NEW YORK(Reuters) - Bourbon is a multi-billion-dollar business, but it began with just a few pioneering Kentucky families from Bardstown who all lived down the road from each other.
One of those iconic families started around 1790 and is still in the business. Bill Samuels Jr., son of the founder of Maker’s Mark, is chairman emeritus of the brand after 35 years as president and CEO. His son Rob currently runs the company - part of the Beam Suntory brand family since 2014 - but Bill Samuels is still a workhorse, giving speeches and running distillery tours.
For the latest in Reuters’ “Life Lessons” series, we talked to Samuels about how he helped his family transform a homespun hobby into a global phenomenon.
Q: Your dad created Maker’s Mark. What lessons did you learn from him?
A: It was really a hobby for him. He just wanted to focus on creating a bourbon that actually tasted good, because back in the ‘50s bourbon wasn’t really known for that. Of course his idea turned out to be a stroke of genius. But at first it didn’t seem like genius, because for a long time there wasn’t much of a business.
Q: What did you take away from your relationship with Jim Beam, who was your neighbor and godfather?
A: He was the best guy who ever lived. He had the greatest natural sales personality I have ever been around, and was always able to put people at ease. He was also a natural at harassing people, and my father and grandfather were his two favorite targets. From him I learned a lot of details about my family that they didn’t want shared.
Q: You even knew KFC’s Colonel Sanders?
A: At the time he had a little restaurant in Kentucky that we would go to, and he and my dad were gin rummy partners. That’s how it started. He was a real intense, restless man, and he had to find something to do, so instead of retiring he started his chicken business.
When I got my driver’s permit in 1955, he asked me if I wanted to help him, so I drove him around the state as he sold his chicken recipe. There weren’t any franchises then, it was just a menu item in family restaurants.
Q: When you joined your dad’s company and helped him grow it to what it is today, what did you learn about entrepreneurship?
A: When I came back from my career in the aerospace industry, he set me up in a little 10x12 office out by the airport. We had to figure out how to commercialize the business. So he pulled out his briefcase and gave me a sheet of paper with my three-word job description on it: “Go find customers.” And then he told me, by the way, don’t screw up the whisky.
Q: When things became a big success, how did you handle that wealth?
A: For a long time we didn’t have any money, growing up on a farm in Kentucky. But by the 1980s, when I decided I was a big success in the bourbon business, I thought it would be a good time to shift resources and become a thoroughbred racehorse owner. That was a total disaster. I haven’t forgotten it to this day.
Q: Were there ever times when you thought the business wasn’t going to make it?
A: Oh my God, yes. We started in 1953, and didn’t make a profit until 1968, when we made $2,000. And that profit was only because my dad wasn’t taking a salary. Now it’s worth several billion dollars, but a lot of that value can be traced back to the discipline of the early days. He did all the heavy lifting before I even grew up.
Q: Your son runs the business now, so what advice have you given him?
A: I have gone out of my way to not tell my son what to do. I wanted to bring him into the process and then get out of the way, which turned out to be exactly the right thing to do. Of the three of us, he is the true entrepreneur. My dad was the perfect craftsman, and I‘m somewhere in between. My son has been nice enough to allow me to keep my little office, and lets me take all the bourbon I can steal for drinking purposes.
Editing by Beth Pinsker and Dan Grebler