me, is a marker of what makes us a special organisation.

How about from a team perspective?
It can prove quite challenging to build a sense of team across such a wide variety of geographies and cultures, but I think that we have a good balance in terms of ensuring that our lawyers feel part of both their local country businesses and the broader global legal team. Most of the lawyers are focussed primarily on issues arising in their own jurisdictions, although obviously we also have legal challenges and opportunities that span geographies. We have lawyers in the team who act as European leads on key legal areas that have European wide implications, such as competition law, data privacy, IP, anti-bribery and corruption, and marketing. They are working on ensuring that we share knowledge and drive consistency across both the European and our wider global legal team.

Each month, I have a call with the legal directors for each country where we share information about what’s happening at a group level and locally in countries. It’s also a good opportunity for people to bounce ideas off each other. We have a meeting planned for the whole European team in Budapest later this year, which will be a fantastic opportunity for everyone to spend time together working through some key topics, engage in some team building activities and enjoy great beer in a beautiful city!

Can you summarise how the company’s legal team adds value in one sentence?
Smart, well informed and passionate people focused on delivering the needs of the business in the right way; we combine legal excellence with commercial pragmatism to deliver competitive edge.

What’s next for Molson Coors?
As laid out in our company ambition, our sights are set on becoming a top four global brewer. To achieve this will require us to excel in both our existing markets AND to pursue appropriate mergers and acquisitions. Our joint venture to create MillerCoors in the US; the purchase of StarBev in Europe and the trading deal we recently announced in Australia all underline the breadth of opportunities we are prepared to consider.

With great brands, a strong innovation pipeline, underpinned by capable and passionate people, I have unwavering belief that we can build a flourishing beer business for future generations to enjoy.

Finally, what’s been your career highlight since starting at Molson Coors?
Being appointed to my current role, discovering what a fantastic team I had inherited and experiencing the delight of sampling our wonderful portfolio of beers in beautiful cities across Europe.