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

Managing Family Relationships

One man, who Garvin describes as “a wonderful guy and one of my heroes,” supervised all three Browns during their time at Brown-Forman. That man is Brown-Forman North American Region president, Mike Keyes.

During Campbell’s stint as Southern Comfort U.S. Manager, Garvin’s time as Jack Daniel’s manager in Western Europe and Robinson’s most recent post in Florida, all three men worked directly under Keyes. “I got to see those guys grow up in the business, mature and add tremendous value to Brown-Forman,” he says.

Keyes began in the industry at Stroh Brewery in Detroit, but he saw during the late 80s that the company would likely become a victim to consolidation. Next he went to Hiram Walker in Windsor, Ontario, just before the company was bought by Allied-Lyons.

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“I got to see a family-owned company go through a huge change – one that wasn’t positive,” Keyes says. “I stayed there for about four years before going back to a family-run environment, where I am now.”

A Special Home Base

Another factor that brought Keyes to Brown-Forman was listening to Brown family members and employees who told him how special the city of Louisville is.

“I’d never spent a lot of time in Louisville, but now I’ve grown to love it,” he says. “I’ve lived here for the better part of twenty-four years, and to see what the family does in the community makes me proud to be a Brown-Forman employee.”

Campbell and Robinson were born in Louisville, and all three Browns have spent significant time there during their lives. They share Keyes’ love of Kentucky and the city that has served as the company’s headquarters for over a century.

“I think it’s hard to untangle the Brown family from Bourbon, Louisville and Kentucky,” Garvin says. “I’m not sure where each starts and finishes. They all feed into each other – the culture of Louisville as a crossroads with a Midwestern work ethic and southern hospitality seems to work very well for our industry, company and family.”

“I sometimes wonder, if the Brown family were from another city, would Brown-Forman still be a family company?” he adds. “If we were in another industry, would the company still be around? I tend to think the answer to both questions is no. We have a unique combination in Louisville, the beverage alcohol business and the culture of our company, which have allowed us to survive so long.”

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Brown-Forman products through the years.

Keeping the Family Engaged

You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone connected to Brown-Forman who doesn’t love, respect and revere Owsley Brown II, who led the company from 1993 to 2005.

“He was a wonderful human being and leader,” Keyes says. “He was brilliant, kind and nurturing, and when he passed away it was a huge blow. He’d already retired, but it was a blow to everyone who knew him. I saw the respect that the people of the community and the employees gave him.”

As the extended family grew, Owsley realized that there was a danger of having an ownership group that’s removed from the culture and operations of the company. One way he engaged with the non-employee family members was to invite everyone back to Louisville for an annual shareholders meeting (something Paul Varga has continued as CEO).

“It starts with the kids, who are given coloring books made about the history of the company,” Keyes says. “They make soft drinks in the labs and tour the facility. At an early age they’re being exposed to the company.”

As they get older, teenagers get a deeper dive into the history and production processes at Brown-Forman, and the adults sit down with management to talk about the finances and ask questions about products and plans.

In 2007 when Paul Varga became the third non-Brown to lead the company, he and Garvin devised a way to form even deeper relationships with the extended family.

“We knew we had to double-down on engaging with the fifth generation, which includes about 40 cousins,” Garvin says. “We set up the Brown Forman Family Shareholders Committee and deliberately set up a structure that would formally introduce the family to the business and culture, hoping to fuse people closer to the company rather than letting them drift off into their lives around the world.”

About a dozen committee members attend meetings throughout the year, engaging in topics ranging from industry dynamics and trends to best practices related to family governance of a public company.

“People who work inside the company really appreciate that a dozen Brown family members are volunteering their time to find out about and help the company,” he says. “The employees feel that support from the shareholders and it reinforces the company culture, which we feel is critical.”

Today there are no signs of changing those policies. “Paul has inherited this gift from Owsley, which is the nurturing of the fifth and soon to be sixth generation,” Keyes says. “You don’t see that with a lot of other companies – to the point that Brown-Forman is being studied by other family-owned companies as a best practice leader. It’s shocking to see some of the people who have come here to ask the Brown family members how they do it.”

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