Taking a chance on a new job is never easy—especially when that new job would involve moving across the country and switching into an unfamiliar industry.
That’s exactly what Victoria MacRae-Samuels did when she was casually offered an R&D chemist job at Jim Beam, and it turned into a 25-year and wildly successful career. Over the years, MacRae-Samuels has transitioned positions, departments, and even companies—moving laterally and up and learning a lot along the way—until she reached her current gig as VP of Operations for Maker’s Mark.
I got the chance to sit down with MacRae-Samuels to hear about her crazy career path, her advice for others who are considering taking a leap, and her experience as the only woman at the top in the Kentucky bourbon industry.
The start of your career in the bourbon industry was very happenstance. Can you tell me a little about how that happened?
Happanstance is a very fitting word. I grew up in Seattle, had moved to San Francisco after grad school, and decided to take a personal trip and go east. And Kentucky was on the list to go through. I was traveling with some people who knew people in Kentucky and ended up one evening at some folks’ home who invited us for dinner—and it happened to be the home of [Jim Beam’s former master distiller] Booker Noe. And of course, Booker was asking me, “So, what do you do? What are you doing? What’s your education in?”
I told him I was a chemist, and he said, “You know what? We need chemists in the bourbon industry. Why don’t you come be a chemist?” And I said, “Well I know nothing about bourbon—what would I bring to the party?” And he said, “Well, you’re a chemist, so you can learn.”
And with that, I did. It was that simple. A few months later I had packed up my little Honda Civic and my cat and moved across the country to Kentucky—that was at the very end of 1988.
What were you doing before that? What was your vision for your career?
I had just gotten out of graduate school, and I was working as a statistics analyst for a marketing course training and development company. I was enjoying that and enjoying living in San Francisco. The one industry that did hold a little interest to me was the wine industry. In the ’80s, Napa was really starting to take hold. It wasn’t as developed as a tourist industry as it is now. So that industry held a certain fascination for me.
But I was really looking to see what I could become passionate about. I know that sounds kind of odd, especially if you say that to young people. They’re always saying, “I want to get a job with X company” or “I got my degree in Y, so I want to do that for my career.” And although my degree was in chemistry, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a chemist. I wanted to use my education, I wanted to use my background, and I wanted to engage in something that I really enjoyed.
Which was a little different because I didn’t have a defined notion about where I would end up. But that’s what had me come to Kentucky. I was interested and I was curious. That same curiosity is what has seen me through my career.
Between Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark (owned by Beam Inc.), you’ve spent over two decades within the same company—which is almost unheard of these days! What advice do you have for moving up within a company?
I would say, don’t say no to opportunities that are offered to you, even if they don’t necessarily appear to lead directly to where you see yourself. Because you never know where you’ll end up, and where you end up may even be better than what you thought.
I know that’s kind of vague, but really, that’s what I did. Several of the moves that I made throughout the organization were not necessarily traditionally promotional moves. They were more lateral, they were learning opportunities.
Also, don’t ever stop asking questions, even if it’s outside of your particular area or department. Always be willing to learn and grow and take advantage of opportunities that will cause you to learn and grow. For example, in just a few weeks I’ll be completing my MBA. I had an opportunity to enroll in an executive MBA program at Bellarmine University here in Louisville just over a year ago and jumped at the chance.
Finally, I wish people would remember that what they do every day should be a reflection of who they are. That’s actually the advice I give to my daughters who are 19 and 23. It’s unfortunate that so many of us find ourselves in positions where we become what the job is and lose sight of those dreams, visions, and personal values.
You knew nothing about bourbon when you started at Jim Beam. How did you learn about an entirely new industry? How did you get people to respect you when you were so green?
I think the key for me was learning from the people I work with and letting them know that I was there to learn, that I didn’t walk in and have all the answers.
I had never grown up being the odd person out. I grew up on the West Coast, I was from the West Coast, I knew how West Coast people think and what the norms are. But when you move to a different part of the world or the country, you bump up against different norms and different belief systems. But what’s fundamental to it is that when it comes right down to it, there’s more commonality between people than differences.
And I think that I have an appreciation for feeling like, “Okay, I’m just like you, too. I may not have come from here, I may have different life experiences, but we’re kind of all in this together—we have more commonalities than we do differences, and we can overcome the differences.”
What do you think people find most surprising about your job?
I think a lot of people are surprised that I do my job. There are no other women who run plants in the Kentucky bourbon industry. That’s the biggest element of surprise.
What has the experience of being the only woman been like for you, and how have you seen that dynamic change?
Well, it is changing, slowly. As we grow, as our consumers grow in complexity, we need people who have a complete span of life experiences to join us, to truly make our business successful.
The biggest thing that’s exciting for me is that, moving here to Kentucky I’ve come to appreciate what bourbon is and what it tastes like—and also that it’s not just something you drink, but that it becomes part of your own personal culture and your own little world. Bourbon has really seen it’s way into being a part of people’s lives and their celebrations (when consumed responsibly, of course) and I’m pleased to see that a lot of women are beginning to appreciate that.
Bill Samuels, Sr., created Maker’s Mark specifically for people who didn’t like the bourbon at the time, which was very harsh and strong—he created a bourbon to be enjoyed. And I think that more and more people are finding that out, more women are, and more women are becoming more curious about the process.
How do you enjoy bourbon?
I like Maker’s Mark and ginger ale—it’s just such a nice, light, refreshing drink. I’m also partial to Maker’s 46, and I like it when it’s very cold just to sip.