Liquor importer Sidney Frank enjoys referring to himself as "the $2 billion man." It's a perfectly apt handle, considering he sold one of his top-selling brands, Grey Goose Vodka, to Bacardi Ltd. for more than that sum in June. It was the latest triumph for the chief executive of Sidney Frank Importing Co., who earlier made an improbable hit out of J?germeister Herbal Liqueur. But at 84, Frank isn't just basking in the glow of his good fortune. Between handing out millions to eclectic charities and trailing the golf pros he keeps on staff, the gleefully quirky octogenarian is plotting his next conquest. "I'd like to be the $10 billion man!" he shouts.
Flush with capital, Sidney Frank Importing's growth may well move as fast as its owner's mouth. The New Rochelle (N.Y.) company will soon announce that it is launching a line of five Sicilian wines, called the Sidney Frank Collection. Frank will name one of them Genofranco, after his brother and business partner, Eugene, who died last year. Then there is a plan for 50-proof cognac in flavors such as apple, pear, and orange, which he aims to call Tippet -- the nickname of his first wife, Louise Rosenstiel, who died of a heart attack in the early 1970s. Privately, he is developing an energy drink, as well.
If Frank's 32-year track record is any indication, he'll back those names with some of the most innovative marketing techniques in the industry. Take J?germeister. To promote the obscure licorice-flavored German liqueur, he hired some shapely women, dubbed J?gerettes, to hit bars and talk up the brand. Now, there are about 1,200 J?gerettes and J?gerdudes nationwide. He also increased the drink's appeal by developing a tap machine to bring the liqueur down to an icy 5F. "I never liked the stuff," says longtime distributor and Chicago Blackhawks owner William W. Wirtz. "Then, Frank pulls out this machine, like a mad professor, and all of a sudden it's very palatable." Frank sold 500 cases of the drink when he began importing it in 1974, and he expects sales of 1.7 million this year.
It hasn't all been one big frat party, though. Frank ran into trouble in 1999, when a group of J?gerettes filed a sexual harassment suit, claiming that patrons in the bars they visited -- and even Frank himself -- had groped and harassed them on the job. Frank paid $2.6 million to settle the case but denies any wrongdoing. "Ridiculous," he says of the claims.
Even with that controversy behind him, Frank is encountering some sharp elbows at the bar these days. The tequila he bought two years ago, Coraz?n de Agave, has yet to take off. Frank says it is about to get same kind of marketing love that he showered on Grey Goose. He gave the vodka a high $30-a-liter price tag, made it a fixture at ritzy events, and hawked it as the world's best-tasting vodka after it won a 1998 award. But most rivals now use similar guerrilla marketing tactics. His new products will enter crowded fields, as well, so producing another hit could be tough. Frank insists he has a secret: "I have great taste buds, and I keep them sharp -- in food, wine, and women."
"BLOOD FROM A NICKEL"
Frank developed his taste for life's finer things in college. Having grown up the son of an orchardman in Norwich, Conn., he scraped together money to attend Brown University. "It was the first time I had sheets," he says. At home, "my mother would sew flour sacks together for sheets." With scarce funds and mediocre marks, he dropped out before getting a degree. But by then he had befriended such high-living types as Ed Sarnoff, son of former RCA Corp. Chairman David Sarnoff. Frank "was a personable, great-looking guy who could get blood from a nickel," says Sarnoff, who introduced Frank to Louise, the daughter of Schenley Distilleries Inc. (STZ) chief Lewis Rosenstiel. Thanks to his Brown connections, Frank got a job as a troubleshooter during World War II at Pratt & Whitney Motors, then went to work for his future father-in-law. After being fired, rehired, and fired again, Frank decided in 1972 to start his own company.
These days, Frank is having as much fun spreading his wealth as he is building it. When he sold Grey Goose, he says he gave out more than $20 million in bonuses to 180 full-time staffers, including $250,000 to his ever-patient assistant, Donnie Duenas. He's about to announce a $100 million scholarship gift to Brown. As he prepares to launch a bevy of new products, Frank is also penning his autobiography. But for America's newly minted billionaire, the next chapter has only just begun.
By Diane Brady in New York