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Issue 14 - Faith in family values: the Brown-Forman story

Whisky Magazine Issue 14
February 2001


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Faith in family values: the Brown-Forman story

Martin Betts recounts a tale of a family company that was on the brink of extinction yet became a significant force in the drinks industry.

When a company is balancing precariously on the edge of oblivion, ready to freefall towards extinction, you wouldn't expect its saviours to be two young men under the age of 35. Despite the displeasure of investment bankers and the murmurs of discontent from shareholders, the men took control of an enterprise which had seen it's sales spiral downward, profits evaporate and confidence disappear. Remarkably, they turned it around.

They may have not been handed the leadership of Brown-Forman in a formal ceremony, but William Lee Lyons Brown and George Garvin Brown II took control of the company and led it into a period of phenomenal growth and expansion. From 1939 onwards the employees looked to the brothers for leadership, as they knew the company had begun to drift and stray from its traditional values of making premium whiskey of the highest quality. From that period of despair the brothers anticipated change and embarked upon a series of takeovers that not only safeguarded the future of the company but enabled it to become a powerful force in the world's spirit market.

This transformation is far removed from the company's inauspicious beginnings in the late 19th century. It was in 1870 that George Garvin Brown, a promising young pharmaceuticals salesman from Louisville, Kentucky, spotted a gap in the market for a whiskey that met “medicinal standards”. With the help of his half-brother and over $5,000 that was both hard saved and tenaciously borrowed, the team sold the...

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