Pete Coors, the chairman, longtime CEO, and public face of Coors Brewing Co., is tired of standing next to cold Rocky Mountain streams extolling the virtue of his beer. Now apparently he’d prefer to sit in a Washington, D.C., office and schmooze with lobbyists.
Coors is running for U.S. Senate in—where else?—Colorado, and his candidacy offers an occasion to examine one of the age-old riddles of politics: Do businessmen make better candidates?
Five years ago—when CEOs walked the nation like gods—this would have been an easy yes. Today, post-Enron, post-WorldCom, post-tech-bust, it’s a tougher question.
Still, Coors—and other heads of publicly held companies—hold several built-in advantages over campaign rivals. Today, candidates for office need two things above all—money to spend on advertising and name recognition. Coors, like many business leaders, has both. As chairman of a marketing-savvy consumer products company, Coors benefits from the brewery’s branding activities. His name is on the label, after all. Coors’ $420 million advertising budget placed it 74th on last year’s Advertising Age index of 100 Leading National Advertisers. Candidate Coors probably enjoys something close to 100 percent name recognition in Colorado and is a major employer to boot.
Pete Coors has extra advantages. For years he has appeared in campaign-style beer advertisements—wearing flannel and strolling in pristine Rocky Mountain glens. (He has been conspicuously absent from the Coors party ads featuring bikini-clad snow bunnies in hot tubs and the bodacious twins.)
Because CEOs and chairmen are wealthy—the Coors family no longer ranks on the Forbes 400, but they’re still worth at least $100 million—they have the ability to endow campaigns with instant credibility by digging into their own pockets. And since they travel in elite circles—as Coors’ bio shows, he’s been a director of U.S. Bancorp and H.J. Heinz Co., and has served on a host of other educational, civic, and environmental boards—CEOs can tap into a huge network of potential donors.
A business leader can also exploit organizational synergies. A public company is organized like a senator’s office. In both instances, a PR apparatus promotes and insulates the boss. There are subordinates tasked with managing relationships to crucial constituencies—in business, a CFO to talk to Wall Street, human resources staff to deal with employees; in politics, a chief counsel, policy advisers, constituent services staff.
Heads of public companies have also received on-the-job political training that campaign rivals lack. A CEO and a senator share many obligations—they have to attend rubber-chicken dinners, make the same speeches over and over at obscure gatherings, glad-hand with the masses (employees), occasionally face hostile questions from the press or at annual meetings, and make deals with other people who have big egos.
Given the natural advantages they enjoy, it may seem surprising that more CEOs don’t attempt to trade in the corner office for a Senate hideaway. New Jersey Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine ran Goldman Sachs. But the only former boss of a Fortune500 company in the House is New York Republican Amo Houghton, who spent nearly 20 years as chairman of Corning Inc., the publicly held company that his family founded and has run for 150 years. Houghton, literally the last Rockefeller Republican in the House, is retiring this year after 18 years in Congress.
There are three main reason why more top executives don’t make the switch. First, the money in Washington stinks. Unless you’ve got a $100 million nest egg, like Coors, leaving a CEO post before you’ve amassed your huge fortune isn’t very appealing. (Corzine had banked his hundreds of millions before running.) Second, elections can be enormously humbling experiences. Recent history proves that executive experience and lots of cash don’t guarantee victory. Morry Taylor, the CEO of publicly held Titan Wheel, ran a willfully quixotic campaign for president in 1996 that seemed mostly to interest Michael Lewis, who wrote about him a lot in Trail Fever. Tom Golisano, the founder and CEO of Paychex, a highly successful payroll processing firm, has run for governor of New York as an independent three times, in 1994, 1998, and 2002. Despite dramatically increasing his spending each time, Golisano failed to attract many votes.
The third—and perhaps most compelling—reason CEOs stay in the executive suite is that they like their power. For all the restraints under which they theoretically operate, CEOs at public companies still have an enormous amount of decision-making authority. They execute mergers, hire and fire other executives, roll-out visionary restructurings, and even compel employees to become devotees of management theories like Total Quality Management. In the Senate, you need to round up 60 votes just to change the wallpaper in the cloak room.