If anybody has earned the title of entrepreneur it is Bulleit Bourbon founder Tom Bulleit.
After successfully completing law school and working as lawyer for several years, and with a wife and two children depending on him, Mr. Bulleit decided to revitalize the family bourbon recipe and start a business.
In part two of our three-part series, he talks about the struggles he faced in building the business and the decision to move forward with his vision, even though the two people closest to him – his father and his wife – didn’t get it. Read part one here.
Male Standard – What inspired you to start this business?
Tom Bulleit – Well, when I grew up we’d been six generations in Kentucky. In and out of the business for all those generations. My father was not in the business. But when I was growing up, he did want to keep me busy. Between school I worked in the family distillery, along with extended family – and absolutely loved it. I fell in love with the business, some of which was because the job in the distillery was juxtaposed with the job he made me do, to make sure I stayed in school, for motivation. And they were some really challenging jobs. For instance, I still have at home in a drawer somewhere a hod carrier’s union card. Do you know what a hod carrier is?
MS – I don’t.
TB – A hod carrier is a person, you know a bricklayer? A hod carrier is the person that gives them the bricks, that hands the bricks to the professional brick layer so he can lay them down, and he carries them in a hod. So you lift the bricks up to where he is on the building, and of course carry the mortar up there as well. So, it was rigorous to say the least. I also had a job loading grocery trucks in a big warehouse. Same thing – very rigorous job. So, the juxtaposition with working at the distilleries which tended to be a lot more interesting, a lot more varied. Loved working there and of course our family had been in and out of the business. So I graduated from college from the University of Kentucky with what my dad described as an “abysmal performance.” I don’t think I even knew what abysmal meant at the time!
Because of my performance, I said I wanted to go ahead and be a master distiller. And he said, “Well you’ll be going into the service.” Because everybody was in service in the ’60s. And, he told me that I’d learn to be a lawyer. And, I am a lawyer – I did what my dad said. You have to have good grades to go to law school, so I did that and came back to him and said I really wanted to do this. So it’s something I’d been interested in for my whole life, and something our family has been in and out of for generations.
MS – Was that a big part of it – the family legacy? To see that live on?
TB – It wasn’t as much. Because my father wasn’t in the business, he wasn’t excited about the business. Most of what I learned, a lot of the values I have in my life are directly from my father. So it influenced me and he couldn’t care less about that – he almost off-handedly told me about Augustus’ (Augusts Bulleit, who made the first batch around 1830) recipe. More like, ‘Who cares?’ So it wasn’t so much a part of family legacy as that I loved it – it’s such a part of Kentucky. And really, what I was; maybe less of what he felt.
MS – If you could go back and talk to your 30-year-old self, and give him one piece of advice, what would it be?
TB – I don’t have a clue – I’ve never thought about that. I’m 31 now!
MS – Ha! So last year…
TB – I’m going back, trying to remember what my 30-year-old self was, what I was like at 30-years-old. I was a terrible undergraduate student. Then a Vietnam veteran and I was with the Marine Corps; that will serious you up! We were in Washington D.C. and I was practicing law with the government. My daughter was born when I was 31-years-old. This may sound trite, but it’s the advice I think every father gives, and that is pay as much attention as you can – more attention than you can – to the children. When my daughter Hollis was growing up I was working with lawyers doing long, hard hours.
You have to really, seriously think about quality time. You just have to plant that in there. No person my age wouldn’t look back, whether it’s yesterday or 30 years ago, and say “I wish I would’ve spent more quality time with my family.” When you have careers like this and you’re going this way – fear will push you this way and responsibility will push you another way – fear usually wins out. And you set in front of yourself these tasks and you just do them.
I remember a few years back, I had an office in the house as most of us do now. And my wife said, “You know, you spent half of Christmas Day in your office.”
Also, the huge hole in my approach initially was that I didn’t know much about distribution. Distribution is absolutely crucial in my business, as it is in most businesses. And the distribution infrastructure was marvelous in the United States but I knew almost nothing about it. And it is very hard to get them interested in you, a very small brand, a tiny brand, a start-up brand. That is a huge hurdle. And as we have more young people coming into our business it will be a hurdle for them – it’s really tough
MS – Kind of cliché, but as the saying goes, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” You travel and work a lot, but do you love what you do? You’re spending Christmas Day working but I’m sure in your mind, you weren’t even conscious of it.
TB – I’ve just said this two or three times here recently, but people ask me what my “exit” is? Death. I love what I do. As long as I can physically do this, I will. To make this transition from a lawyer to commercial law, which is very detailed, to this really public person, my daughter just can’t believe it.
People ask me all the time, “What’s your favorite place to go?” I don’t have a favorite, but I love the people. People are wonderful every place. I love that aspect of it. As my wife would say, “Your avocation is your vocation.”
Be sure to check out part three of our interview with Tom next week.
For more information on the history of Bulleit Bourbon, visit www.bulleit.com