The Giver

By Norman Boucher / November / December 2004
June 13th, 2007

They have never met, and chances are they never will. One is rich; one is poor. One is white; one is Mexican American. One of them is nearing the end of his career, and the other is just beginning. If anything, their stories illustrate how dissimilar the lives of Americans can be.

Sidney Frank ’42 is one of the wealthiest people in the United States. Only 151 are richer, according to the most recent Forbes 400. At age eighty-four, he is worth at least $1.6 billion, and probably considerably more. He has homes in New Rochelle, New York, and Rancho Santa Fe, California, and owns two $400,000 Mercedes Maybachs. Among his personal staff are four chefs and seven golf pros.

Elizabeth Martinez ’04 is from McAllen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley. She graduated last spring as a double concentrator in economics and ethnic studies, and she now works as a financial aid counselor at Brown for a salary in the mid-thirties. Her sister, Isabel, is a member of the class of 2005, and her brother goes to college in Chicago. Her mother is a high school Spanish teacher back in McAllen; her father is out of the picture. Because Martinez and her mother make about the same salary, Martinez sends home $300 a month to help with expenses. She paid for her education with a combination of grants, work-study jobs, loans, and off-campus work. In December—six months out of college—she will begin repaying $13,000 worth of college loans: $150 a month for the next ten years. 

As different as they appear to be, Frank and Martinez have in common at least two things. Both felt somewhat out of place at Brown. Frank, who grew up in the town of Montville, Connecticut, was a farm boy among moneyed friends. He has said that Brown was the first place he ever slept on sheets, and he loved his time on campus. But a lack of funds forced him to drop out after his freshman year. Brown was perhaps a lonelier place for Martinez, who during her four years on campus never stopped missing the food and music of south Texas. Lack of money isolated her further: she couldn’t afford the vacation trips and dinners out many of her fellow students took for granted. “My perspective of college,” she says, “is that you go and study and get things done.”

Because of their common experience as low-income students at an Ivy League school, Frank and Martinez also share an ambition to help Brown move toward becoming a true meritocracy, a place where prospective students are no longer turned away because of financial inequality. A study released in September by an independent research group called the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education frames the problem starkly: even after taking all financial aid into account, for most Americans college is less affordable now than ten years ago.

Working in Brown’s financial aid office, Martinez is determined to inform poorer students, especially those from racial minorities, that, like her, they can attend a place like Brown and leave with a bearable level of debt. Frank’s way of addressing this concern is far more dramatic. Shortly after becoming a billionaire earlier this year, he phoned his alma mater—a place where he’d spent exactly two semesters—and offered to give it $100 million, all for financial aid. Thanks to Frank, Martinez can now tell the poorest high school students she counsels that, beginning next fall, if they are admitted to Brown they will have to pay virtually nothing for the next four years. In addition, they will graduate with a debt burden of zero.

With his gift—Brown’s largest ever—Sidney Frank, a cigar-smoking liquor baron known for introducing Jägermeister liqueur and Grey Goose vodka to the taverns and liquor stores of the United States, has become the unlikely face of need-blind admission. Thanks to Frank, a yawning inequality—one that has troubled students and alumni for years—has been righted ever so slightly. The Van Wickle Gates will soon be open to even the poorest of the poor. 

Who is Sidney Frank and why has this unlikeliest of patrons become so magnanimous toward Brown? His story is all the more remarkable because only three months before his $100 million gift, Frank had made headlines by contributing $20 million toward the cost of a new academic building, which is the largest single gift ever donated for a building at Brown. “One of the first things he said to me the first time I met him,” says President Ruth J. Simmons, “was ‘I want to be the biggest donor in Brown’s history.’ ” 

The biggest donor in Brown’s history is an early riser. During the six months of the year he spends at his home in New Rochelle, he can be found at one of the several golf courses in the area by 7 o’clock every morning except Monday, when the courses are closed. With him comes a small entourage of golf pros, whose number varies, depending on whether any of them are off playing a tour. On a Saturday morning in late September, I joined the group for the trip out to Anglebrook, a rolling, verdant course in Somers, New York.

I arrived at Frank’s house a little after 6. The rambling building, in a leafy and exclusive neighborhood, is modest by billionaire standards. Six golf pros were eating scrambled eggs around a small table off a downstairs kitchen, introducing themselves to two new additions: a pair of All-American college golfers whom Frank would be taking in as they trained to compete in the U.S. and British amateur championships before turning pro.

Soon I was summoned upstairs to the large room where Frank spends much of his time. Here he sleeps, eats, and watches any of several hundred DVDs on a seventy-two-inch flat-screen television that dominates one wall. Here he also conducts a great deal of business as the head of Sidney Frank Importing Company, whose headquarters is nearby in downtown New Rochelle. (Frank still goes to the office, usually in the afternoon or on Mondays, when golf is not an option.) 

