Husband-wife business team creates popular Tennessee distillery.
When many think of whiskey distilleries in Tennessee, Jack Daniel’s is often the first to come to mind. But Jack Daniel’s isn’t owned and operated by Harbert College of Business graduates. Leiper’s Fork Distillery, near Franklin, Tennessee, is.
Lee Kennedy, who as a 16-year-old built a still in his mother’s Nashville, Tennessee, basement, blended his fascination of distillation with an entrepreneurial spirit and created a 100-proof family-owned distillery in 2016. Lee and his wife, Lynlee, founded the distillery, which produces, and distributes three brands of whiskey—Old Natchez Trace, Leiper’s Fork, and Hunter’s Select.
The husband-wife team makes for an interesting business dynamic just miles south of Nashville. Lee, a 2000 Harbert College graduate in business administration, manages the overall operations of the distillery, while Lynlee, a 2002 Harbert College finance graduate, manages the retail aspect, including scheduling, inventory management, and marketing.
“She does this on top of running our household and raising two wonderful boys,” Lee says about his wife. “We definitely have our hands full between kids, school, sports and work. We try to leave our work at the office, but sometimes that is easier said than done. It is always nice to have a trusted ally at work and we both have each other’s best interest at heart.”
The couple met in high school in Nashville, but began dating in college.
Lee Kennedy, who grew up in Monroeville and Orange Beach, Alabama, before moving to Nashville, didn’t go directly into the distillery business after college. Instead, he worked as an estimator in commercial construction while continuing his beloved hobby of making whiskey. But when Tennessee laws were revised in 2009 —allowing distilleries to open in 41 counties—Kennedy’s hobby became pursuit of a dream.
Lynlee made it her priority to support that dream. “Naturally, I have suggestions and opinions, but the most important role I can have being Lee’s wife and business partner is to be his number one fan and support,” she says. “I am so proud of what Lee has accomplished and I think that we are truly blessed to be able to work together and continue to grow our business successfully.”
Obviously, new business must clear hurdles. Leiper’s Fork was no different, as it had to clear numerous local and federal regulations before opening. “At the local level, we went through a three-year approval process that included four public hearings and a law change,” Lee says. “Being tenacious is an asset.”
Another hurdle any business faces is managing personnel. Lynlee Kennedy says a crucial part in that process is making employees feel important and special. “To be successful at anything you must have a creative, talented, dedicated team on your side,” she says. “We couldn’t be where we are today without the support of our team. I think that is very important to treat your team the way you would want to be treated. Get your team involved as much as you can. Ask your team for suggestions. Give your team credit where due.”
Leiper’s Fork isn’t creating a product that will be consumed tomorrow, or next week. Instead, the Kennedys must think long-term. Very long-term.
“The distilling industry is a little different in the fact that we think in terms of decades and not in months or years,” says Kennedy, whose operation is one of 32 distilleries in the state. “Whiskey we barrel today will not see the light of day for five years or so. Everything we do here promotes that focus – including retail, tours and tastings.
“I think every business needs to understand its primary reason for being. As a distillery, our primary focus is producing the best whiskey we can using local resources and time-honored techniques. This sets us up for how we are perceived down the road.”
Lee Kennedy advises young entrepreneurs to set goals and strive toward them with tenacity. “If you have something that you want to do, then go for it, but do it wholeheartedly. I believe that when the unquenchable passion, hard work, and proper funding meet, good things can happen,” he says.
“Branding starts with customer service, especially with a local company. Word of mouth can make or break you in a local market, and we take that seriously.”
Kennedy hopes to have his products in the Auburn market by this fall.