By Jim Hopkins
George Garvin Brown IV, a great-great grandson of the young pharmaceuticals salesman who started Brown-Forman in 1870, stepped onto a dais at the whiskey giant’s annual stockholders meeting today, and told an amusing story about a subject that might otherwise have been deadly dull: brand loyalty.
It was 9:30 a.m., and several hundred stockholders had assembled in a conference room at the white-collanaded headquarters on Dixie Highway west of downtown. On a classically muggy Louisville summer morning, this was a dressy crowd. Many of the men wore dark suits, crisp white shirts, and boarding school repp ties. Women wore tailored dresses, or smart skirts paired with jackets, and an occasional pearl necklace. People were tan and slim and — in the case of the many Browns there — very, very rich.
This was a business event, but it felt as much like a family reunion, too — because, after all, a core group of Browns control the company through an equity stake worth well north of $6 billion. Garvin Brown, who is 47 and lives mostly in London, was running the meeting as chairman of the board. Seated nearby in Chippendale-style chairs facing the audience were the other 11 directors up for re-election.
This is the story Brown told. He was on a flight from London to Warsaw for a meeting with the Brown-Forman team responsible for the company’s growing business in Poland. Brown had lucked out, scoring one of his favorite seats — aisle, in a roomy exit row — with two empty ones between him and the window. Then a British man, one of the many harried road warriors aboard, arrived to take the window seat. He asked for a Jack Daniel’s, Brown-Forman’s most profitable brand, when the flight attendant rolled the snack cart down the aisle. Here, Brown’s ears perked up.
But the airline was all out. Would the Brit settle for another brand of whiskey, the attendant asked, perhaps a Johnnie Walker? Nope, he replied, and asked for a glass of champagne instead. As Brown pointed out to the audience, here was a man so loyal to Jack Daniel’s, he’d sooner drink airline champagne than just any other whiskey.
That’s how Brown eased the stockholders into a more formal presentation by CEO Paul Varga, who deployed many bar charts and fever graphs showing return on shareholder equity over one year, five years, and 20 years — important stuff, to be sure, but not quite as compelling as Brown’s literally on-the-fly market research.
By this point, Brown had already dispatched Continue reading “Changing of the family guard: At Brown-Forman’s annual meeting, the ordinary was actually extraordinary”