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Bill Samuels Jr.

Bringing Connoisseurship to Bourbon

Editors’ Note

Bill Samuels Jr. is the seventh generation in a long line of bourbon makers. Samuels took over the family business from his father, Bill Samuels Sr., the man who invented the Maker’s Mark recipe and the premium bourbon category. Samuels studied at Case Western Reserve University and UC Berkeley. After graduating from law school at Vanderbilt University, Samuels returned to Kentucky to work for his father. In 1980, Maker’s Mark became known for its irreverent ads, written by Bill Samuels Jr., and soon after, Bill Samuels Sr. passed the mantle of Maker’s Mark to his son.

Company Brief

Maker’s Mark is owned by Illinois-based Fortune Brands, which acquired it from UK-based distillery giant Allied Domecq in 2005. Maker’s Mark (www.makersmark.com) is a handcrafted, small-batch bourbon whiskey. The Maker’s Mark distillery in Loretto, Kentucky, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1980, becoming the first distillery in America to be recognized as a national treasure. Maker’s Mark is the oldest operating bourbon distillery in the world, and bottling is currently maintained at roughly 800,000 cases per year.

Are you happy with your brand awareness?

Brand awareness has never been a focus for us. We’ve always depended on our fanatical consumers to round up the next group of customers. We try to measure how much conversation is going on, our customers’ level of involvement in the brand, and natural organic growth. We’ve had 27 consecutive years of double-digit sales growth. Our contribution to the adult beverage industry has been to bring connoisseurship to bourbon. A good bit of satisfaction has come from how others in the bourbon industry have responded and have helped us move bourbon from commodity to specialty all over the world.

Is it challenging to differentiate in a crowded market, and what makes your product unique?

There’s an advantage to being first and to having a significant head start. Another big advantage is that bourbon’s share of the premium spirits market continues to grow quickly. Our differentiation is that we have the only totally bitter-free bourbon. Maker’s Mark was created for people who don’t like bourbon. We started in an era when bourbon was worse than dead. Of course, that’s not the situation today, but our bourbon is easy to enjoy and does not require an acquired taste. That doesn’t mean everybody is going to prefer it because a lot of people associate bourbon with big, bold fullness, but that’s not us.

How has technology affected the product itself and the business?

Technology has helped us in the environmental area, which is very important because we’re stewards of the environment. We’ve been in Kentucky a long time, and it’s our responsibility to be a trustee of our historic site and to try to lead the way. Technology has also helped us with communication as our market has expanded. Today, our customers live all over the world, and we’re able to have daily communication with them one-on-one. Technology hasn’t changed the product, but it has helped us stay in touch with customers.

Is there opportunity to bring new product variations to the market?

What we do, we do really well, and that is to create a wonderfully smooth, crisp, bitter-free bourbon. It is very hard to accomplish, which is why nobody else does it. It’s good if we can do this one thing really well and continue to engage our customers.

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Maker’s Mark, ready to drink

Have current economic conditions affected business?

There has been an impact on all the premium American spirits. We are more protected than some luxury products because we are not very expensive. The challenge is not getting sucked into the temptation to cheapen or downgrade that which got us on the top shelf. It’s not much of an issue because I don’t have a lot of pressure to grow at all expense. We’re in the quality business, we’re in the craft business, and that’s an important part of our culture. We’re not concerned unless the bottom totally falls out.

How have you overcome the challenges of running a family business?

It has not happened accidentally. Very early on, when it was obvious that my dad and I had different ideas of how to grow the business, I brought in an industrial psychologist to help us understand each other so we could appreciate our differences. We spent six years with this industrial psychologist, and it absolutely lined up the jobs he should be doing and the jobs I should be doing, and none of them had anything to do with the hierarchy on the organization chart. We continue to use the teachings and the method 35 years later. It has helped us build a young, dynamic, aggressive, opportunity-seeking organization.

Will it be challenging for you to give up control when your son takes over?

I’m not a control freak, but I am hands-on and someone who has a hard time letting go. This will be mitigated by the fact that I have infinite confidence in my son’s ability and the ability of others in the organization. It will also be mitigated by the fact that we’re going to very tightly define what my role will be after retirement. I will move to the back of the bus, I will achieve the stately salary of $1 a year, and my son will have the right to run me home. The only person I’ll have to deal with there is my wife, who is mortified by the fact that I’m going to be hanging around the house.

What will you focus on after this?

I am a maniac on community issues. I have been very involved with many of the nonprofits in the state of Kentucky. I’ve chaired all the chambers of commerce and university boards, and I continue to do so. Community issues take up about a third of my time now. I suspect that will move to about 50 percent, and I’ll be a resource around here.

Was your sense of community instilled in you early on?

My grandfather was the mayor of our little town, Bourbon Central City. He founded the public school system 100 years ago and built the first public golf course and state park in Kentucky. My father was the same way, and I did the same thing when my son came in. I told him we’d work out the details and responsibilities, but he had to pick two nonprofits and get involved, and within five years, I expect him to be the chairman of both. We’ve always felt we needed to give something back.

Being involved in community issues also lends to the camaraderie in the industry. The bourbon industry is small, and we rely on each other to make things happen. It’s important for friendly competitors to join together and make the industry stronger. In addition, we have a lot of fun together.