Bronson Ingram was Tennessee's only billionaire when he died of cancer at the age of sixty-three on June 15, 1995, in his Nashville home. His net worth was estimated at $1.3 billion. In 1994 Forbes national business magazine placed Ingram fifty-sixth in the annual listing of the richest Americans, and the magazine ranked Ingram Industries fourteenth of the five hundred biggest privately held companies.
Ingram was born November 27, 1931, in St. Paul, Minnesota, to millionaire Orrin Henry and Hortense Bigelow Ingram. O. H. Ingram, whose wealth stemmed from his grandfather's Weyerhaeuser timber fortune, began investing in the oil refining business in the 1930s and 1940s. The need to haul crude oil to a refinery near St. Louis brought him into the river barge business. O. H. Ingram brought his family to Nashville in 1948.
Bronson Ingram completed his freshman year at Vanderbilt University then transferred to Princeton University. He graduated in 1953 with a degree in English and a commission in the navy. As a young man in Minnesota, he had enjoyed summer sailing on the lakes around St. Paul, but training as a naval officer left a different impression. “I went to Panama in a destroyer,” he recalled in a September 11, 1989, story in the Nashville Tennessean. “It was sleeping in hammocks and pitching around with what seemed like 6 million people stuffed inside the ship.” Ingram resigned his commission in 1955 and at the age of twenty-four went to work for his father's company, Ingram Corporation. On a trip to New York City, Ingram met Martha Robinson Rivers of Charleston, South Carolina, and they married in 1958. They later moved to New Orleans, headquarters of the Ingram business. In 1961 the couple moved to Nashville to raise their family, which eventually included a daughter, Robin, and three sons, Orrin, John, and David. Martha Ingram became a significant contributor to Nashville's cultural life, assuming leadership roles in the development of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in the late 1970s and the state Bicentennial Celebration of 1996.
When their father died in 1963, Ingram became president and his brother, Frederic B. Ingram, became chairman of Ingram Corporation, the family's $2 million oil, barge, and lumber business. In the brothers' hands, the corporation generated more than $900 million over the next fifteen years. A 1975 Illinois investigation led to the ultimate conviction of Frederic Ingram on a bribery charge stemming from a contract between Ingram Contractors and the Metropolitan Sanitary District of Chicago to haul sludge by barge. Bronson Ingram was acquitted of the same charge. In 1978, while Frederic unsuccessfully appealed his four-year imprisonment conviction, the brothers divided the Ingram family business. Frederic kept Ingram Corporation, which included the oil refineries and pipeline system, based in New Orleans. Bronson took Ingram Book Company, Ingram Materials, Ingram Barge Company, Tennessee Book Company, and Bluewater Insurance Company. He named his business conglomerate Ingram Industries, Inc.
The new corporation steadily prospered. By 1995 Ingram's barge business, for example, had evolved into Inland Marine Transportation Group, the third-largest inland waterway carrier in the United States. Ingram Industries also branched successfully into new ventures, though not always by design. In 1964 Ingram purchased Tennessee Book Company, a school textbook depository. In 1970 the company began distributing books to retail stores and Ingram Book Company was formed. By 1995 the company controlled about 52 percent of the wholesale book distribution market to American retail bookstores.
The book business led into distribution of computer software through a new company, Ingram Software. In 1989 the company acquired Micro D Incorporated and formed a new company, Ingram Micro Incorporated, which, at Ingram's death, was the largest distributor of microcomputer hardware and software in the world. Ingram expanded on its distribution experience and background to form Ingram Entertainment, the largest wholesale distributor of pre-recorded videocassettes.
At Ingram's death, Ingram Industries employed about eleven thousand people around the world. Though Ingram was a private man who avoided publicity, he was president of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce in 1987. As head of the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust in 1991, he led a five-year campaign to raise $350 million. He made the initial donation of more than $25 million in a drive so successful the goal was raised to $500 million in 1994. “You can't raise money unless you know where the heck it is,” Ingram explained in a March 3, 1991, story in the Tennessean. In 1993 Ingram nominated the first African American accepted for membership in the exclusive Belle Meade Country Club of Nashville.
Ingram is buried in the family plot in Nashville's historic Mount Olivet Cemetery.