Two hundred million reasons to enjoy retirement

Marcin Miller talks to Owsley Brown Frazier, former Vice Chairman of the Brown-Forman Corporation, and finds him calmly enjoying his retirement
By Marcin Miller
The large corner office occupied by Owsley Brown Frazier exudes an air of harmony, as does the man himself. Unflustered and unhurried since his retirement in June, he gives an impression of a man at peace with himself. This is understandable given that he personally owns (together with two of his cousins) well over 60% of the stock of a company turning over two billion dollars. Of that figure two hundred million dollars is profit. However, it was not always thus. He joined the company in 1955: “Our sales that year were $64 million. Our net profits were about $3 million.” Mr Frazier is philosophical about the ups and downs faced by the American whiskey industry in the twentieth century. “Put out of business by World War I, by Prohibition and then by World War II ... we stopped, started, stopped, started. It has really been since the conclusion of the Second World War that this company has taken off.” Brown Forman are on occasion criticised for being too boring and too ‘corporate’. However, it must be difficult to avoid being ‘corporate’ if you are turning over two billion dollars per annum. It is also likely to be boring when decision-making is made by committee, the family is likely to steer the middle ground. But you cannot ignore the high-profile acquisitions and investments the company has made in the last fifty years (1956 Jack Daniel's, 1979 Southern Comfort, 2000 45% of Finlandia and 10% of Glenmorangie).Much of the prosperity of the company is due to continuity. "I think one of the major factors of our success lies in four of us working together for well over thirty years in running this company. I became a director of this company in 1964, I was 29 or 30, something like that, so I've been involved in the management of the company for some time. As of June 1st I have just retired. I haven't figured out what that means yet ... “The company has attempted to create an open and welcoming management style based on the theory that if people are happy at work they will do more and be more productive. “If you look forward to coming to work in the morning you are going to be more committed and exercise more care and judgement in what you do and I think that all of those elements considerably contribute to the end line which is the actual product itself.” These are the reasons behind the ability to operate something on the scale of Jack Daniel’s and to maintain consistency. Everyone who works on Jack Daniel’s feels ownership and commitment to it, as he says: “When you can create that sort of environment and that sort of feeling you really are onto a winner.” At the other end of the scale is the Labrot & Graham distillery. The first whiskey will be released relatively shortly, though this is no launch date specified as yet. In fact he seems a little guarded: “I'm not really sure. In about 2002 and 2003. It's when we decide it is ready.” The massive investment will break even much sooner than expected. In all probability this will be before any whiskey is released. Even when talking about personal consumption, as one would perhaps expect, Mr Frazier is loyal to his brands. “I have several nice drinks every evening. I enjoy the product but still get up at 5am every morning. Even after I've retired. Forty-five years of getting up at that time is a hard habit to break. Slowly but surely I’m working on it. My favourite whiskeys are Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve and Old Forester. I principally drink Jack Daniel’s. I guess that is because I can get it pretty much wherever I go. I don’t drink much Scotch or gin or that sort of thing. I might have a martini every two or three months. I find that very pleasurable.”It is worth stating that Brown-Forman have a very handsome record of contributing to the community at large. In fact, there is not a major project in the community that has not received Brown- Forman or Brown family money in the last 40 or 50 years. These include contributions in fields as diverse as education, sport and the arts. Mr Frazier’s mother started a rehabilitation centre 50 years ago and Owsley Brown Frazier is currently leading a drive to raise $75 million to take the Frazier Rehabilitation Centre into a world-class position. World-class seems appropriate for Brown-Forman.