The modern father of Bulleit Bourbon, Tom Bulleit, is having a good year: after all, he's built a brand that's now celebrating its 30th anniversary. But how can other entrepreneurs even begin to think about hitting the 30-year mark with their businesses?

"The first thing you need to do is marry someone with a good job," Tom tells me. He always speaks with a bit of a wink and a nudge, which you'll have to imagine here. He's referring here to his wife Betsy, a financial planner for years, a remarkable partner and supporter, and by some accounts, the unsung hero of the Bulleit success story.

They were married on March 14th, 1987 -- Tom's birthday. Just how inexorably linked is their marriage to the business? Well, they celebrated their 30th anniversary by opening a new distillery.

Shortly after getting married, Tom came home and informed Betsy that he wanted to revive his great-great-grandfather Augustus's bourbon. A newlywed still seeing marriage through rose-tinted glasses, Betsy promised to support him in his dream. It arguably wasn't the most sound timing: wine was a hot category, and bourbon simply wasn't. "It was like buying a straw hat in the middle of winter," remembers Betsy. But if there's one word she uses to describe Tom, it's persevering, which helped make the uphill battle even remotely winnable. That was made harder by the climate for funding: there might have been a fair amount of funding over our past decade, especially in Silicon Valley, but that wasn't the landscape in 1987. Tom and Betsy decided to self-fund everything together.

Not too far from Tom and Betsy, there was an enormous Toyota plant nearby in Georgetown, Kentucky built using Just in Time (JIT) principles, but the process of making bourbon is just about the opposite: you have the product just sitting there for years before you can ship it to anyone. Because of that, Tom continued practicing law for the first decade. The financial burden of having no money coming in was difficult; she calculated they'd be able to pay off the interest if he practiced law until he was 117.5. "We were the VC *and* the entrepreneur," says Tom.

"There were some very scary moments, frankly, for me," says Betsy. "Ignorance was bliss. Neither of us knew what it would take to drive this." Tom recalls the early days, where ramping up distribution involved "severe financial challenges." Moreover, you don't always have the ability to add the staff you'd like. "I remember when we did everything, and I mean everything." Tom's daughter helped in the 1990s, sending faxes all over the world to try to put together deals.

Fighting Through Adversity

"Persistence is everything," says Tom, quoting Betsy. Tom describes himself as tenacious and possessed, but Betsy interjects: "you rise above that Tom; you are maniacal." She also cites his ability to adapt. While she's had the same career for 40 years, Tom's had to adapt to plenty of changes. Bulleit Bourbon's corporate owners changed a number of times, for one thing. First Seagram's, then Diageo; furthermore, management at the senior level has seen repeated changes. Tom's work requirements went from staying in Kentucky all the time to non-stop travel; Betsy quickly adapted to becoming the one who spent more time at home.

And then, another curveball from life: in 2005, Tom was diagnosed with colon cancer and spent a lot of time in the hospital that year. Diageo built Tom's role around his chemotherapies; every time he would see Larry Schwartz, then president of Diageo North America, he would credit him with helping him survive cancer. Tom was able to work for maybe six months of that year. "It was relentless for Betsy," says Tom; their son Tucker was just 12 at the time.

Marriage as a Partnership

And, despite all these challenges, the couple has persevered. "It just occured to me that we have a damn fine marriage, don't we," says Tom with a hearty laugh.

Betsy grew up in a family construction business, so she understands entrepreneurship, which helped her understand Tom's drive all these years.

One executive from Diageo told Betsy that his wife wouldn't stand for Tom's torrid pace of work for three minutes, let alone three decades. The couple didn't have distillery experience before launching the brand. "Bulleit bourbon and Bulleit rye are kind of our third and fourth children," says Betsy. When Diageo invested in what was originally a small brand...it's been a very word of mouth brand built off of the assets they have in Kentucky, including their friends in the business community.

Ultimately, Tom and Betsy feel very lucky that they made it. "The lottery has a whole lot shorter odds than building one of the better distilleries in the United States," says Tom. The new distillery in Shelbyville, which employs 30 people in the distillation and maturation process and will start with a capacity of 1.8 million proof gallons annually, is just one more milestone, but not the destination. When people ask Tom what his exit strategy is, his answer is one word: "death." His philosophy is that if you're not building a business on behalf of your grandchildren, you will fail. Do it for the love of the game. And it's clear from Tom and Betsy Bulleit that the love of the game is still quite strong.

Published on: Jun 14, 2017
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