Nearly 150 years after its founder George Garvin Brown started what today is known as Brown-Forman Corporation its current CEO Paul Varga has announced his retirement. Varga has been a part of Brown-Forman for 31 years, almost unheard of in today’s job hopping world, and has served as the company’s President and Chief Executive Officer for the last 15 years. Varga will be retiring his position effective December 31, 2018.
Lawson E. Whiting to Serve as Brown-Forman’s Next CEO
Varga will be succeeded by Lawson E. Whiting, unanimously approved by the Board of Directors. Whiting, a 21-year veteran of the company who currently serves as EVP and Chief Operating Officer, will become the tenth executive leader of Brown-Forman, since its founding in 1870 by George Garvin Brown.
Market Capitalization Up 6x During Vargas Tenure
Varga began his CEO tenure in 2003 overseeing the company’s beverage business and succeeded Owsley Brown II as the corporation’s CEO in 2005. During his time leading the company, Varga focused Brown-Forman’s business on its premium spirits portfolio, significantly expanded the company’s global presence, initiated meaningful brand innovations, expertly deployed capital, and championed the company’s corporate responsibility and diversity and inclusion agendas. His leadership resulted in Brown-Forman enjoying some of the highest and most consistent growth rates in the distilled spirits industry over this time horizon. Most notably, the company’s total shareholder return (TSR) during his leadership tenure to date has been 17%, propelled by an almost six-fold increase in the company’s market capitalization, which today approximates $28 billion. Varga will remain on the Brown-Forman Board of Directors.
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George Garvin Brown IV, chairman of the board since 2007, thanked Varga for his leadership. “On behalf of our Board of Directors, the employees, and all Brown-Forman shareholders, I would like to express my gratitude to Paul for leading the extended Brown-Forman community for the last 15 years. Paul entered the leadership ranks at a time when the future of American Whiskey was in doubt, even in the United States. He will retire having successfully grown the Jack Daniel’s franchise into one of the most valuable spirits trademarks in the world. His transformation of our portfolio, coupled with his multi-year execution of balanced shareholder-friendly capital deployment, marks his tenure as arguably the most successful CEO in our industry’s modern era.”
Varga stated, “It has been a privilege to serve Brown-Forman over the last three decades. In determining the best time to implement the final piece of this succession plan, I naturally considered the readiness of the company to navigate a leadership transition such as this, and now is the right time. Also, having worked with Lawson over the last two decades, I believe, and the Board has concluded, that he is ideally suited and very well prepared to succeed as Brown-Forman’s next CEO.”
Whiting, who is 49, began his career with the company in corporate development and investor relations. Since then he has held several leadership positions, taking on assignments in finance, marketing and commercial functions in the United States and in Europe. Prior to his current role, Whiting served as EVP and Chief Brands and Strategy Officer (2015 to 2017), during which time he was responsible for re-shaping Brown-Forman’s portfolio, including the acquisition of the BenRiach company in Scotland, the launch of Slane Irish Whiskey, and the significant investments in Woodford Reserve and Old Forester bourbon brands. Previously he was SVP and Chief Brands Officer (2013 to 2015) and SVP and Managing Director for Western Europe (2011 to 2013). Whiting earned a B.A. from Miami University and a M.B.A. from The University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business.
Commenting on Whiting’s appointment, Brown said, “The Board, and in particular its Governance & Nominating Committee led by Lead Independent Director John Cook, have been working on succession planning with Paul since his earliest days as CEO, more than 10 years ago. Looking ahead, we believe that in Lawson we have another Brown-Forman leader with the strength of character and the intellectual rigor that is uniquely well-suited to lead our independent culture and our teams in balanced long-term thinking and global brand building. He is the right leader to help Brown-Forman seize the enormous global opportunities that lie ahead of us for many years to come.”
“I am honored and excited to become Brown-Forman’s next CEO,” said Whiting. “I am taking on this responsibility at a time when the company is performing very well thanks to Paul, my colleagues across the company, and the support of the Brown family and the Board of Directors. We will continue to focus on the premium American Whiskey category and further strengthen our super-premium brand portfolio, as well as develop our people around the world. I look forward to leading Brown-Forman into its next generation of growth.”