Hank Ingram

MBA, 2016

CEO, Brown Water Spirits

Could you provide a brief recap of your career since graduating from Vanderbilt?

“I graduated in ‘16, and from there, I returned to work for our family business at Ingram Industries. I got involved shortly after coming back with a project to bring a major league soccer team to Nashville. So, I spent some time on that project and then worked for Nashville Soccer Club until June of 2020. From there, I decided to get more into the whiskey business. I spend about half my time on whiskey and half with our maritime business, Ingram Barge Company. So, I wear a few hats.”

What is your company? What served as the biggest motivator or influence in starting your company?

“Brown Water Spirits is the name of our company, and we have the O.H. Ingram River Aged Whiskey Series. As part of that, we make bourbons, rye, and a whiskey that are all aged on our barge on the Mississippi River. We use the motion of the river and the climate there to encourage a unique interaction with the whiskey and the barrel, and it makes a pretty good product, in my opinion.

I developed the idea at Vanderbilt. I joined the Cork and Barrel club and went to bourbon tastings. They talked about what it takes to make bourbon and the history of it. That is where I learned how bourbon used to move down the river back in the early days, really as a point of distribution. Having a background in the barge business, I thought, ‘Well heck, let’s move some barrels and see what happens.’ I didn’t realize at the time it was illegal to warehouse spirits on a vessel, but we made it work later on. 

My motivator was actually Launching the Venture taught by Michael Burcham. We developed a business plan and won the competition at the end of the semester. That kind of gave me the confidence to go out and try to turn it into a real functioning business.”

What is the most challenging thing about being an entrepreneur, and how have you worked to overcome this challenge?

“For me, it is dealing with a lack of knowledge in the space. Part of the fun of being an entrepreneur is you don’t always have preexisting knowledge, which is both good and bad. You bring a fresh set of eyes, fresh perspective because you don’t know the way it’s always been done. So, you approach things differently. At the same time, it is a challenge because you don’t have the history of what didn’t work. To overcome that knowledge gap, I have surrounded myself with people that I can go to with specific questions. Not to tell me how to do what I am trying to do, but to help me think through a particular problem and have a knowledge base to be able to draw on while still keeping what makes you different at the core.”

What qualities are most important to possess as an entrepreneur?

“I boil it down to three. The first is to have curiosity and to ask questions. Seek to learn about opportunities beyond what you are working on. Then you have to have the flexibility to take the learnings that come as a result and be willing to pivot and change your approach if you learn something that was counter to your initial hypothesis. The third quality is grit. After curiosity and flexibility, you also have to have some determination that you are on the right path. Question things around you, not yourself, that can be a deep hole. Having a little bit of grit to say, ‘I am on the right path, I may need to tweak some things, but I am always going to be looking to stay ahead of the curve through curiosity.’ They all play on each other.”

What are you most proud of about your business?

“I am most proud of creating a product that people want to talk about. I think every good product or company should be interesting to talk about, especially if it is consumer-facing. Because if people want to tell their friends about it, you are on to something, and they are doing the work for you. We have a new way to make whiskey, which also is traditional to how it used to be done. I think that excites people because we are not creating our product in a test tube in a lab. That’s not authentic to the history of how whiskey is made. But it is a new approach that when people learn about it, they are like, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ That is always fun, and I am glad people respond so positively.”

What advice do you have for students as they launch their business? Are there any tools you consistently use as an entrepreneur?

“First lesson: it is going to take longer than you think it will, and it is going to cost more than you think it will. So, surround yourself with knowledgeable people and, more importantly early on, strategic investors. Because when you hit those walls, going to somebody that is not only invested in you but also has the knowledge to help you get through the eventual problem is going to be key. I think it is also important to have a learning mindset. If you are the smartest person in the room, you may not be in the right room. Finally, have fun because there is no bright line to cross and all of a sudden hear, “You did it!” There is always another challenge, but if you do not stop and smell the roses, you can lose yourself quickly and burn out.

As for tools, I would recommend seeking out industry groups. Usually, they gather great data, but it might require a subscription or membership. The easiest way to make a good decision is one that has a lot of data behind it.” Find those bodies and interact with them and engage because they can open doors as well.

What do you do to live a balanced life? Do you have any interesting or fun hobbies?

“Oh boy, I have a lot of hobbies: I play guitar, I play a lot of golf, and I love hunting, to name a few. I have two dogs that I have trained myself. It is fun taking a puppy, training them, and then taking them out and actually watching them work. If you can find a place to hunt without cell service for a few hours, even better. It’s a great way to unplug and recharge.”