Adtran and Jack Daniels - Quality the Old Fashioned Way

Just a quick afterthought about the Adtran analyst event from last week. In my earlier post, I included some narrative and photos about the various tours we got of their production and testing facilities. These tours were really great, and I can't recall ever getting to see so much of the inner workings of companies I follow.

Mind you, Adtran is on the high end of vendors who manufacture a lot of products (1,700 different ones if you can believe it), most of which are made right there in Huntsville. Only high volume/low margin products are made offshore. These days, most companies are software shops, so there isn't much to see. Adtran does a lot of software too, but most of what we saw was bona fide product manufacturing and all types of testing facilities.

Anyhow, I wasn't the only one struck by how accessible all of this was to us. While I was pretty much the only one taking pictures as well as blogging, they were happy to have me do this. I asked in advance if it was ok to take photos, and they were most obliging. Not only that, but we didn't have to pass through a maze of security or sign any confidentiality documents. We were quite free to move about, most all the doors were open, and I don't recall seeing ID badges on anybody.

This sure felt like a throwback to a more innocent time, and that openness really stuck with me. I'm not sure if that's the particular culture of this company, or if it's simple Southern hospitality, or maybe they're just not used to having a lot of visitors. Whatever the reason, it was a treat to be so up close to their everyday operations, and I certainly felt they had nothing to hide. To me, that's a virtue, as well as a sign of quiet confidence in the quality of their products. I think it also goes a long way to explaining why the company continues to grow and stay profitable. And in a humble way, it's a great example of the "Made in the U.S.A." quality that used to be a hallmark of America's economic strength.

Just when you thought I was done, there's a Part 2 that stands in total contrast to this, and I couldn't help but bring these story lines together.

So...after the event wrapped up Thursday morning, some of us opted to take the tour of the Jack Daniels distillery. I couldn't pass that one up - who knows when I'll ever get to Lynchburg, Tennessee again, right? The tour was a lot of fun, and you sure come away with an appreciation of what goes into making whiskey. Of course, the biggest irony is that Lynchburg is in a dry county - apparently they were the first to go dry during Prohibition. While you get to see every step of their time-honored tradition of making Jack Daniels, at the end of the tour, all you can do is smile. If you want to take home a bottle - well, you'd best drive over to the nearest county for that. Only in America, right?

Anyhow, the point of all this is how different this tour was from Adtran. We had a great tour guide - Ron - who gave us a well-honed, but folksy narrative of their history and process that makes Jack Daniels so special. While the basic ingredients are common to all types of whiskey, their secret sauce has three elements. First is water, which has always come from one source - Cave Spring - and as we were told, this water is iron-free. Second is charcoal filtration, with the charcoal made onsite. Third is the barrel, which they also make onsite. Apparently, this is the only distillery going that still makes its own barrels.

The tour was fascinating, but unlike Adtran, they make it very clear that no photos are allowed. As simple as the ingredients are, they don't want the world to see the inner workings and process that goes into making Jack Daniels. I'm sure they would argue that Jack Daniels - in its own subtle way - is just as complex as anything Adtran makes, and clearly they want to keep it that way. I guess the moral of the story is don't be fooled by something that looks simple and easy to do.

With that said, I took photos where permitted, and here's a few to share with you for posterity.

How can you not be relaxed here?

The secret sauce troika - Cave Spring (behind Ron), charcoal, and the barrel (well, at least one I could photograph)