Monday, January 29, 2024

Barry Berish, Who Ran Jim Beam, Dies at 91

Barry Maurice Berish, 1932-2024
Barry Berish died last week. He was 91.

Berish worked for 40 years, 1957-1997, at Jim Beam Brands, rising to the position of Chief Executive Officer in 1982. Under his leadership, Beam went from a one-brand company to the largest distilled spirits producer in the United States, 5th largest in the world. In 1987, he was instrumental in the company's acquisition of National Distillers, tripling the size of the company, and also acquired several brands from Seagram’s Co. that grew the portfolio by an additional 35 percent. 

I became involved with Beam about the time of the National acquisition and was often in their offices in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield, working on various marketing projects until about 1994. After that, although I worked with some of the Deerfield-based PR people, I was no longer involved with Beam marketing and my writing about bourbon put me more in contact with Beam folks based in Kentucky.

Berish's official obituary talks about his "warmth and charisma," but I remember him differently. I say "remember," although I had very little direct contact with him. I knew where his office was, at the end of hall, right next to that of Rich Reese, his right-hand-man and successor. I saw both of them from time to time. Reese would poke his head into our meetings now and then. I don't recall Berish ever doing even that.

Around the office, Berish was considered volatile, capricious, and best avoided. He was very much in charge. Beam folks called it the "Barry and Rich Show" because their opinions were the only ones that mattered. I heard him blow up a time or two, but always from a safe distance. I was just one of dozens of anonymous suppliers who came and went. I wasn't on his radar and from what everyone told me, that was a good thing.

So, this is not much of a personal remembrance, but Barry Berish made a mark as one of the industry titans of the late 20th century. He helped shape the business as we know it today. When he became Beam's leader, companies like Jim Beam and its chief rival, Jack Daniel's maker Brown-Forman, were struggling with the decline in whiskey sales that had begun a decade earlier. The task before both companies, and others, was to transition from whiskey companies into broad-portfolio distilled spirits companies. Beam, led by Berish, succeeded where many others did not.

1 comment:

Sam Komlenic said...

Thanks for this tribute to a lesser-known industry leader. I guess that since his tenure preceded the current bourbon boom, his legacy needs to be teased out a bit for wider exposure, and you have done just that. I'm sure Mr. Berish would be appreciative.