We exchanged pleasantries as Frank finished a breakfast of what looked like scrambled eggs, but which may have been a low-cholesterol substitute. (Although he claims his health is excellent, I later learned that he suffers from heart disease and arthritis, both of which limit his mobility.) He motioned for me to sit at the table with him and asked an assistant to show me the Industry Executive of the Year certificate he’d recently received at a liquor-industry convention in Chicago (where he was also photographed on a golf course with Michael Jordan). Frank had recently thanked one longtime assistant with a gift of $250,000, a gesture that has become increasingly common since Frank became a billionaire. He is also said to be giving out more than $20 million in bonuses to his company’s 180 employees. 

Frank speaks slowly, in a deep, gravelly voice. Business is never far from his mind, and he was soon describing his latest product, a pomegranate-flavored energy drink called Crunk (or CRUNK!!!, as it’s printed on the red-and-black can), with which he hopes to penetrate a Red Bull–dominated market that yields $1.1 billion a year. Crunk is a joint venture between Frank and hip-hop entrepreneur Lil’ John, and to create some buzz about it, Frank told me, he is negotiating to have a major sports dome renamed the Crunk Dome. “They want $5 million,” he said. “We’re drawing up the paperwork.” Also in the works are a premium tequila and the Sidney Frank wine collection, in which he plans to include a selection from every country that produces wine.

When I asked about his early-morning habits, he replied that he’s always risen long before sunrise. Especially when he was starting out, he said, he often kept a notepad on his bedside table, so when he awoke with an idea, he could jot it down and get it implemented the following day. Hard work, he says: that’s the key. That and surrounding yourself with good people and holding onto them.

He was easy to talk to, direct, and seemingly unconcerned with how he might appear in print. There were no flacks around to answer on his behalf. Several days later, when I asked Ruth Simmons about this, she said that was something she had noticed immediately. “He seems to be without guile,” she said. “He is a very straightforward person who is quite unguarded in what he says. Most CEOs watch very carefully what they say, and they are managed to a fine degree. But it’s impossible to manage Sidney. He is who he is, and there’s something refreshing about that.”

One explanation might be that Frank earned his huge fortune late in his life. As a result, he has not had the time to build up the pretension and vanity that can distort the character of very rich people. Although he married into, and later became president of, Schenley Distillers, which at one time was the largest liquor distillery in the United States, his tenure there ended sourly. He was fifty-four years old when he founded the Sidney Frank Importing Company with his brother Eugene in 1973, and it was there that Frank’s genius for marketing and promotion flourished, as well as an uncanny knack for sensing the next big thing to come in a bottle.

But success came slowly. Eugene Frank set up a distribution network and brought in key executives, but the company lost money for six years. Sidney Frank sold paintings and a beachfront home in Antigua to meet the payroll. That first year brought one of the seeds to success, however. Frank noticed a liqueur in the bars of a German neighborhood on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and flew to Germany to obtain the U.S. importing rights for it. The liqueur, called Jägermeister, sold a mere 600 cases the following year, but Frank thought it had the potential for more.

Then, in the mid-1980s, Frank read a Louisiana newspaper account that referred to Jägermeister as a cult drink rumored to be an aphrodisiac. He pounced. Although there was no name for it back then, Frank engaged in what came to be known as “guerrilla marketing.” Instead of conventional advertising, Frank says he made millions of copies of the newspaper article, then hired young women to dress provocatively and go into bars to distribute the article and offer samples of Jägermeister to young men. “Every man likes pretty girls,” he told me. The effort ran into trouble in 1997, when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit on behalf of more than 100 “Jägerettes” who claimed they had been subjected to sexual harassment. Faced with the possibility of paying $30 million if it lost the case, Frank’s company settled for $2.6 million and never looked back.

Frank sold bars a refrigerated tap of his own design that would make the liqueur more palatable—“It tasted like Vicks Formula 44,” he said—by cooling it to three degrees Fahrenheit. Today he estimates that his company sells about 1.3 million cases of Jägermeister a year and will soon break the 2 million-case mark. And the company still employs 1,000 Jägerettes and Jägerdudes.

Frank insisted I ride with him out to the golf course in one of his Mercedes Maybachs. (“The other one’s getting bulletproofed,” he said.) Two pros sat in front; one drove while the other tuned the satellite radio to a classical music feed. I sat in back with Frank, who wore a dark blue sweatshirt and sweatpants, white New Balance sneakers, and a grimy FBI hat. When I asked about the hat, he said, “I always have an FBI guy working for me. I send him to police conventions so he can get to know the police chiefs. That way it’s easier to park our Jägermeister buses at events. When I was in Chicago recently, he arranged a Chicago Police escort for me.” 

