Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Business

Staying ahead, on and off the track

NEW PORT RICHEY

Ed Brown helped put Patron Spirits on the fast track.

Literally.

Brown will be racing a Patron Ferrari F430 GT in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring on Saturday.

Patron Spirits, widely known for its ultra-premium tequila, sells rums, vodka and tequila in more than 100 countries across the globe.

Started in 1989, Patron was one of the first ultra-premium tequilas — made from 100 percent agave, a plant native to Mexico — to hit the market. The company struggled at first, Brown said, because the tequila is so expensive (a bottle of Gran Patron Platinum tequila runs for about $265), but the product really caught on in the 1990s.

When Brown became the company CEO in 2001, he decided sponsoring a race car would be a good way advertise. His ambitions grew from there. Within a few years, he obtained a professional racing license, drove a Patron-backed car and then got the company to sponsor the entire American Le Mans Series.

"You're always looking for a way to get your brand in front of a whole bunch of people," said Brown, 49. "Back in the day, I thought there was probably no better way to get it out there than to have a race car running around the track with Patron all over it."

A longtime racing enthusiast, Brown has always liked a challenge. He went to work as a liquor distributor for his father after a shoulder injury ended his professional golfing career. After about a year, he was recruited by international liquor giant Seagram, where he held several executive positions before he wound up at Patron.

"Patron was absolutely very challenging in the early days, and I've been very fortunate that it has become the brand that it has become," Brown said. "Car racing is absolutely the most challenging, hardest thing I've ever done in my life."

He spends a lot of time training for races, although not always on the track. Brown has to do a lot of weightlifting and cardio workouts to keep in good condition, and he uses a racing simulator in the "race room" at his house to practice driving.

Brown said Patron revenues actually grew during the Great Recession, a time when many other high-end liquor brands suffered losses. He partly credits that success to his marketing strategy. While other companies cut staff and trimmed their marketing budgets, Brown said he has increased his every year since 2010.

And unlike some other race car sponsors, Brown kept renewing Patron's contract.

His reasoning was that he wouldn't be able to do anything about a decline in sales during the recession, so he wanted to make sure Patron was in a position to be an industry leader when things picked up again.

"When the economy would turn around and become strong again — whenever that happens — I wanted to make sure Patron will still be the most relevant brand in the industry, and the hottest brand out there," Brown said.

And what better way to do that than to slap Patron's colors on the side of a Ferrari?

Patron entered the racing circuit as a sponsor for NASCAR driver Kevin Lepage about 10 years ago, but after six months Brown realized that market wasn't what he was targeting. Patron Tequila is a premium brand, and averages $60 to almost $700 per bottle, depending on the type of liquor. He decided to sponsor a car in the ALMS instead, which he said skewed more to his demographic.

A friend introduced him to driver Scott Sharp, who persuaded Brown to sponsor his car. About six years ago, Sharp, who had become a close friend, surprised Brown with an accelerated four-day course in race car driving, at the end of which he had his professional racing license.

When Sharp decided to start his own team, Extreme Speed Motor­sports, Brown agreed to sponsor the team and join as one of its four drivers.

Brown admits that running an international company, raising three children and racing in a professional series is stressful. Sometimes it takes him an extra lap or two around the track to clear his mind and really focus on the car.

"The team is always amazed that I could be on the phone with attorneys and talking to everybody, and then I put my helmet on and it's time to go drive a race car," Brown said.

Although Patron's national headquarters are in Las Vegas and its international headquarters are in Zurich, Brown runs the company from his home in New Port Richey. He moved to the area from Las Vegas a few years ago to be with his family.

Sponsoring the ALMS was a good fit, Brown said. Like Patron, he said the ALMS has grown throughout the recession.

There will be 70 cars on the track with him at the race in Sebring next week, he said.

Brown will take turns driving with another team member throughout the 12-hour race, in which the cars reach speeds of up to 195 mph.

But the Sebring race marks more than just the start of the racing season for him.

Three years ago, he met his wife, Jené, who was a fitness model, at the same race.

Brown hopes to celebrate their anniversary with a win.

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