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Owsley Brown's message to Louisville: Bigger not always better

Owsley Brown's message to Louisville: Bigger not always better

by Joe Arnold


Posted on September 28, 2011 at 12:29 AM

Owsley Brown II's legacy in Louisville is highlighted by his philanthropy and his leadership of Brown-Forman as it transformed into a global company.  Brown died on Monday, September 26, 2011 at the age of 69.

In June, Brown received the Woodrow Wilson Award for Corporate Citizenship.  His comments, as excerpted below, illustrate his view of Louisville and admonition that the community should treasure its mid-market size rather than long for the growth of previous peer cities.

A frequent question in Louisville is how, in recent decades, Nashville, Indianapolis and Atlanta have boomed while Louisville has remained roughly the same.  Brown offers a contrarian response to the question.

June 24, 2011 2:15pm

Written by
Owsley Brown II

Yesterday, afternoon, the Wilson Center held a seminar here with the University of Louisville on issues facing smaller urban areas like ours. I thought it appropriate for us to delve further tonight into one issue that has long interested me:  How smaller cities might think about their size to see if they like the size they are and want to perfect things within their present scale, or whether they instinctively prefer to get bigger (always a fashionable choice, except for waistlines of course), even if the resources that must be directed to achieve that bigness means they will have to neglect making better what they now have.

I will use Louisville as our example.

Why do people like living here and raising their families here? While there are many wonderful reasons, I want to focus on just one: our fortuitous size. We are big enough to have, for example, great urban cultural and educational resources, and to have three international Fortune 500 companies happily based here. Yet we are small enough to still have a sense of oneness with our fellow citizens in other parts of the metro area.

This sense of community makes us feel we really can be responsible for our own destiny and that we really are able to take advantage of opportunities we create for ourselves. It also makes us feel our problems are not of such an overwhelming nature that we are helpless to solve them. We have, by and large, a well-balanced, well-sized urban and suburban social system, and one that seems highly satisfying to the human side of our citizen's lives.

If we happen to conclude that increasing our scale per se is the wrong choice for us, then we are able to focus on that highly productive goal: Improving the quality of each of our activities for the good of our present citizens.

For example, if we are happy with our size today, we don't need to spend our limited educational resources building more school rooms; rather, we can spend them on increasing the value to each student of what goes on in our present classrooms.

If we are not trying to create jobs for a new, larger population increment to fill, then we can concentrate on creating and improving jobs for people who live here right now.

One way we might do this is to encourage our smaller companies here to emulate the revitalization of their manufacturing base that is happening now on a large scale at Ford and General Electric.
Another is to invest more in adult training and education programs to help our people perform at higher levels, so they can earn higher pay in their present line of work.

We can improve our existing streets with great engineering and their sightlines with tree planting, rather than being compelled to build raw, new streets, ever longer and more distant from our center.

Let's test the “being bigger doesn't mean being better” idea with a few local examples:

If you are interested in the arts, you might easily think that “if only our city were bigger, we would have the population to make our orchestra work financially.” But size alone turns out not to be the answer, when we consider that even Philadelphia, a city about twice the size of ours, now has its great orchestra in bankruptcy. What will help is open minds to engage in creative, practical problem-solving, and dealing with issues we should have dealt with 25 years ago, which is, I believe, exactly what‘s now going on in our own orchestra's case.

The orchestra reminds us, though, that our arts here are a gift of gold to our city, improving our children's performance at school and stimulating in countless adults creativity, which allows them to better solve their personal, business and our city's civic problems. And in relation to the huge contribution to our city's well-being made by our arts, their net cost to our community is rather modest.

Now let's look at an example in a really old industry: the provision of water for a city.

The bad boy example is Vivendi, a French water company that went off in such wild pursuit of size of any nature that it even bought Universal Pictures in Hollywood, spiraling the company downward into near collapse 10 years ago.

Contrast this with our own Louisville Water Company, now 150 years old. When we in the public think of it, we think of the architectural wonders at the foot of Zorn Avenue; of the two magnificent spots up on Crescent Hill; and, recently, of the company's great new office on Third Street. Right from its 19th-century founding, the leaders of this company, wanted to impress and to elevate the public perception of the company and its product. And they tried to do this via world-class architecture. And, boy, did it work!

People liked the new water they got in 1861, so pipes were laid to serve more and more people. The city's then-high cholera incidence plummeted; and the company thrived.
But something else happened too: As a side effect, the excellent architecture not only encouraged the company's employees to do a good job, but it stimulated in them such creative genius that, by, say 1885, our locally perfected water purification techniques became the gold standard, and not just for the great river cities of North America, but for river cities far beyond our shores as well.

And it's happening again in the 21st century, with the company's new cutting edge sand filtration tunnels now operating successfully as the first of their magnitude in the world.

Something similar happened at our company, Brown-Forman. For years people kept saying: You needed to be bigger to compete, so merge, because only the big can survive! Instead, we concentrated on serving our long-term investors well by producing and creating products of such appealing quality that they would be very desirable to our consumers, regardless of how small our company was.

Let me give you some facts: When, 43 years ago, I joined a much smaller Brown-Forman, there were five giant distillers dominating our industry. But their big scale seemed to breed arrogance and complacency, and even a sense of entitlement, rather than give them any net strategic advantage. Not a one of these giants survives today. Not one.

And at Brown-Forman, our focus on quality rather than bigness also had a remarkable side effect: As more people around the globe discovered our wonderful products, the more they wanted them; so we did grow in size anyway, and we grew greatly! And it hasn't stopped yet, thanks to Paul Varga and his amazing team.

So, in my view, there is much worthy work for all of us to improve qualitatively every aspect of our citizens' lives. But one thing seems clear to me: Pursuing size for its own sake is a very poor choice.

Our beloved city might get bigger over the decades because we have gotten better. But it is highly doubtful we will be any better off (and we could be a lot worse off) just because we tried to get bigger. This is a very liberating idea, if we accept it, freeing us from wasting our time bowing before the Idol of Size.

So, let's work together to use this liberating energy so well that we in our city will serve as a model for cities of all sizes throughout our country and even the world.