A sound foundation: Howard Young (BBA ’82)

Distinguished Alumni Award winner grew his family business and overcame the odds
E. Howard Young

Throughout a 200,000-square-foot warehouse tucked into an industrial corner of southwest Atlanta, boxes of beer flow as swiftly as the Chattahoochee River.

While drivers load trucks and workers whip by on forklifts, Howard Young stands with a watchful eye. As president of General Wholesale Beer Company, Young counters the warehouse’s bustle with Zen-like calm, ensuring the more than 1 million cases moving through his facility each month arrive at their retail destinations without a hitch.

When Young’s grandfather, Earl Howard, founded General Wholesale Company in 1947, it was a small spirits distributor servicing the Atlanta area. Taking the reins following Earl’s passing in 1965, Young’s father, the late Bill Young Sr. (BBA ’54), a former insurance salesman, transformed it into one of the state’s foremost beverage wholesalers.

Now, Young and his brothers, Steve Young and Bill Young Jr. (BBA ’78), are leading the third-generation family business through sustained growth.

“My dad always focused on business ethics,” says Young. “He said if it’s not worth doing the right way, it’s not worth doing. You build a business on a sound foundation when you do it the right way. If you build it on strong relationships, telling the truth, stressing the value of your brands and how customers can build their business with you, that will be a lasting thing.”

‘We went to work’

Howard, the middle of the three Young brothers, describes his Atlanta childhood as “a real ‘Leave it to Beaver’ environment.” His mother, Jane, was a steady, loving presence, while Bill Sr., a tackle for legendary Georgia football coach Wally Butts’ squad, had an outsize impact on his sons, from their interest in sports to their early exposure to the working world.

“We grew up in the business,” says Young. “We worked summer jobs and Christmas break in the warehouse. We have all done just about everything you can do here. I still have my commercial driver’s license.”

Steve Young puts it more bluntly. “On spring break, other kids went on vacation,” he says. “We went to work.”

After graduating from the Lovett School, Young enrolled at the University of Georgia, where he majored in marketing at the Terry College. In those days, pre-Business Learning Community, business students “were a little bit like nomads,” Young says. “But it was a great experience. I met most of my close friends at UGA.”

One of those nomads, Neal Quirk, recalls that he and Young roomed together at orientation and became fast friends — a friendship that has endured for four decades.

He had “tremendous integrity and work ethic,” says Quirk (BBA ’82, JD ’87). “Smart as can be, and humble … He was all of that at a time in your life when those things don’t necessarily surface. He was one of those guys who just had those qualities, and they only got better.”

Howard Young and wife at sanford stadium

It was during his studies at Terry when Howard met an economics major named Becky Hale — now Becky Young (AB ’82) — who would become his life partner and the mother of their three daughters, Coley (BSFCS ’08), Laura (BFA ’11) and Jana (BFA ’15).

“Howard is a great family man,” says Steve. “He follows the tenets that our dad instilled in all of us. He’s a thoughtful husband and a very thoughtful dad.”

Soon after earning his degree, Young decided to commit himself fully to the family business, joining his brothers in learning the intricacies of running a growing company.

“There’s the active parts of the business — building brands, selling products, managing costs,” he says. “But they all roll up to what matters: the financial statements. We had the solid foundation of Terry to build off of. But the application in the real world is where the rubber meets the road.”

The trio met the real world head-on. In the ensuing decades, they oversaw the dramatic growth of General Wholesale, including expansion to South Carolina and a foray into brokerage operations, a branch of the business they would sell off in 2016. Now they are a leading distributor for top companies, including Constellation Brands, manufacturer of brands such as Corona and Modelo.

“My grandfather moved from a small town in South Georgia to Atlanta and started a business,” says Young. “I loved the idea of taking something that he created (and) making it bigger, making it grow, and creating something for the next generation.”

‘Whoever makes those decisions’

In December 2002, with his business booming and his family gearing up for the holidays, Young experienced nagging stomach pain. He saw his doctor, who ordered tests. On the way home from undergoing a CT scan, he received the phone call that would change his life.

