Alumnus Feature: Ed McBrien

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As I fly over the eastern part of Colorado, I think of the conversation I had earlier this week with Ed McBrien, President of Sales and Distributor Operations at MillerCoors. Even though the joint venture is now headquartered in Chicago, I can’t help but wonder if I should order a Coors Light in celebration of this current trip.

“A big part of a university’s reputation is carried by our alumni base. Our grads prove themselves, and prove that Northwood develops outstanding business leaders,” says McBrien. He’s no exception to this rule. Starting off working summers in a grocery store, he was recruited by a local representative to work for Procter and Gamble after college.

The jump to Coors Brewing gave McBrien something he didn’t have before: opportunity for autonomy.  He was fully responsible for profit and loss statements for a nine state Midwest region running from Ohio up to Minnesota. This sort of leverage, the ability to make local spending decisions, was new to him. While working at P&G, many marketing and selling decisions were made centrally at their headquarters in Cincinnati.  At Coors, “It was as close to running your own business as you could be, without putting in your own capital. I wanted to put my own stamp on the business.”

He already had a grasp on selling consumable goods, but there were a couple of nuances that came with the territory. “On the one hand, marketing and selling beer is like selling any consumable product. You have to have really good core ideas for the brand. […] What was different is that the beer business is sold through distributors. They have exclusive areas, which they control. You have to win the hearts and minds of distributors before you can even get to retailers and consumers.”

Once those relationships were developed, he could really discover and manage local opportunities. “My team was in charge of pricing strategy. We also developed all of the local marketing schemes. […] It was a lot more entrepreneurial.” Many of these things first came about during his time at Northwood.

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Originally recruited as a football player, McBrien wasn’t quite ready to walk on as a freshman. In his own words, “I was too slow. [laughs] The first couple years, I really spent a lot of time focusing on my academics. As a freshman, I spent a lot of time in the library. I wanted to make sure I had my academics under control. In the middle of my sophomore year though, I was ready to play.” As a member of Phi Sigma Beta, he remembers their advisor Dr. Robert Serum and enjoying his time on campus. He lived there all four years, ultimately leaving as the valedictorian of his class.

I question him on working in the beer industry. I, for one, am a little envious of his career, as I’m sure many are. McBrien speaks about working in the industry, and specifically of those graduates at MillerCoors: “I love the business. I love the beer industry. The idea of being able to run a big business held a lot of interest for me. I’ve been very blessed in my career. Because we are a relatively young company, we were put together as a joint venture about six years ago, we are literally writing the history of this young company. And because of that, I also get the chance to set direction for the whole industry. […] I’m delighted that we have Northwood grads that work here at MillerCoors. The people we have here are working at a very high level. It’s really a source of pride. […] We’re [as Northwood graduates] competing toe to toe with a lot of great schools, and it’s great to see so many alumni stepping up.”

Wanting to know more about what exactly it would take to get involved, I pressed McBrien about what current students and alumni alike can do to secure a position at MillerCoors:

“The first thing they should do is distinguish themselves on campus. They ought to get good grades. They should be involved on campus, and have demonstrated leadership. After that, it’s figuring out the discipline you’re interested in; knocking on doors and making those connections.

It’s pretty easy to get a hold of us. It’s mostly about setting yourself apart. It’s the idea that performance matters. The world really is a meritocracy. And these are all important lessons I learned at Northwood. Those are messages you can take with you.”

In the end though, Ed McBrien is still genuinely concerned about the future of our nation and our world. As a Board of Trustee member, he continues to help shape the role that Northwood will play. “I think the Northwood Idea is more important today than ever before. It’s this idea of having a university dedicated to creating future leaders, and providing them with experience and education they need so they can make a difference in their communities, to free enterprise, and to capitalism. I’m deeply proud of having graduated from Northwood. I feel so fortunate. All of my experiences, they have served me well.”

As alumni, it’s important that we continue to help guide and shape the future of our alma mater. Our commitment ensures that whatever future problems might plague our world, our fellow graduates will be there to step up. 

In the meantime though, feel free to crack open a cold one.

- Christopher Deming