About Brown-Forman

Brown-Forman headquarters
The company’s headquarters building on Dixie Highway.

The whiskey 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, Brown-Forman owns more than 25 brands in its portfolio of wines and spirits sold in 160 countries worldwide. His descendants through a fifth generation control the company through seats on the board of directors, which George Garvin Brown IV chairs. The company employs 4,600 people worldwide, with 1,300 in the Louisville area at the headquarters at 840 Dixie Highway and elsewhere.

Garvin Brown IV
Garvin Brown IV

The Browns hold majority ownership of the voting Class A shares — a stake worth well in excess of $6 billion alone — 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 Brown-Forman hold 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 in May 2016, Brown-Forman is now in its fifth generation.

To be sure, there are other resilient families. In April 2016, 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 have struggled: The Redstones got 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 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.

The Browns hope to avoid that fate. Three of them talked about their family and the company in a videotaped series for the University of Kentucky oral history project about the bourbon industry: Campbell Brown, a member of the board of directors and a current executive; retired director Dace Brown Stubbs, and J. McCauley “Mac” Brown, an executive and great-grandson of the founder.

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* approximately $96,000 in 2016 dollars.