Live & Learn: Marshall Cohen

The ex-Molson CEO on what he would do differently if he could do it again, government policy-making and the superiority of wine over beer.

Marshall Cohen • Born March 28, 1935, in New Brunswick, N.J. • Ex-CEO of Molson Companies Ltd. • Amateur golfer

My father and brother were men’s clothing designers for Tip Top Tailors, but I didn’t want to be in the clothing industry. I was hopeless with my hands and not that artistic.

I got very high marks at the University of Toronto. What good students did was become doctors. But I couldn’t stand the sight of blood, so I became a lawyer. That was my parents’ second choice, but it was acceptable.

My parents had me late in their lives. They were like semi-grandparents, and my older brother and sister were like semi-parents. There was lots of guidance, but sometimes lots of confusion.

I came out of law school in 1960 determined to be a tax lawyer. It seemed like a good way to make a living. I practised tax law for years, then got bored. It wasn’t meaningful enough for me.

I’ve fought a lot of battles with people in government and industry, but I never tried to take the last nickel or leave a guy lying on the ground crying, ’cause what goes around comes around.

When I was introduced as the CEO of the Molson Companies, a reporter asked me, what’s your favourite beer? I stupidly said, to tell you the truth, I prefer wine.

My father had this expression: think twice and then don’t say anything.

Everybody thinks I turned Molson into a conglomerate. It was a conglomerate when I got there.

The Molson family and I didn’t always see eye to eye. I thought we should grow the chemicals division. They couldn’t have cared less about the other businesses and were committed to beer. But I didn’t have a 300-year history in beer. For me, it was just numbers and analysis.

Because of my career, people think I’m Type A. But I’m perfectly happy to lie on my couch, read the paper and watch the football game.

The finer things in life are great music, great theatre and a 300-yard drive. You have to get good at golf to really appreciate it. There is a real beauty and elegance to a golf ball hit well.

You have to prepare for and expect change in your career and have the courage that things will work out. My careers weren’t planned, but I’m glad I kept bouncing around. I’ve had a very satisfying life.

Working for the department of finance was the most interesting thing I’ve done in my life. How would you like to walk into Ottawa, having grown up as a tax lawyer in Toronto, and somebody says to you: Here are the keys. Fix the economy.

People don’t understand how complicated government policy is. The issues are so large. You don’t have all the data. It’s murky. That was the fun of it, but it’s easy to get it wrong.

Pierre Trudeau was incredibly smart, but not approachable. Even behind closed doors, I would never call him anything but Prime Minister. Nobody did. With Mulroney, we were Brian and Mickey.

I smoked cigars at Molson. I enjoyed the taste, and I suppose it was a status thing. But it was unhealthy, so I stopped. I like wine, but I would never buy a $1,000 bottle. My sense of taste just isn’t good enough.

I went to the Kennedy School of Government to audit economics courses at the age of 40. I remember sitting between two kids, neither of whom had showered in the last three months, and watching a young man drawing a graph on a blackboard and explaining that where the lines crossed, unemployment disappeared. I thought, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.

When I was younger, I thought I knew what made people tick. The older I get, the more I realize we’re mysterious beings.

I don’t like extreme views. People who are fanatical do too much damage.

If I had to do it all over again, I would have sold off Molson’s other businesses. Even though I thought they had more promise than the beer business, the family had too big of a position in beer and weren’t going to let it go.

When I got the phone call about the Order of Canada, my first reaction was, well, it’s about time. I had served my country and run a successful business. But when I went to the ceremony and listened to why others got their awards, I felt undeserving compared to everybody else and proud to be Canadian.

What’s my proudest achievement? My family — if I said anything else, I would be toast.