We talked about growing up on a New England farm. “My father grew corn, potatoes, onions, and oats. We had horses to plow the field, and we had a hay field to feed the horses.” Nearby was a tourist attraction known as Cochegan Rock, the largest freestanding boulder in New England. Frank and his brother, Eugene, built a sixty-foot ladder and charged visitors a dime to climb to the top of it, from which they could see Long Island Sound. Although the childhood Frank describes was poor—his mother sewed together grain sacks for bedsheets—it was also a happy one, spent looking for arrowheads and picking blueberries. 

Frank attended nearby Norwich Free Academy, and he longed to be accepted at an Ivy League college. He remembers that in the late 1930s, if an applicant had straight As no standardized entrance test would be required, and he says he had straight As for his last two years at Norwich except for a C in French. He somehow persuaded the principal to change it to an A, removing the last obstacle to Brown. “I saved money by working and selling junk,” Frank said, while puffing on the first of the several custom-made Davidoff cigars he would smoke today. “I saved up $1,000, and that’s all you needed to go to Brown then. But I only had enough money for one year.”

His roommate was Edward Sarnoff ’42, the son of David Sarnoff, the president of RCA. The Sarnoffs were Frank’s introduction to the world of the wealthy, and it was through Edward that Frank met Louise “Skippy” Rosensteil, daughter of Lewis Rosensteil, the owner of Schenley Distillers. “I was looking for a rich girl,” Frank told me, “and she was rich, beautiful, and smart.”

After his year at Brown, Frank needed a job. Seeing a newspaper ad for an opening at Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford, sixty miles from Montville, he arrived to find a long line of applicants already assembled. But the company representative, noting that Frank had just spent a year in Providence, said, “Oh, you went to Brown? I did too. Go see the guy in engine testing. I think there’s an opening there.” Frank did as he was told. “Of course, you can use a slide rule?” asked the second man. Frank quickly found a store that sold slide rules, bought one, read the directions, and returned. He was hired as a troubleshooter and learned to assemble and disassemble Pratt & Whitney aircraft engines. He spent parts of World War II in India and China helping keep military aircraft airborne.

Back in the United States, he eventually convinced Skippy Rosensteil to marry him. One day, she asked Frank to come to the family’s New York City apartment to help celebrate her father’s birthday. “He said, ‘What are you doing, son?’ ” Frank recalled on our way to the golf course. “I said, ‘I work for Pratt & Whitney.’ He said, ‘Do you know anything about alcohol as motor fuel?’ I said, ‘We use it on takeoff in our R2800 engines. It gives us 20 percent more power.’ ” Rosensteil offered Frank a job at the Schenley division that distilled alcohol for motor fuel. Frank was about to enter the liquor business. 

We arrived at Anglebrook a little before 7, along with another car that carried the rest of the golfers. The course manager greeted Frank as he emerged from the car, thanking him for tickets to a recent New York Giants football game. As they spoke, the golfers removed a cooler and a small chrome carrying case from the cars and loaded them onto one of several golf carts waiting nearby. The cooler contained fresh fruit and beverages for Frank to consume while on the course, and the case contained more cigars, a tip cutter, and a small blowtorch-like device that looked as it it could light the cigars in hurricane-force winds.

Within a few minutes we had split into two groups and driven to the first tee. The morning was crisp and still foggy. I shared a cart with Travis Williams, a pro from Carlsbad, California. Our group also included a pro named Jeff Fujimoto and the two amateurs, Luke Bakke, of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and Nolan Martin, of Colorado State. The four golfers were all business, the pros explaining the course’s configuration to the amateurs, who were a bit nervous about playing in front of Frank for the first time. I joined Frank, who remained seated in his golf cart, observing. He had earlier explained that he pays the pros a base salary of $50,000 and supplements it daily with cash payments for birdies, eagles, and double eagles, as well for the day’s low score and whatever other incentives he might cook up on the spot. The arrangement allows him to watch highly skilled golf six mornings a week. Williams told me that Frank’s pros own the records at most of the courses where they regularly play.

As the golfers hit graceful, long, straight, arcing drives, I asked Frank about his days at Schenley. He first made his mark after he’d moved away from alcohol as a motor fuel and was sent to Scotland to see about improving productivity at a distillery that was producing about a million gallons of Scotch whiskey a year. “I got there,” Frank told me, “and I said, ‘I notice you’re only distilling two times a week. Why is that?’ ‘That used to be the law,’ I was told. ‘Is it the law now?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then start distilling seven days a week.’ By the time we were done, that distillery was producing 3.6 million gallons a year.” Before becoming president of Schenley, Frank said, he spent a few years in charge of the design department, an experience that would come in handy decades later.

