Undercover Boss savours success at Molson Coors

Is working for an iconic Canadian beer-maker really as great as it sounds? For Kelly Brown, chief legal officer at Molson Coors Canada, it’s a dream job.
“Canadians are proud of two things: hockey and beer,” she says. “When I came to Molson, I looked around and thought, ‘I can’t believe how smart and passionate these people are.’ I’d never seen anything like it. Obviously I’m partial to our brands — if I was working at a widget company, I probably wouldn’t feel as passionate.”

Not only does she work for a company that makes products people love — namely, beer — but Molson is also part of Canada’s heritage. It’s the oldest brewery in North America and the second-oldest company in Canada next to the Hudson’s Bay Co.

Last year Molson was contacted by the producers of reality TV show Undercover Boss Canada, who were reaching out to iconic Canadian companies about participating in the show (where a prominent executive from a major corporation goes incognito among employees to understand the effects of their decisions and perception of the company).

It turned out, however, that Molson’s chief executive officer Dave Perkins was too recognizable for the job. “One of the great things about Dave is he’s totally visible in the breweries — he’s tall and has silver hair and a distinctive voice,” says Brown. “The producers concluded it probably wouldn’t be possible to disguise him enough.”

Since the show was running on the W Network, someone from the management team thought it would be interesting to feature a woman on the show, and Brown’s name came up. “At first I didn’t want to do it,” she says. “I was nervous about being on TV — are you going to embarrass yourself and your company and your family? And I was thinking about it from a legal perspective. What if someone slipped and fell during the filming? What if we had a new product launching and they saw the product being produced in the background? I thought of all the things a lawyer would think of . . . all of the things that can go wrong.”

But the producers managed to convince her that the show was really about celebrating the unsung heroes in a company like Molson. The show involved following five employees — two in the Vancouver brewery, two in the Creemore brewery north of Toronto, and one in Moncton, N.B. — under the guise of making a documentary about beer making.

So Brown put on “a ton” of makeup, slicked back her hair into a ponytail, and donned a pair of glasses. “I was going to work in a brewery with bright red lipstick,” she laughed. To her surprise, she did run into people she had met previously — and they didn’t recognize her.

A new mother at the time, she travelled across the country working production lines and overnight shifts — testing the hops, checking to see if safety corners were being cut, and connecting with other women in what is still predominantly a male-dominated industry. Not only did she learn about brewing beer, she learned a few things management could do to make their working lives better.

Brown followed one employee who was the only woman working in her area of the brewery. “The cool thing was how she’s really risen above that challenge of being the only (woman) and become a bit of a leader within the group. Her dream is to one day be one of the first female brewery managers,” she says. “I know what it’s like to be the only woman in a room.”

Brown points out, however, that being a woman in the beer-making industry hasn’t been a deterrent to moving up in the management ranks. In 2009 she was called into the president’s office — at the time she was five months’ pregnant and coming up on maternity leave — and was asked if she’d like to become the new CLO. After six months of maternity leave, she returned to the company as part of the management team.

As a result of her experience on Undercover Boss Canada, Brown is now mentoring the female employee she followed on the show and has enrolled her in a leadership program (Brown mentors several people, both formally through leadership programs and informally because she says she’s interested in doing so).

“One of my philosophies is, show your people you care about them because then they’ll care about you and respect you and want to follow your vision,” she says. The legal profession itself is one of the few where mentorship is actually built into the process through articling.”

Growing up in Beaconsfield, Que., a suburb of Montreal, Brown was the third of four children. She didn’t grow up thinking she was going to become a lawyer — instead, she studied English literature at McGill University during the early ’90s, right around the time of the recession.“Everyone who graduated was working at McDonald’s,” she says, so on a lark she decided to write the LSAT and see if she could get into a law school the following September. She ended up doing well — well enough to get accepted into a few different schools — and decided she wanted to experience what it was like to live in a different part of the country.

She chose Dalhousie University in Halifax, known as a left-leaning school, because she “just liked the vibe,” and it was there she developed a love for law. “I love learning but didn’t know I was going to love law school,” she says. “I loved asking questions and engaging in debate — I realized in some ways knowledge is power and if you learn things you can help others who might not be able to advocate for themselves.”

Brown worked as a summer student at Torys LLP in Toronto and clerked for the Federal Court of Canada in Ottawa, where she met her husband. After moving back to Toronto, she was called to the bar and worked as an associate at Torys for four years. Then she reached a point in her career where she had to make a decision: become a partner at a law firm or take a different career path altogether.

“My training (at Torys) was amazing,” she says. “You work really hard . . . and there’s something good that comes from working that hard.” But she realized she wanted something different and, in what she calls serendipitous events, she got a call for a job at Molson.

When she went for the job interview, right away she felt at home and could picture herself working there. “Because I grew up in Montreal, the Molson name had a lot of meaning and resonance for me,” she says. “They asked me, ‘Why Molson?’ (I said) because Molson is a company that has a soul.”

Molson was one of the founding families of Montreal and over the decades has been involved in a number of philanthropic causes, from the arts to sports to infrastructure projects. In recent times, the company has made major contributions to the Montreal General Hospital, the Canadian Paraplegic Association, the Douglas Hospital Corporation, and the Boy Scouts of Canada.

“It’s more than a company and I was really attracted to that,” says Brown. She started her career path with Molson in 2000, becoming CLO in July 2009, and now oversees a legal team of 13 people. Her team is responsible for everything from reviewing advertisements, contests, and promotions to negotiating and drafting contracts, overseeing procurement deals to buy barley and hops, and doing M&A work (in the past five years Molson has bought Creemore Springs Brewery and Granville Island Brewing Co.).

“In a small legal group, you have the ability to be a generalist and do all sorts of law — environment, employment, corporate law, anything — and that makes it fun and challenging,” says Brown.

Maintaining work/life balance is still a challenge — especially now with her two-year-old daughter Kyla. “I only ended up having a child when I was 39,” she says. “I spent my 20s and 30s building my career. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to my personal life, yet always knew based on my personal beliefs the most important thing in your life is your family. I’m thrilled and so happy to be a mom . . . it’s a gift given to me later on in life.”

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