It’s hard to believe as we look at the burgeoning market today that there was a time when bourbon, rye whiskey and other brown spirits were not so popular — to put it mildly. “During the downturn of the market in the ’70s and ’80s, there were times when you couldn’t give bourbon away,” says Erica Fields, founder of Brooks Grain. “Things started turning around in the late ’80s through the genius of master distillers like Parker Beam, Jimmy Russell and Booker Noe, who revived the category with new premium bourbons that created renewed demand.”
Fields began learning the ropes of the specialized rye business, as well as the broader grain business, during that downturn, joining her father, Brooks Fields, at Burdick Grain Company in 1978. Following the acquisition of Burdick Grain by a multinational corporation, she established Brooks Grain with a vision of supporting distilleries and millers as not only a supplier but also a partner in their business success. “I could run the business the way I knew it needed to be run and focus on customer relationships in a way the large corporation simply couldn’t,” says Fields.
She has been doing just that since 2007, building Brooks Grain’s reputation as the go-to company for high-quality rye. Now semi-retired, Fields has turned the business over to her nephew, Nick Nessan, but continues to work with him as a consultant. Through her consulting firm, Fields Consulting, she is also working with other organizations on diversity, equity and inclusion issues. As a transgender woman, Fields is driven to helping businesses find the best ways to work with marginalized communities.
What challenges have you overcome to build your business?
The rye market is very small. To put it into perspective, farmers grow more corn in any one county in Ohio than they do rye in all of North America. We have for many years needed to import rye to supplement U.S. production. While most distilleries can source corn within 30 miles of their plants, their rye comes from different regions of the world. That creates logistics challenges. Ensuring that the grain is available to our customers when they need it requires us to stay well ahead of the game, making sure farmers in those regions are growing enough, and managing transportation and storage.
Have you faced any business challenges related to being part of the LGBTQ community?
I faced some challenges at the time of my transition. Notably, because my company is built on decades-long relationships, I felt a responsibility to talk with each of my customers at the appropriate time about what I was going through. I was very fortunate to get nearly 100% support. Every one of my customers is still with us, my nephew came on board and has been incredibly supportive, and there has never been a question or concern about it. Early on, I sat down with my business partner, Consolidated Grain and Barge, to assess the potential risks to the business and how we would manage those, but everything turned out fine. Having the support of people who understand that we have to be true to ourselves helped me meet and overcome the challenge.
What advice would you offer other members of the LGBTQ community looking to start a business?
Have confidence in who you are. When you’re being truthful to yourself, it shows. People will feel that sense of honesty and confidence. Then just focus on the business, on what you’re trying to do. Be a good business partner, providing your customers with a great product and service. At the end of the day, we’re all human — that’s No. 1. And as humans, we need to have a sense of integrity, of confidence in who we are, and accept everyone else on the same terms.
What else should aspiring entrepreneurs understand?
That they should never let fear of failure hold them back. If you’re afraid to fail, you will never achieve what you want to achieve. We actually learn much more from our failures than our successes, so just go out there and do it!
What do you find most gratifying about being an entrepreneur?
An old friend of mine, who was with was the Chicago Board of Trade, told me, “If you go out on your own, you work for you. And your success is strictly your doing.” That’s what I love about being an entrepreneur: Anything that can be controlled in your business is in your hands.
Are you involved in the Louisville community?
Yes. I’m on the board of Fund for the Arts and have been a Rotarian for many years. I’m also on the board of Bourbon Women, a fun organization that started in Louisville but now has chapters all over the country. And I was one of the founders of Civitas Regional LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce, which is part of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce’s national affiliate network. I believe strongly that having a well-rounded life means having interests outside of what you do for a living. It recharges your batteries. You’re doing something completely different and you wake up the next day with a whole different feeling of accomplishment. Plus, the more people with varied backgrounds you have in your life, the wider and deeper your perspective is. You have the opportunity to make better decisions than if you limit your network to people just like yourself.