He's made his mark

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Bill Samuels Jr., named 2010 Outstanding Industry Manager

By Stevie Lowery

Bill Samuels Jr., president and CEO of Maker's Mark, was voted the 2010 Outstanding Industry Manager by the Marion County Chamber of Commerce earlier this year. But, according to Samuels, he's an awful manager.

"I'm probably the worst manager in the state of Kentucky," he said. "It's the truth."

His father knew that managing wasn't one of his son's strengths, so before he turned the company over to him the position of CEO was "re-designed." Instead of managing, Samuels' role as CEO has been geared toward generating ideas and marketing premium bourbon.

"We had to make rock soup. We had to make something out of nothing," Samuels said. "That's what I do. That's my strength."

Since Samuels took the company's reins in 1975, he and his team at Maker's Mark have made a lot of rock soup. In fact, he has been credited for single-handedly creating the fine bourbon category. And to think he had once pursued a career in making missiles instead of Maker's.

Before Samuels came to Maker's Mark, he not only studied law at Vandy Law School but also worked as a design engineer for Aerojet General Corp., in Sacramento, Calif. He was fired for incompetence.

"I was well on my way to becoming a mediocre rocket scientist," Samuels said.

In the bourbon world, Samuels has been anything but mediocre.

From Maker's Mark's signature red wax, to it's unique marketing campaign and, of course, its taste, the bourbon is known worldwide.

Samuels, himself, is still amazed at what the company has been able to accomplish.

"It started out as a hobby," he said. "We shouldn't even be here today, to be honest. But, along the way, we were actually able to create the category that has allowed us to dominate it."

Samuels remembers being at the Marion County Courthouse when his father bought the distillery in Loretto. It was the fall of 1953, and his dad bought the distillery for $35,000. At the time, he didn't know if this hobby of his dad's would grow into something or fizzle out when his dad retired.

"Today, we are looking at a $110 million expansion. Something has gone right," Samuels said.

Maker's Mark's success is due, in large part, to sheer determination, he said. Samuels, who is a self-professed "bulldog," said he and his team have refused to quit.

"But, not everybody is in as big of a hurry to get to the goal line as I am," he said. "I have a sense of urgency that is off the charts."

Sometimes, his sense of urgency can get him carried away, which is when those around him, including the people of Marion County, bring him back to reality.

"The common sense of Marion County has rescued us," Samuels said. "They bring me back to earth."

Samuels also credits the people of Marion County for the company's continued growth and success. Having a dependable workforce, with low turnover, has allowed the company to have a sense of harmony, he said. In return, the company has tried to make it worth their while, he said.

"They are the ones that built this thing," he said. "It's been a great fit."

Samuels said he had no idea how much of a role the people of Marion County and the distillery's staff would play in the marketing of the Maker's Mark brand. He said, in essence, all of the "teammates" at the distillery are part of the marketing department.

"I could write a book about the little things that our people do to accommodate visitors to our distillery without even being asked," Samuels said.

If he had one complaint about Marion County, it's that the people don't support their schools enough.

"That's a sin," Samuels said.

He said he was very disappointed when the voters didn't support the recallable nickel. He said Maker's Mark pays a great deal in property taxes, and will be paying even more when its expansion is complete. But, he said, the company is happy to do it knowing that the money is going to public education.

"If it goes to K-12, we're willing," he said.

Of all Samuels' accomplishments, he said one he's very proud of is the creation of Maker's 46, which he did with Master Distiller Kevin Smith and the people at the distillery. It's the company's first new product since its original bourbon in 1958.

"It was a Marion County thing," he said. "We kept it a secret for about a year and a half. I don't think there is anything I've done that has been more fun than that."

His other many accomplishments include being chosen as the Kentucky Entrepreneur of the Year in 1995 and 2005, and being selected as Louisville's 2004 Citizen of the Year. Samuels was also named Harvard Lampoon's Man of the Year in 2005, and was inducted into the Kentucky Business Hall of Fame in 2006.

This year will also be a special year for Samuels because on April 1, he's retiring.

"One of my goals was to retire the way Joe DiMaggio retired and it's kind of working out that way," he said.

But, Samuels, who has always championed community involvement, is going to remain very busy.

"I've signed up for a couple biggies," he said.

Samuels is going to chair Bellarmine University's $100 million capital campaign, and he's also going to chair the Ohio Bridges Coalition.

He also plans to stay involved with the company.

"I'm going to hang around and help," he said. "I'm going to be in the very back of the bus."

And, he's not so sure the company won't run better that way.

"The second day I'm gone, nobody is going to remember I was there," Samuels said, "and that's perfect."