Tragedy and Inventory: Inside the Molson Coors Brewery Shutdown

The brewery is returning to normal operations this week after a pause to mourn the victims of the shooting and cope with the trauma.

Molson Coors’ sprawling and normally bustling 80-acre campus on Milwaukee’s West Side sat eerily and somberly quiet. Vast parking lots throughout the complex remained virtually empty. Truck traffic in and around the brewery ceased. And the popular brewery tour center went dark.

It takes a tragedy to shut down this hive of activity, and that’s what happened last Wednesday when a gunman fatally shot five co-workers before taking his own life inside one of the brewery’s many buildings.

The stillness began breaking this week when administrative offices reopened on Monday, and normal brewery operations are scheduled to start up again on Wednesday.

Plastic flowers and memorial cards are attached to a fence on the Molson Coors brewery Tuesday morning. The cards bear the names of the five victims of Wednesday’s shooting. Photo by Rich Rovito

So far, few obvious signs of the horror that unfolded at the brewery can be found, with the exception of simple plastic floral arrangements attached to a chain link fence at the south end of the brewery along with five cards with the names of each of the victims, the jobs they held at the brewery and a tally of their years of service.

Flags on the campus remained at half-staff on Tuesday morning under gray skies and with light snow falling as limited activity returned to the brewery. A few Milwaukee Police vehicles were stationed at spots around the facility.

Understandably, Molson Coors’ priority has been for the victims and their families and the emotional well-being of the 1,400 or so employees who work at the brewery and corporate offices.

The victims were identified as Jesus Valle Jr., 33; Gennady Levshetz, 61; Trevor Wetselaar, 33; Dana Walk, 57; and Dale Hudson, 60. The shooter, police have said, was Anthony Ferrill, a longtime employee of the brewery who worked as an electrician.

A “Miller Valley Survivors Fund” established to provide financial assistance to family members of the victims and others directly affected by the shootings had received pledges of nearly $950,000 toward a stated $1 million goal by Tuesday evening, including a $500,000 donation from Molson Coors. Those killed on the job were “part of the fabric of our company and our community,” the fund’s web page states. “Our hearts break for their families.”

The temporary shutdown of the campus was intended to give employees time to cope with the tragedy, Molson Coors CEO Gavin Hattersley said just hours after the shooting.

The human toll is immense. But Molson Coors is also faced with an array of business challenges in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Molson Coors produces 8.5 million barrels of beer annually at the Milwaukee brewery. Overall, Molson Coors, which has its U.S. headquarters in Chicago, is the second-largest brewer in the United States, representing about 23 percent of the total U.S. brewing industry shipments, excluding exports.

Brands produced at the Milwaukee brewery include: Miller High Life, Miller Lite, Coors Light, Blue Moon, Milwaukee’s Best and a host of others. The brewery also handles production for other brewers on a contract manufacturing basis.

A Molson Coors spokesman declined to say how the brewer has handled any production and distribution issues during the shutdown.

“I think that place turns over every day,” says Doug Fisher, associate professor emeritus of practice at Marquette University, who served as director of the university’s Center for Supply Chain Management from 2008 to 2019. “That’s a lot of beer flowing out of there and a lot of brands coming out of the place. It’s quite a system.”

The shutdown could present challenges in supplying beer to Molson Coors’ distributors, Fisher says.

“It depends on how much inventory was in the pipeline,” he says. “There is probably a buffer in there that would allow the company to continue to supply demand for so many days, or maybe even weeks.”

It’s not unusual for Molson Coors to shift production between breweries in order to meet increased demand or to deal with temporary line shutdowns, upgrades, and maintenance at a specific plant. In addition to the Milwaukee plant, Molson Coors operates breweries and packaging plants in Golden, Colorado; Albany, Georgia; Elkton, Virginia; Fort Worth, Texas; Trenton, Ohio; and Irwindale, California, where production is expected to cease this summer.

Molson Coors also owns the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co., which has breweries in Chippewa Falls and Downtown Milwaukee, as well as Terrapin Beer Co. in Athens, Georgia, and the Blue Moon Brewing Co. in Denver.

The relatively short duration of the Milwaukee closure could simplify matters. “In the short term, Molson Coors may have swiped or drawn inventory from other channels,” Fisher says. “But it’s probably unlikely that they started up a whole bunch of batches at other breweries just for one week. If had been a month or two months, absolutely.”

Any beer that had been in the midst of its production process when the Milwaukee brewery shut down will be discarded, according to a source close to the operation. Generally speaking, beer takes time – anywhere from just short of two weeks to a couple of months – to produce, including brewing, fermenting, aging and packaging.

It’s unclear if insurance would cover any losses associated with the shutdown. “I know the company has force majeure, which is for acts of God, war and whatever,” Fisher says. “But this was so unique.”

Russ Klisch, president and owner of Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, says Molson Coors likely had a week or two of inventory on hand in Milwaukee at the time of the shutdown.

“If you are shut down for a week, then you are starting to get close,” Klisch says. “One thing to remember, though, is that this is not the busy time of the year. It’s just starting to ramp up to it.”

Klisch notes that Molson Coors had launched a promotion to give away free 24-packs of Miller Lite to celebrate leap day. The company canceled the promotion following the shootings. “When I saw they were giving away a case of Miller Lite free before this all happened, that told me that they were running heavy on inventory,” Klisch says.

The shutdown also could have created an issue with yeast management, Klisch adds.

“Yeast is a growing creature and you have to harvest it, so you can’t all of a sudden just stop and start again, like if you were running a machine shop and you can just crank up a machine again,” Klisch says. “You have to keep the yeast healthy and you have to have enough of it, so you have to continue to brew. Otherwise, the yeast will go into hibernation and die. And you can’t really leave the beer and yeast together too long, or you start getting off flavors.”

Gennady Levshetz was one of five Molson Coors employees killed in Wednesday’s shooting. Photo by Rich Rovito

The deadly shooting rampage took place at a time when a large number of Molson Coors employees were more than 1,000 miles away in Houston for the company’s annual distributor convention, further complicating matters as key executives and the company’s communications team worked to grasp the magnitude of the tragedy, get word to its employees and deal from afar with the throngs of media members that rushed to the brewery complex to report the news.

Molson Coors had to cut short the conference after getting word of the tragedy. The event at a convention center in downtown Houston featured Molson Coors employees and a large contingent of distributors – the brewery’s key primary customers.

The three-day conference had been set to wrap up Wednesday night with a reception. Hattersley reportedly informed attendees of the shooting before rushing to catch a flight to Milwaukee as the convention came to an unexpected halt and an early end.

The convention is crucial for Molson Coors as a means of revving up distributors about new products and advertising campaigns and is viewed as a major touchpoint for the company. Awards also are handed out at the convention.

The business ramifications of the early end to the convention remain to be seen.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.