Affirmative Action

Kelly Grebe sets an example for fellow attorneys at MillerCoors by finding ways to say “yes” to the business

“A babysitter once told my mother, if God came down from heaven, your child would argue with God,” says Kelly Grebe. The chief legal and corporate services officer for MillerCoors doesn’t recount the prophetic memory to evoke a pugnacious child who never shook the chip off her shoulder. Rather, the tenacity she demonstrated then proved to be a lasting character trait—one that would serve her as a litigator and became the basis of her philosophy at MillerCoors: “Find the right way to ‘yes.’”

That confidence is critical, especially in a male-dominated industry. MillerCoors is considered progressive with five women on its senior leadership team, but Grebe says industry demographics don’t tell the real story of her struggles. Legal training, she explains, garners a respect for one’s knowledge, regardless of gender. Grebe also attributes her success to her attitude: she has never shied away from opportunity. “One of the things I consistently push women to do is raise their hands,” Grebe says. “Taking on new challenges garners respect. If it doesn’t work, so what? You start over. But if you don’t give yourself the opportunity the first time, you’ll be passed over the second time.”

Grebe began her legal career at Quarles & Brady LLP. Though her title has changed, her role at MillerCoors isn’t significantly different. “Working as a litigator is like filling up a bathtub with all this information, then pulling the stopper and moving on to something new,” she says. “I do the same in my current role.”

In 1997, shortly after joining MillerCoors’s predecessor, Miller Brewing Co., Grebe challenged a Missouri state law that required beer labels to show which brewer made the beer. Under the law, Miller products made at Plank Road Brewery in Missouri, such as Icehouse and Red Dog, were required to carry labels stating that Miller owned the brands. Miller, which wanted Plank Road Brewery products to project their own identity to consumers, objected, and Miller won. The victory and Grebe’s commitment to her stance set a standard for her tenure with the brewer.

“I wanted to instill a vision for the legal department and ensure that everyone understood our philosophy,” Grebe says—even when the highly regulated nature of the brewing industry makes doing so challenging.

Grebe points to advertising on Instagram, which Miller didn’t do for several years to avoid the appearance of marketing to the underage crowd. “With few exceptions,” Grebe says, “we don’t say ‘no;’ we say, ‘We can’t do it this way, but let’s think about how we can make this happen another way.’” Grebe’s team worked closely with Instagram to understand its demographics, and they developed mechanisms to ensure MillerCoors brands could interact on Instagram while only marketing to those over age 21. “It’s the responsible approach for the company and the community,” Grebe says.

People who aren’t familiar with the brewing industry may not be aware of the complexities tied to its marketing and advertising. In addition to refraining from marketing to individuals under the legal drinking age, MillerCoors has to comply with the laws and cultures of each state. To ensure what it does is responsible and in good taste, the legal department chairs a marketing compliance committee, which consists of a variety of people throughout the company. All advertising campaigns pass through the committee for review, and if the majority votes against it, the ad isn’t released.

The most significant of Grebe’s functions is as a member of MillerCoors’s senior leadership team, which guides the strategic direction of the company. “You can do anything with a law degree,” Grebe adds. “The way it teaches you to approach problems is great training for virtually any business role.” In 2006, Grebe participated in an action-learning program run by MillerCoors’s parent, SABMiller. The only lawyer in a group of about 30 professionals, Grebe and her sub-team were tasked with exploring whether to build a brewery from scratch. Grebe met with executives in Mexico and Brazil. The experience was unbelievable, she says, because while she was acting as a businessperson, she used her legal skills to help guide decision-making. She appreciates the educational and developmental value of that experience.

Grebe plans to continue ensuring that whatever goes out the door stamped with the name “MillerCoors” is responsible and something the company and customers will appreciate. “I take great pride in this company and what it does,” she says. So long as Grebe is leading the MillerCoors legal department, that pride will translate into new ways to say “yes” to America’s second-largest brewer.