The Guy From the West End of Milwaukee

Mike Jones is the public face of Milwaukee’s most iconic product

Published in 2007 Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine

By Kevin Kaduk on November 16, 2007


No matter where Mike Jones goes in Milwaukee, he can see his past. 

Watching the Brewers at Miller Park recalls the time he worked as a broom pusher at old County Stadium, sweeping up empty beer cups and hot dog wrappers. The commute to his job at Miller Brewing Company headquarters makes him think about how he used to make the same trip in the early 1980s, via bus, heading west from Marquette Law School, for $9.50 an hour and the promise of three free cases of beer a month.

Even leaving his office puts him right back in his childhood. Miller’s west side campus is so close to the Washington Heights neighborhood of his youth that in the 19th century (Miller brewed its first barrel in 1855), company executives occupied houses on his street.

For Jones, who serves in the unique capacity as both Miller’s general counsel and a senior vice president overseeing community affairs, his connection to Milwaukee is a source of deep pride. “I think I’m grounded in respect for what people do on an everyday basis because I’ve done a lot of it myself,” Jones says from his office at the brewery’s headquarters.

Those who know Jones say it’s this everyman quality that makes him such a valuable asset to both Milwaukee and Miller. Four years ago, in fact, shortly after South African Breweries bought Miller, the company decided that Jones should take on a more visible role as its public face. There are many good reasons for this—Jones is warm and inviting and a good people person—but a big factor is certainly Jones’ hometown connection. The man is as Milwaukee as the beer itself.

“For me, it’s impossible, even if I wanted to, to divorce the image of Mikey Jones, who lived down the block from me, from ‘Michael Jones [the general counsel],’” says Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. “He’ll never stop being a guy from the west end of Milwaukee because it’s not a reach for him. He is the guy from the west end of Milwaukee.”

Jones, 48, was the ninth of 11 children. “Growing up with such a large family was a total blessing,” he says. “I automatically had 10 other people who loved and cared about me even if I didn’t always deserve it or recognize it. [It] taught me a lot of valuable lessons, such as how to resolve conflict in a group, how to build consensus, how to respect and appreciate differences. It also taught me punctuality. If you have 10 brothers and sisters and you are late for dinner, there is no food left.”

After graduating from Pius XI High School in 1976, he headed to the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He wasn’t on campus long before he decided to pursue a legal education.

“Even at the age of 20, I thought a legal background would be a useful thing to have, whether I went into law or not,” Jones says.

So in 1981 Jones returned to Milwaukee and enrolled at Marquette Law School. A short time later, he took the bus west for an interview with Miller Brewing Co. On the table that day was a clerk position within Miller’s legal department. Apart from being impressed with the hourly salary, he saw he’d be able to work within a team environment instead of being holed up in a library doing research.

The team approach immediately appealed to Jones, who now oversees a staff of 20 (including 10 in-house lawyers) and works with several outside firms. As general counsel, Jones rarely sees the inside of a courtroom (“The last time I made an argument was probably 20 years ago,” he says) but he enjoys playing coach and deciding which of his team’s talents will be used where.

Jones started off in his clerking position doing, he says, the “type of bread-and-butter work that teaches you the business and legal world.” An early project included reviewing Miller’s advertising material to make sure it was not only legally compliant but ethically appropriate.

Upon graduating from Marquette in 1984, Jones was immediately hired at Miller as a full-time lawyer. He was named general counsel in 2002.

Jones has seen the world on the company dime. Name a state and he has probably been there. Pick a spot on the globe and Jones can tell you a story from that locale. He traveled with an international business group that forged joint ventures and licensing deals with foreign brewers. One trip involved traveling to Brazil and overseeing a deal with Brahma Brewery. Another took him to Japan to work with Asahi Breweries. Before his trip to Japan, Jones consulted with an expert on Japanese culture and even printed his business cards in Japanese, a gesture that was well received.

“I think it’s fascinating to go to another culture and see how they do business,” Jones says. “It’s different everywhere you go and it’s a challenge to adapt.”

In 1988, Jones helped Miller acquire Leinenkugel Brewing Company in Chippewa Falls. In 2002, he worked closely with South African Breweries when it bought Miller to form SABMiller.

Like any other large corporation, a majority of Jones’ work deals with EEOC disputes and disagreements with vendors and other partners. Only occasionally does the casework involve alcohol. Even then it’s more often a marketing class action than a case of culpability.

“We’ve had some lawsuits filed against us and our industry over the years alleging that we were responsible for some of the harm caused by abusive consumption,” Jones says. “We, without exception, have prevailed. It’s common knowledge that consumption of alcohol is dangerous and that you shouldn’t drink and drive. We don’t deny that there are societal problems associated with abusive consumption of our product, and that’s why we put efforts behind trying to prevent that.”

In 2003, Jones began overseeing Miller’s corporate affairs department, which conducts the company’s involvement in Milwaukee and beyond.

“I think it’s a big plus for Miller Brewing Company, because he gives them instant credibility within the Milwaukee community,” Barrett says. “But he also has a lot of credibility in the legal and corporate communities, so they really hit the trifecta with Mike.”

As the company’s “public face,” Jones is often called upon to give official statements and act as Miller’s spokesperson when reporters come calling. More important, he serves on a number of advisory boards throughout Wisconsin, a list that has grown so long one wonders how he has time to go home to see his three children.

“If it’s important, you make time for it,” Jones likes to say.

Currently, Jones serves on the following boards: the Zoological Society of Milwaukee County, St. Charles Youth and Family Services, the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, the United Performing Arts Fund, the Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club, the National Council of La Raza, the UW–Madison College of Letters and Science, Marquette Law School and North Shore Bank.

“He’s everywhere,” Barrett says. “And I’m the mayor, so seeing him everywhere really means that he’s everywhere.”

At meetings, Jones is far from the detached corporate executive warming a seat for his company. After joining the board for the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF) in 2007, Jones immediately volunteered to be on the board’s allocation committee, one of the organization’s most involved groups.

“From the start, Mike had a very inquisitive and engaging style, which is what you love to see,” former UPAF president Christine Harris says. “He immediately started asking questions about what we do and why we do it.”

Jones is most often asked about being on the Brewers’ board—where he is the only board member without an ownership stake. Ironically, it’s the board where he is least vocal.

“There’s not much input I can give on baseball,” says Jones, who joined the board in 2003 and attends about 20 games per year with business associates (in the suites) and his family (in the seats). “It’s not my area of expertise. What I hope to offer is a general perspective on business and business strategy … I think I gain more than I give.”

Indeed, Jones sometimes can’t believe he’s working for the club he watched while growing up. He still talks about Harvey’s Wallbangers, the scruffy American League championship team from 1982. More recently, during the team’s pennant race with the Chicago Cubs, he celebrated every win and mourned every loss.

“He’s a very knowledgeable baseball fan,” says Rick Schlesinger, the Brewers’ executive vice president of business operations. “There are a lot of clients and you go to games with them because it’s an obligation. But when you go with Mike, it’s always a pleasure.”

Not a bad life. Jones has seen the world at someone else’s expense, gets to play an important role in shaping many aspects of his community and works at the most iconic company in his hometown.

“It’s a very interesting industry and company to work for because almost everybody has an opinion on beer or alcohol,” Jones says. “Either they like it or they don’t like it. Either they like the advertising or they don’t like the advertising. You can engage with almost anyone on the subject of Miller Lite because it’s a very personable and socialized business.

“I still love it,” Jones adds. “I hope that comes through.”

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