Vision of Perpetuity: How Brown-Forman Has Remained Family-Owned for 145 Years

Note: This feature ran in a supplement in the latest issue of Beverage Dynamics that celebrated family-owned businesses in the beverage alcohol industry.

“Talking about the Brown family is like pulling at a ball of string,” says Chairman George Garvin Brown IV. “You can unwind it for quite some time.”

The wine and spirits supplier founded by his great-great-grandfather, George Garvin Brown, as J.T.S. Brown and Bro. in 1870, has undergone countless changes over the decades. But one constant has remained – family control.

Close to 160 Brown family “cousins,” or fourth, fifth and sixth generation descendents of the company’s founder, are actively engaged with the shareholder group that holds a controlling stake in the publicly traded company. Garvin Brown IV, who assumed his current role in 2007, is only the latest in a long line of Browns in leadership positions at the company.

Connecting the Past to the Present

George Garvin Brown was born in Kentucky in the 1840s and came to Louisville during the Civil War to complete his high school education. In 1870, he was a pharmaceutical salesman who partnered with his half-brother, John Thompson Street Brown, to start his distilling company and flagship brand Old Forester.

He would later buy out J.T.S. Brown and partner with George Forman, who passed away in 1901. George Garvin Brown purchased Forman’s share of the company from his widow, but kept the name Brown-Forman.

“My great-great-grandfather died a few years before Prohibition was enacted,” Garvin says. “He had a few children, but only his son Owsley was given control of the company. The other siblings were lucky enough to inherit a little something, and poor Owsley inherited a company in an industry about to be illegal.”

One of Owsley’s sisters moved to California, married a doctor, and put her two children through medical school. Garvin met one of those sons, his second cousin twice removed, in San Francisco about 20 years ago.

“He knew George Garvin Brown, who was his grandfather,” Garvin says. “Our founder died a long time before I was born, but I can say I’ve met relatives who knew him, so he’s a wonderful figure to me. He’s a real figure to all of us in the family.”

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The Current Generation of Leaders

Unfortunately, Garvin never met the grandfather he’s named after, who died a few months before he was born (which is why he’s named after him, even though Garvin’s not the eldest son in his family).

“I was raised in Montreal after my parents divorced, and I had a portrait of my grandfather hanging in my bedroom,” he says. “It was like a beacon reminding me of what was south of the border. I watched my brother Campbell join the company and saw him traveling all around the world – I was shocked by the opportunities out there. I joined the company at twenty-six because when I was young it was the most successful and exciting business I could imagine.”

Campbell Brown, also raised in Montreal, began his career at Brown-Forman as an intern in the late 1980s. Following his world tour that Garvin described, which included stints in India, the Philippines and Turkey, he came back to Louisville to work on Jack Daniel’s and Southern Comfort in various capacities. In May, he was named president of the Old Forester brand, which will soon open a new distillery in downtown Louisville and is a renewed focus for Brown-Forman.

“It was great to live in so many exotic places,” Campbell says. “It was a dream and I worked for some great people at an exciting time in our industry. You couldn’t ask for a better introduction to international business, Brown-Forman, and consumers in general.”

Fellow fifth-generation family member Robinson Brown followed a similar path to his cousins, after joining the company after a few years working for a beer, wine and spirits wholesaler in Nashville, Tennessee. Brown-Forman holds its family members to a very high standard – out of nearly 160 living family members, only about a dozen are employed at the company. In fact, family members are subjected to increased scrutiny when they’re considered for openings.

“The position that opened up for me was the first of its kind to handle both wine and spirits, since at that time our divisions were separate,” Robinson says. “I went through nine interviews before landing the job as the on-premise manager for Kentucky in 2004.”

Currently, Robinson is North American manager for the Florida market, but it was recently announced that he will be promoted to Middle East and India Territory Director in Dubai.

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