“You don’t think it will ever happen to you,” says Young — “cancer, much less pancreatic cancer. I didn’t know a lot about it, but I knew it wasn’t good.”

The next day, Young saw an oncologist who told him he was among the 20% of patients with his particular cancer eligible for surgery. Even so, he said, he had only a one-in-five chance of surviving for six months after the procedure.

“Basically, he said I needed to get my affairs in order,” says Young. “So I had a week to do that.”

The surgery was followed by an extended hospital stay, then months of chemotherapy. During this time, Young connected with Dan Von Hoff, chief medical officer for the Arizona-based Translational Genomics Research Institute, or TGen, a nonprofit using research from the Human Genome Project to develop innovative targeted therapies for certain cancers.

Genomic testing confirmed Young was a match. The targeted treatments proved remarkably effective, and despite three recurrences, Young is alive and well more than two decades after his initial diagnosis.

In addition to cutting-edge medicines, Young says encouragement from family and friends was integral in his facing cancer. “I felt like God put people in my life who gave me real hope,” he says. “If you don’t think you can win, you never will.”

Quirk still marvels at Young’s response to what might have been a devastating situation.

“There were two paths he could have taken,” says Quirk. “A path of self-pity, or this other path. He (not only displayed) one of the greatest shows of bravery, he stepped right into the world of helping others.”

Howard Young talking with a man

As a patient advocate for Stand Up to Cancer, as well as through board service at TGen and fundraising initiatives, Young works to give those with life-threatening diagnoses the same measure of hope that carried him through a turbulent time.

“I can be a living example of what can happen,” he says, “and I can give the patient a perspective that (doctors) might not. I talk to people who have been recently diagnosed, and I say, ‘I can’t treat you, but I can tell you about my experience. I can tell you it’ll be 22 years, and I’ve had stage 4 pancreatic cancer, three times in the lungs, and I’m still here. So no matter what they tell you, it doesn’t mean you can’t also be here.’”

Young’s cancer journey only further exemplifies his unique inner light, says Quirk.

“He was chosen to be this person,” he says. “He has excelled at being a husband and a father, a businessman and a man of faith. But in this chapter, he may be excelling beyond all the others.

“You almost have to wonder if he was the one they knew would do this,” Quirk continues, “whoever makes those decisions.”

‘The sun is shining’

Facing one’s mortality has a way of shaking up perspectives and priorities, and Young is no exception.

“You wonder if you’re ever going to get through it,” he says. “And then, all of a sudden, everything is a big deal. Getting in the car when I could finally drive. I looked down, I was on the interstate, and I was probably going 45 — cars were passing me, honking. And I thought, ‘Wow. This is unreal. I’m driving. The sun is shining. It’s amazing.’”

And though the work ethic he inherited from his father continues to inform his leadership role at General Wholesale, Young makes more of a point these days to carve out time for himself, for relationships, for loved ones who supported him through his darkest hour.

Much of this time passes at the family’s lake house or on the golf course, where Young can often be found strolling the greens. He plays with Becky, his brothers, his sons-in-law, colleagues, customers — anyone who appreciates the easy, warming sensation of 18 holes on a sunny day.

“I’m not very good, but I have fun,” Young says with a grin. “Golf’s a great game, thanks to the handicap system. As long as you move along, it’s great.”

In addition to his cancer advocacy, Young gives back to the university where he formed his strongest bonds, serving as executive vice-chair of the UGA Foundation Board of Trustees and former chair of the Terry Dean’s Advisory Council. Supporters of many Terry initiatives, in 2022 the Youngs established the Becky and Howard Young Distinguished Professorship.

“Faith, family and friends are my guiding principles, and everything else goes from there,” says Young. “The University of Georgia is woven all through all three of those.”

For Young, these many acts of service are additional reminders of what’s important in life — a life that, like any good business, was built on a solid foundation.

“Everyone who knows him knows who he is and what he is,” says Quirk. “These good works that he does, this leadership that he shows, this generosity and philanthropy and volunteer work — that’s just who he is.”