London, UK, July 2020. G. Garvin Brown IV, the chairman of Brown-Forman Corporation and 5th generation family shareholder, was preparing to celebrate the firm’s 150th anniversary. Despite its current global footprint, a turnover in excess of $3.3 billion and over 4,800 employees worldwide, Brown-Forman had remained in Louisville, Kentucky, close to the Old Forester Distillery, the founding brands’ Pre-Prohibition headquarters (1882-1919), on Louisville’s historic Main Street, also known as “Whiskey Row”. COVID-19, however, had ruined the party, forcing the family to cancel the celebrations. Every family member had received their 150th Anniversary bottles of the limited-edition bourbon, taken from 6 barrels aged for 150 months, as well as a recently published book documenting the amazing history of Brown-Forman through photos, illustrations and artifacts. The pandemic would have a dramatic impact on economies around the world, affecting not only employees’ lives but also the livelihoods of partners in the broader hospitality industry. The publicly listed, family-controlled company had weathered worse storms in the past, including Prohibition, which had tested the firm’s resilience. Having a long-term-focused, engaged stockholder base and a strong governance system were tremendous advantages in such situations, especially when selling aged products with time-tested brands. Together with the two former CEOs and the board, Brown had painstakingly put together solid company and family governance structures and processes and carefully rebalanced the portfolio in a bid to mitigate the impact of downturns. Still, Garvin could not help wondering how well the delicately crafted system would hold under this real-world “stress test.”
The case focuses on entrepreneurial, family business and sustainability issues, such as
- Re-engineering a product portfolio towards premiumization;
- Developing a comprehensive family, ownership and corporate governance;
- Developing mechanisms to ensure the sustainability of a unique firm culture and values and an ongoing commitment to a strong sustainability agenda;
- Developing management and ownership succession.
Brown-Forman, Wine and Spirits
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