July 10, 2018
All in the Family
By Max Shapira
Heaven Hill Distillery
I’m often asked, “What’s the biggest thing you’ve done since being at Heaven Hill?” And people expect I’ll point to a brand launch or acquisition or some change in operations, but those aren’t it. I’m sincere when I say that having the next generation of my family squarely positioned to be running this company in the future is the most significant thing I’ve done.
Heaven Hill Distillery has been a family business from the beginning. When we began in 1935 we worked with other businesses, from distributors to farmers to bottle suppliers, that were family-owned-and-operated much like we continue to do today. That meant a lot of families, not public companies, all of whom had a lot on the line, a lot invested into their livelihoods, and we respected that about each other.
Since my grandfather came from Lithuania to America in the late 1800s, Shapiras have run their own businesses. To get his start, he was a pedler who sold notions like thimbles and threads and other small household goods from a pack on his back. Ultimately, he opened what back then was called a “junior department store” in New Haven, KY, and enlisted his five sons to help grow that business to 18 outlets throughout Central Kentucky.
Back in the early 1930s, when everybody knew Prohibition was going to end, the Shapira brothers—including my dad, Ed Shapira—were approached by a group that had a lot of pre-Prohibition technical experience in distilling. They wanted to open a distillery but lacked the capital to start it, so they talked the Shapira family into investing about $18,000 in the fledgling enterprise, which was a lot of money in those days, particularly given that all of this was going on during the height of the Great Depression. We often joke these days that this must’ve been private equity — 1935 style.
Less than two years later, the individuals operating the distillery encountered some personal financial difficulties. The only options they saw were to sell the distillery or sell their shares to the Shapira family. Our family got together and, though, knowing what they were doing was a continued, highly speculative venture, decided to give it a whirl. They bought out their partners for roughly $20,000, which, fortunately for us, turned out to be a very good investment.
Over the next few decades, Heaven Hill grew steadily as an American Whiskey maker with products like Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond and eventually Evan Williams. Despite the softness of Bourbon sales in the ’60s and ’70s, our whiskey brands continued to grow, even though vodka and gin were the spirits of the moment. When the American Whiskey revival eventually began in the 1990s with the advent of small batch and single barrel products such as Elijah Craig and Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage, we found ourselves well positioned to grow along with it. We’ve nurtured several historic brands throughout the years, some nationally iconic, and others regionally beloved, including Rittenhouse Rye, Pikesville Rye, Old Fitzgerald Bourbon, and Henry McKenna Bourbon among others.
Naturally, at some point in a family business, one thinks about how to perpetuate family involvement. Of course, I wanted my daughter, Kate, and son, Andy, to join us, but both were doing very well in their careers at other companies in different industries. I decided I’d never pressure either of them to come back as part of a familial duty. I wanted them to be passionately excited about moving back through natural osmosis. It turns out both were already considering a move home to Kentucky thanks to my wife, Ellen.
In 2001, Kate became our Vice President of Marketing, and her husband, Allan Latts, our Chief Operating Officer. My son, Andy Shapira joined us in 2006 and now manages our sales division in the western United States. In addition to their daily duties, all are involved in setting the long-term growth strategy of the company. It’s rare to find the next generation deeply interested in what their parents built, not to mention find people with such unique talents and passions for their positions.
Family businesses can be challenging, so it surprises no one that we all don’t agree on everything. But we’ve learned to go into a room, hash it out and come out walking in the same direction. Sometimes that includes Sunday night family dinners at my house.
Their focus and determination give me great confidence in Heaven Hill’s future.
To learn more about the Shapira Family’s history, check out the Meet the Shapira Family page for videos, photos, and content, taking you from the purchasing of Heaven Hill Distillery to present day.