Former Brown-Forman Corp. chairman and CEO Owsley Brown II, who took the company founded by his great-grandfather and spread its reach to liquor stores, bars and restaurants worldwide, died late Monday after a brief illness. He was 69.
Brown's sudden passing drew an outpouring of reaction from political leaders who praised his business skills and philanthropic spirit.
"Louisville lost a great friend today; he will be missed," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who praised Brown's "pioneering career" and "generous philanthropic efforts."
Brown oversaw the Louisville-based company's transformation into a formidable player in spirits markets worldwide. Late in his career, Brown-Forman shed its Lenox fine china and Hartmann luggage divisions to focus on its core beverage business.
Brown-Forman is one of the largest American-owned spirits companies. Its long lineup of brands includes Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey, Southern Comfort and Finlandia vodka.
"Owsley was a truly remarkable man with a brilliant mind," said current Brown-Forman CEO Paul Varga. "His combined analytical and creative talents enabled him to be both a visionary and a practical steward of the company's business."
In its last full fiscal year, Brown-Forman reported net income of $571.6 million, or $3.90 per share, on revenue of $3.4 billion. The company has nearly 4,000 employees worldwide.
Brown, a Yale graduate who earned a master's in business administration from Stanford University, served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army at the Pentagon, according to a Brown-Forman release.
He began his Brown-Forman career in 1968, continuing a family legacy that began with the company's founding in 1870.
Brown rose to become the company's CEO in 1993 and added the title of chairman two years later. During his tenure, Brown-Forman dramatically boosted its international presence and modernized its marketing efforts.
When he took over as CEO, less than one-fourth of Brown-Forman's net sales came from outside the U.S. By the time he stepped down as chief executive officer in 2005, nearly half of Brown-Forman's revenues were generated from international markets. That trend has continued, and the company now gets about 55 percent of its total net sales from non-U.S. markets.
Brown retired as company chairman in 2007 and from its board of directors in 2008.
He was also a prominent philanthropist and preservationist known for his support for art, music and environmental protection.
Gov. Steve Beshear called Brown an "unparalleled leader in business, philanthropy and civic responsibility. Louisville and Kentucky are better places today because of his passion, vision and gifts."
U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, who represents Louisville, said the city had lost one of its "fiercest and most committed advocates."
"The success he achieved in building Brown-Forman into a global power is matched only by what he gave back to our community through his leadership in the arts, health care and education," Yarmuth said.
Brown is survived by his wife, Christy, three children and nine grandchildren.
His funeral will be at 10 a.m. EDT Friday at Christ Church Cathedral in Louisville, followed by a private burial at the couple's Breeze Hill Farm in Oldham County, the company said.