What I’ve Learned: Campbell Brown ’90
January 10, 2019
By Luke Woodling ’17MBA
The president of Old Forester is tapping into a rich history as he leads a legendary bourbon brand back to prominence.
Tour Old Forester’s new distillery in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, and one thing becomes clear: Campbell Brown ’90 knows the power of a good story. The $45 million distillery takes visitors on an immersive journey through the entire scope of whiskey production—from fermentation and barrel raising to maturation and bottling—and every inch of the 70,000-square-foot facility is laced in lore.
Even the distillery’s location—on a famed stretch of Main Street known as Whiskey Row—is a nod to the bourbon brand’s storied past. Brown’s great-great grandfather, George Garvin Brown, introduced Old Forester right here in 1870, and the new distillery occupies the same space where the company was headquartered in the four decades leading up to Prohibition. Over time, George Garvin Brown’s bourbon business grew into distilling giant Brown-Forman, which today counts Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve, and Sonoma-Cutrer among its stable of well-known wines and spirits.
Brown has spent the bulk of his career in the family business. Over the past quarter-century, the political science major has helped develop Brown-Forman’s spirits portfolio at home and abroad. In 2015, he was tasked with breathing new life into the company’s original brand, becoming the first family member solely responsible for Old Forester since his great-great grandfather. As he sets about authoring the next chapter in Old Forester’s 148-year story, Brown is embracing the responsibility of living up to a legend and betting that the road to the brand’s renaissance runs through its roots.
You learn a lot about a business working in the mailroom. That was my first job at Brown-Forman, a summer internship just before I started Rollins. You get to see a little bit of everything and meet people in different departments and operating groups across the organization.
I knew I needed a smaller school. I wasn’t going to thrive on a large campus where you can float through anonymously. I knew I needed some eyeballs on me as I figured out who I was, and Rollins certainly delivered on that.
I learned the power of relationships at Rollins, and that helped me when I worked in India, the Philippines, and Turkey. I didn’t know anyone going into those countries, but I was able to engage and interact socially, and I was curious. When you show an interest in people’s lives, their cultures, and their communities, it’s easier to be welcomed in, to be included.
I feel a real responsibility to get it right. A lot of people love Old Forester and have for generations—it’s in every back bar in houses around Louisville. It’s hard for me to talk about the brand and not wonder what my great-great grandfather—whose portrait hangs on a wall across the street—must be thinking.
There’s a romance around bourbon, especially around brands that span lifetimes. Not many bourbons have been around for 148 years and survived Prohibition, world wars, and the Great Depression. Not many have this long, five-generation story, and it’s even more powerful when the founding families are still very much involved.
My leadership style has changed over time. When you’re younger, you feel like you have to demonstrate leadership at every turn. You don’t listen as much—it’s more about showing you can get things done, setting a good example, and working your hardest. Over time, it’s become a quieter kind of leadership.
We’re used to being patient in the bourbon business. We don’t just make a product and sell it. You distill it, put it in a barrel, check in on it every now and then, and after four years hopefully it tastes delicious and it’s ready to bottle.
For me, success is balance—giving enough to your organization and teams while also being a good father and husband. It’s a moving target at all times.
The great thing about bourbon is that everyone’s got a taste. Some people like a high-proof product; others want something that’s a little more drinkable. I like an approachable, balanced bourbon where you can taste the sweetness from the corn with some spice from your mash’s rye content.
There is a right way to drink bourbon. It’s the way that tastes best to you. For some people, it’s neat. Some like a couple ice cubes. Some like to add Coca-Cola, vermouth, or bitters. Its versatility is amazing.
My advice for Rollins students? Don’t be so determined to lose that wide-eyed look and don’t worry so much about figuring out your major in the first six months. Stay curious, stay interested. Also, eat well and enjoy the pool from time to time.
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