Ex-CEO of Brown-Forman dies; he made Ky. company a global force

LOUISVILLE — Retired business executive Owsley Brown II, who spread Brown-Forman's reach to liquor stores and restaurants worldwide as chairman and CEO of the company founded by his great-grandfather, died late Monday after a brief illness. He was 69.

Mr. 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 that includes brands such as Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey, Southern Comfort and Finlandia vodka.

"Owsley was a truly remarkable man with a brilliant mind," said 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."

Mr. Brown began his Brown-Forman career in 1968, continuing a family legacy that began with the company's founding in 1870. He became 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 United States. By the time he stepped down as CEO in 2005, nearly half of revenue was generated from international markets.

Mr. Brown retired as company chairman in 2007.

He also was a prominent philanthropist and preservationist known for his support for art, music and environmental protection.

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 ... ."