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Vodka king enjoys giving money away

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Sidney Frank, known as the ``Two Billion Dollar Man'' seen here at at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, California, in December, is chairman and chief executive of the Sidney Frank Importing Company, Frank earned the moniker in June when he sold his vodka brand, Grey Goose, to Bacardi.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

"Just call me Sid," Sidney Frank instructed a visitor recently. "Everyone else does."

Actually, that is not all they call him -- not in the liquor industry, anyway. These days, he is known to many as the "Two-Billion-Dollar Man."

Frank, 85, is the chairman and chief executive of the Sidney Frank Importing Co., which has its headquarters here in New Rochelle. He earned his new moniker in June, when he sold his vodka brand, Grey Goose, to Bacardi. Industry estimates put the sale price at close to US$2.3 billion, a record for a single liquor product.

Since then, the ebullient Frank has been busy giving away bits of his newfound wealth -- US$100 million here, US$10 million there -- and he is having a great time doing it. "I just love giving money away," he said.

Frank introduced Grey Goose in 1997, and drove annual sales from about a hundred thousand cases the first year to a projected 1.8 million cases in 2004. That is no big thing compared with, say, Smirnoff, which sells more than 17 million cases a year. But Grey Goose is an imported luxury product and, in its class, its almost overnight success is unparalleled.

Bacardi, based in Bermuda and one of the world's major spirits producers, spends big for brands it wants. In 1992, it paid US$1.2 billion for Martini & Rossi, and in 1998 it paid US$1.9 billion for Dewar's Scotch and Bombay gin.

Grey Goose is made in France, but most of its sales are in the US. The interest in such brands dates to the 1980s, when anti-Soviet sentiment in this country paved the way for vodkas from countries other than Russia. Absolut, imported from Sweden by Carillon Importers, was the first big success.

When Frank decided to jump in, he chose a name -- Grey Goose -- that he had used a decade earlier on an inexpensive German white wine intended to compete with Blue Nun. The wine was a flop but he hung onto the name. He picked France as a source for his vodka, he said, because "the best things come from France."

Grey Goose's unique frosted-glass bottle was an instant hit. Initially, it was packaged in wooden boxes, as are many fine wines, and in picnic baskets, with a free cocktail shaker and plastic martini glasses. "We were making a statement," Frank said.

Sidney Frank is something of a legend in the spirits industry, an outsize personality who harks back to figures like Sam Bronfman and Lewis Rosenstiel (who once was his father-in-law), men who lived more like Hollywood moguls than business executives. Frank spends half the year in New Rochelle and half in Rancho Santa Fe, near San Diego.

Until recently he played a lot of golf. He has memberships in eight golf clubs, four in the East and four in the West. He visits a course almost every day, even when it rains. "I go to the one with the best drainage," he said.

These days, though, he mostly just relaxes in a golf cart while one of his four full-time pros hits balls for his entertainment. He also has four full-time chefs.

On the road, for business or pleasure, Frank surrounds himself with an entourage that includes chefs, a golf pro or two, colleagues and friends. "There are usually about 20 of us," said Sarah Zeiler, his director of media relations. "We charter a 727."

Sidney Frank Importing has its headquarters in downtown New Rochelle. Frank works mostly from his home a few miles away. Though it appears to be a modest white colonial on a quiet residential street, the home is actually a small compound with an indoor and outdoor pool and several outbuildings for his staff, all set back in a copse of trees and surrounded by a low fence.

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