Brown-Forman CEO Paul Varga will retire at the end of the year and will be succeeded by Chief Operating Officer Lawson Whiting, the distiller announced Tuesday.

Paul Varga

Varga, 54, joined Brown-Forman 31 years ago and has served as chief executive since 2005.

Brown-Forman said in a news release that total shareholder return during Varga’s leadership was 17 percent, and that the company’s value, as measured by its market capitalization, had increased almost sixfold.

“Varga focused Brown-Forman’s business on its premium spirits portfolio, significantly expanded the company’s global presence, initiated meaningful brand innovations, expertly deployed capital, and championed the company’s corporate responsibility and diversity and inclusion agendas,” the company said.

George Garvin Brown IV, board chairman, said Varga took the distiller’s reins “when the future of American whiskey was in doubt, even in the United States.

“He will retire having successfully grown the Jack Daniel’s franchise into one of the most valuable spirits trademarks in the world. His transformation of our portfolio, coupled with his multiyear execution of balanced shareholder-friendly capital deployment, marks his tenure as arguably the most successful CEO in our industry’s modern era,” he said.

Varga, who will remain on the board, said in the release that it “has been a privilege to serve Brown-Forman over the last three decades.

“In determining the best time to implement the final piece of this succession plan, I naturally considered the readiness of the company to navigate a leadership transition such as this, and now is the right time,” he said. Also, having worked with Lawson over the last two decades, I believe, and the board has concluded, that he is ideally suited and very well prepared to succeed as Brown-Forman’s next CEO.”

Lawson Whiting

Whiting, 49, began his Brown-Forman career in 1997 in corporate development and investor relations. He has held positions in finance, marketing and commercial functions in the U.S. and Europe. Before becoming COO, he served as chief brands and strategy officer and was responsible for expansions in Scotland and Ireland, as well as investments in Woodford Reserve and Old Forester brands.

“I am taking on this responsibility at a time when the company is performing very well thanks to Paul, my colleagues across the company, and the support of the Brown family and the board of directors,” Whiting said in the release. “We will continue to focus on the premium American Whiskey category and further strengthen our super-premium brand portfolio, as well as develop our people around the world. I look forward to leading Brown-Forman into its next generation of growth.”

Whiting holds a bachelor’s degree in finance from Miami University and an MBA from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. He lives in Louisville with his wife, Debbie, and their three children.

Brown-Forman in March reported third-quarter profit of $190 million on revenue of $1.16 billion. The company is expected to announce full-year results June 6. Shares on Tuesday closed at $56.71, up about 3.5 percent for the year.

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Boris Ladwig
Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.