In Brown-Forman’s first family, an exceptional tale of beating the odds for 150 years

Boulevard focuses on news about some of Louisville’s biggest employers, nonprofits, and cultural institutions. This is one in an occasional series about them.

The spirits and wine company best known for its Jack Daniel’s, Old Forrester and Korbel brands is one of Louisville’s most storied companies. George Garvin Brown, a young pharmaceuticals salesman, started it in 1870 with $5,500* in saved and borrowed money.

Nearly 150 years later, his fifth-generation descendants sit on the board of directors, which George Garvin Brown IV chairs. And the company employs 4,000 people worldwide, with 1,000 in the Louisville area at the headquarters at 840 Dixie Highway and elsewhere.

Garvin Brown IV
Garvin Brown IV

The Browns control the company through their majority ownership of the voting Class A shares — a stake worth more than $10 billion, making them America’s 20th most-wealthy family, according to Forbes magazine. The Browns and the company are major supporters of Louisville cultural institutions, including the Speed Art MuseumFrazier Museum, and Actors Theatre.

The family’s hold on Brown-Forman is exceptionally rare in American business. More than 30% of all family-owned companies survive into the second generation, according to the Family Business Alliance. But the numbers dwindle rapidly after that: Just 12% make it to the third generation, and a slim 3% survive to the fourth and beyond. With the ascension of three new fifth-generation Browns to the board of directors Thursday, Brown-Forman is now firmly in fifth-generation hands.

To be sure, there are other resilient families. Just last month, Walmart announced a third generation member — Helen and Sam Walton’s grandson, Steuart Walton — was joining the board. The Mars family still owns their candy company, 105 years later. And the Sulzbergers are grooming a fourth generation to run The New York Times.

But other clans are struggling: The Redstones are now embroiled in a jaw-dropping battle over a $40 billion empire that includes Viacom and CBS. A family fight over the future of the Al Schneider real estate fortune has pit sisters against sisters. And we all know about the collapse of the Bingham family’s media holdings amid third-generation infighting in the 1980s.

In Thursday’s reshuffling of the board room, the Browns hope to avoid that fate.

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