John Y. Brown Jr., KFC Mogul and Governor of Kentucky, dies at 88

John Y. Brown Jr., a born salesman who became a multi-millionaire by turning Kentucky Fried Chicken into a global brand, then sold himself to voters in a six-week televised blitz to become a serving-term governor of Kentucky, died Tuesday in Lexington, Ky. He was 88.

His family said the death, in a hospital, was caused by complications from Covid-19.

Mr. Brown, a 30-year-old lawyer at the time, and another investor bought Kentucky Fried Chicken from its founder, Harlan Sanders, for $2 million in 1964 (about $19.3 million today). Over the next seven years, he transformed a national chain of around 600 restaurants into one of the largest fast-food chains in the world, with some 3,000 red-and-white-striped take-out outlets.

He sold the business in 1971 to Heublein Inc., the distiller, for an estimated personal profit of over $30 million (about $225 million today).

A prodigious Democratic fundraiser, Mr. Brown, the son of a former Kentucky congressman and state legislator, first flirted with a political career, planning to run for the United States Senate before moving on. speak out against at the last minute and then evaluate an offer. for governor in 1975 before again declining to join the race.

In 1979, however, recently married to Phyllis George, a pioneering sports commentator and former Miss America, Mr Brown immersed himself in a six-week television campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination and beat several candidates by a plurality just under 30%. He then easily beat Louie B. Nunn, a former Republican governor, in November.

Hampered by a recession, Mr Brown has compiled a mixed record as state chief executive. Billing himself as “the policy maker and manager of finances”, he sought to attract investment by promoting “Kentucky & Co”. as “the state that is run like a business”. But to maintain state solvency, he had to cut the government payroll by thousands of employees while trying to avoid major cuts in services.

“He was a good steward of Commonwealth resources, but he was not a leader who proposed new programs in areas such as education or human resources,” wrote Mary K. Bonsteel Tachau and Bruce L. McClure in “Kentucky’s Governors” (1985). .

After completing his term in December 1983, Mr Brown entered the Kentucky Democratic primary in 1984 for a US Senate seat, but withdrew six weeks later, citing the lingering effects of a life-threatening heart bypass. he had suffered in his last year as governor. . In 1987, he again sought the gubernatorial nomination but came second in the Democratic primary. By then his shine as a potential national candidate had faded.

His investment career continued after his purchase of Kentucky Fried Chicken. In 1969, he purchased a controlling interest in the Kentucky Colonels from the American Basketball Association. The team won the league championship in 1975 but folded when the ABA merged with the National Basketball Association the following year. Mr. Brown then bought a half interest in the NBA’s Buffalo Braves, a former expansion team.

But when he was blocked from moving the Braves to Louisville, Ky., Mr. Brown and a partner struck a deal with Boston Celtics ownership to swap teams. (The new owners soon moved the Braves to San Diego and later Los Angeles as the Clippers.) In Boston, Mr. Brown alienated loyalists by trading popular players before selling the team in 1979 .

He also founded a chain of roast chicken restaurants with country music star Kenny Rogers, calling it Kenny Rogers Roasters. It grew to 350 outlets, but competition from Kentucky Fried Chicken, then known as KFC, and the Boston Chicken chain (later known as Boston Market) drove it out of business in 1998. (It was later acquired by Nathan’s Famous.)

John Young Brown Jr. was born in Lexington on December 28, 1933. John Sr. was a trial attorney who served one term in the United States House of Representatives in the mid-1930s and served as a member of the United States House of Representatives. Kentucky for several decades. He lost perennial races for governor and the US Senate – losses that haunted his son and which John Jr. later blamed on machine politicians whose support his father had rejected. His mother was Dorothy (Inman) Brown.

He received a bachelor’s degree in 1957 and a law degree in 1960, both from the University of Kentucky, and served in the Army Reserve from 1959 to 1965.

An entrepreneur by instinct, in high school Mr. Brown had earned up to $1,000 a month in commissions in a summer job selling vacuum cleaners, and up to $25,000 a year selling the Encyclopaedia Britannica during his law studies.

He was also a high-stakes player, a habit his rivals would use against him. He was investigated for failing to make a mandatory report of a $1.3million cash withdrawal from one of his bank accounts, although he was never charged of wrongdoing.

Mr Brown’s first marriage, to Eleanor Durall, known as Ellie, ended in divorce. In 1973, named president of the Kentucky Colonels after buying the majority of the team’s stock, she became the first woman to lead a major professional basketball team.

His marriage to Ms George, in 1979, also ended in divorce, in 1998. She died of a rare blood cancer in 2020 aged 70 after a long career as a CBS sportscaster, in which she broke a barrier in 1975 by joining the all-male cast of “The NFL Today” show.

His third marriage, to Jill Louise Roach, a former Mrs. Kentucky, ended in divorce in 2003.

Mr. Brown is survived by three children from his first marriage, Sissy Brown, Sandra Brown Steier and John Y. Brown III, who served as Kentucky’s secretary of state in the late 1990s and early 2000s; and two children from his marriage to Mrs. George, Lincoln Tyler George Brown and Pamela Brown, senior Washington correspondent and weekend anchor for CNN.


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