Back in 2011, Jim Beam Brands went public. I had the privilege of going to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange with our CEO, Matt Shattock, and other executives to celebrate. We also changed our name to Beam Inc. that day. Pretty simple, pretty straightforward. One word that says it all.
As you can imagine, it was a proud day for us and it got me thinking. We’re an old company, one of the oldest in America. Not many companies have a history like ours. Long, consistent. Not many companies have had one family involved from the start.
So, as I said, I did a little thinking about the reason for our longevity, pondered why we’ve outlasted dozens of competitors–hell, dozens of industries (the horse and buggy, the telegraph, eight-tracks, VCRs)–and in the process, I put together a short list of things that have contributed to our success. If you’re already working in a company or thinking of building one that lasts, you may want to read up.
I think I’ll start here because when you talk about my family, you have to talk about focus. Throughout the years, we’ve maintained a single-mindedness about us that has kept us on the right track.
I think focus–setting one goal and never deviating from it, having it serve as your guiding light through good times and bad–is more than just important for a company and for a brand, it’s essential. Everything you do has to relate back to it. So make sure you have a goal, just one now, and go out after it. And every day, make sure you’re making progress toward it. At the end of the day, when you’re turning out the lights, ask yourself: Did we move a little closer to it? Did we get anything done today that we didn’t yesterday? And it’s important to remember not to get discouraged. Progress comes slow but then it can come fast. It took us generations to get to where we are now.
If there’s one thing that distinguishes Beam from everyone else, it’s our consistency. Over the generations, we’ve mastered a few things, learned to do them right, and every day we go out and do them. Bourbon making is a process; you can’t take shortcuts, can’t do one thing one day, one thing the next. Got to do the same thing: every day, every week, every year. So, regardless of what industry you’re in, perfect your process, and once you get it right, go out there and do it again and again and again. Be the Master Distiller of your own business, perfect your craft, then share that knowledge with your team and make sure they all understand how important it all is. Make sure they understand that being consistent in what you do is what will separate you from everyone else.
I told you most of these were common sense, but you’d be surprised how many companies don’t put an emphasis on this, especially nowadays in our “I want it now” culture, when speed and instant gratification are important. There’s always a temptation to cut corners, to find ways to water something down to make it cheaper, or to revise the process that has worked for you to make it a little faster. We’re a centuries-old company and we’ve lasted because we’ve always resisted those temptations. To be sure now, we’ve innovated, we’ve added technology, updated things. We don’t make whiskey like they did 100 years ago. But we’ve never skimped on the quality. We know what’s important, that what’s inside the bottle is what matters.
There have been times when we could have rushed things. A few years back we basically ran out of Knob Creek, one of our Small Batch Bourbons and a big-time seller. Aged nine years at 100 proof. We could have made adjustments, mixed some of our remaining stock with our whiskies, stretched things, or bottled some younger whiskey, but we didn’t. The result was a shortage in the marketplace that probably cost us some money, but we didn’t rush. When it was ready, we got it back out there. Doing anything else would have compromised our quality. That’s not something we do here. And you shouldn’t either.
One more common sense point, but it’s important: the customer is king. Repeat after me. There’s no reason to go into business if you don’t have consumers who will buy what you’re selling, so you’ve got to take care of them. I think we’ve always done a good job of connecting with the people who buy our products. I’ve mentioned before that besides making bourbon, the Beams are good at selling it. A lot of that is plain old hard work and relationship building: getting out there and shaking hands, thanking the people, building friendships with the bartenders, the distributors, the restaurant and bar owners, and the general consumers. We don’t take anyone for granted, never have. We’ve always made an effort to let them know we appreciate their loyalty. And we have loyal customers, about as loyal as you can get. People who are engaged with our brand, people who feel part of the Beam family.
Case in point: Not that long ago, we ran a little Facebook promotion. I said if we got more than one million Facebook fans in three months, I would do something bold. (Full disclosure: It was the marketing department’s idea, and I went along with it because I didn’t think we’d reach the mark, so I thought, what the hell, I’ll play along.) Well, I underestimated our customers, underestimated them big time. They got into it and we blew by that mark–we added thousands of fans in no time. So, to show my appreciation, and to keep my part of the bargain, I went out and got myself a tattoo of the Jim Beam logo on my arm. It was my first tattoo and it was a big deal because I hate needles, but it was the least I could do, and a deal is a deal. And our customers loved it. I got e-mails from hundreds of them saying they appreciated the effort, appreciated that I kept my word. I also got pictures of other people with Jim Beam tattoos. (Some had gotten them in strange places.) Apparently I wasn’t the first one with the idea. So it was all good. I had some fun, but more important, I showed our customers my gratitude. Without them, I’m not sure where I would be. (I’ll tell you one thing, I wouldn’t be writing a book.) So, stay close to your customers, engage them in your business, and show them you understand them, that you care. I’m not saying you have to go out and get a tattoo, but that might help.
Reprinted by permission the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Beam, Straight Up, by Fred Noe Copyright (c) 2012 by Fred Noe.
Frederick Booker Noe III (Bardstown, Kentucky; jimbeam.com) is the Global Brand Ambassador and Master Distiller of Jim Beam, one of the best-selling brands of bourbon whiskey. He is the seventh generation in the Beam family to assume this responsibility, officially assuming the Master Distiller role in 2007.
[Image: Flickr user Robert S. Donovan]