Chief Taste Tester, Innovator and Boss Behind the Tabasco Brand

Updated February 24, 2013, 7:24 p.m. ET

PAUL MCILHENNY | 1944-2013

Chief Taste Tester, Innovator and Boss Behind the Tabasco Brand

By MARK PETERS

One of Paul McIlhenny’s favorite roles as leader of the Louisiana-based family company that makes Tabasco was taste tester.

The chairman and chief executive of McIlhenny Co., who died Saturday at the age of 68, was heavily involved in recent years with the development of new products that went beyond the company’s iconic pepper sauce. It was part of Mr. McIlhenny’s love of the food business that also included befriending celebrity chefs and cooking Louisiana Creole dishes, said Tony Simmons, president of McIlhenny Co. and Mr. McIlhenny’s cousin.

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Paul McIlhenny

Mr. McIlhenny was as intertwined with his home state as his family’s hot sauce. He grew up in New Orleans’s Garden District, served as king of the carnival during Mardi Gras the year after Hurricane Katrina, and was active in wetlands preservation, particularly in coastal Louisiana where Tabasco is made.

Part of his love of wetlands came from bird hunting. Mr. Simmons remembers one shareholders’ letter from Mr. McIlhenny in which he reminded family members that duck season was starting, so he’d be harder to get in the office.

First as an executive, and then in the top position at the 145-year-old company, Mr. McIlhenny worked to expand its products beyond Tabasco. He pushed for new flavors of the sauce such as garlic pepper and buffalo, cross-branding agreements with products such as Slim Jim, and putting the well-known logo on ties and other items.

“Those were all Paul’s creations,” Mr. Simmons said. Particularly for new food products, he added: “There was no question who the chief tester was.”

Mr. Simmons said sales grew every year that Mr. McIlhenny was chief executive, except during the last recession, which was tough on the food-service industry, one of the largest buyers of the Tabasco. McIlhenny Co. is privately held by members of the family, and Mr. McIlhenny was the fourth-generation of company leadership. A successor hasn’t been chosen.

Known for his sense of humor, Mr. McIlhenny enjoyed a good joke contest and had won one on Friday during a lunch, and his death the following day of heart failure came as a shock to the company and his family.

The tenure of Mr. McIlhenny was marked by increasing competition in the hot-sauce market, which Tabasco largely credits itself with creating. And while Mr. McIlhenny was a good steward of the company’s traditions and the quality of its signature pepper sauce, his successor faces challenges to the brand, particularly from lower-priced competitors, said Jeffrey Rothfeder, author of “McIlhenny’s Gold: How a Louisiana Family Built the Tabasco Empire.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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