The pace of the golf was quick. Frank has a reputation for impatience, and you could see it in the golfers’ behavior. There was no dawdling and only the briefest stop after the front nine to pick up water or juice at the clubhouse. Frank watched contentedly from his cart. Williams told me that each of the golfers had hundreds of phone numbers programmed into his cell phone so that if Frank wanted to call someone—if he had an idea or a question for someone at the company headquarters, for example—whoever was closest could make the contact.

As Frank and I chatted, Fujimoto or Williams would regularly consult with him on club selection.

“What do you think,” asked Fujimoto on one fairway, “an eight-iron or a seven?”

“Seven,” Frank replied. “Fog.”

“Yeah, fog. The ball’s not playing too far, Mr. Frank.”

Riding with Williams, I asked if all this consultation over clubs was genuine, or simply an attempt at involving an old man in the game.

“Oh, no,” he said. “It’s real. He’s very observant, very smart, and his memory is incredible. He knows our games, sometimes better than we do. He’s usually right.”

As the sun began burning the fog off the course, I noticed swans in one of the ponds. Geese flew overhead, and a doe trotted across a fairway. “Did you see the deer, Mr. Frank?” Fujimoto asked. 

The course was presenting a challenge this morning, so after several holes, Frank told them to play from the red tees, which shortened the distance to the greens. A few holes later he decided to switch to match play, the pros versus the amateurs. The golfers adapted cheerfully.

I had read reports that Frank had been fired from Schenley over disagreements with his father-in-law about the company’s direction. He seemed unwilling to talk much about this as he munched on a peach that one of the golfers had pulled from the cooler. “He had five wives,” Frank said, somewhat cryptically, of Rosensteil. “It was easy to get along with him, but hard to get along with the wives.” 

Frank left Schenley in the early 1970s, and Skippy died not long afterward, in 1973. After starting Sidney Frank Importing Company, he distributed Gekkeikan sake and a number of other liquors with varying results. Jägermeister was a triumph of what would today be known as branding. Frank still considers his success in making a foul-tasting drink a college-bar favorite one of his greatest accomplishments. But the liquor that made him a billionaire was Grey Goose vodka.

According to the trade magazine Market Watch, Frank found a market niche where almost everyone else saw only outrage and tragedy. When the Soviets shot down a Korean airliner in the 1980s, Frank identified the resulting anti-Soviet fervor as an opportunity to sell a high-end vodka that was not Russian. France was known for its wine and food, so why not a French vodka? He sent executives to France to find one, and he helped tweak the flavor himself. Then he added his characteristic marketing and promotion flair. He designed a frosted bottle to suggest chilled vodka and added a clear panel so buyers could see the clarity of the spirits within. He named it Grey Goose because it sounded elegant and because his company had registered it in every state a decade before when Frank thought about marketing a liebfraumilch. At first the vodka was sold in wooden boxes, because the best French wines were transported that way. Frank had also noted that young men and women were rejecting their parents’ gin in favor of vodka, and he hired Grey Goose girls to help promote the product. He even teamed with one of his chefs, Pascal Courtin, to create a cookbook of recipes containing Grey Goose vodka. “Then,” Frank said on the golf course, “the Chicago Tasting Institute rated us the best-tasting vodka in the world. I decided to let the ad agencies take that and promote it.”

Successes can seem obvious in retrospect, but Frank credits his decades in the industry as essential to anticipating the right product for the right niche. “I was seventy-seven years old before I got the idea for Grey Goose vodka,” he told me. “I had sixty years of experience.” And it paid off. In late June, he sold Grey Goose to Bacardi for $2 billion.

Ruth Simmons will never forget the day last summer when her phone rang and Sidney Frank said, “Ruth, I want to give $100 million to Brown.”

“For most of your career as a college president,” she says, “you wonder if you’ll ever get that call.” Having worked with Frank on his $20 million gift a few months earlier, she knew what to expect. “Sidney is very persistent,” she says, “so when he says, ‘I’m ready to give $100 million,’ he means, ‘Okay, come on down here, and let’s figure out what we’re doing.’ What he’s really saying is, ‘Do it now.’ ”

The Frank gift’s effect on financial aid will be drastic. It will mean an immediate boost of about $5 million a year to the financial aid coffers. And because it is reserved for the lowest-income freshmen, it will allow the University to speed up its implementation of need-blind admission. “I know there was concern among many that we would not be able to afford need-blind,” Simmons says. “So I’m especially grateful a donor came along who believed in this program and was willing to support it. I think it sets a standard in attracting low-income students to Brown.”

Simmons points out that low-income students often choose to attend the school that offers them the best financial aid. The Frank gift, she says, helps tip their decision toward Brown. Sidney Frank Scholars will be in a particularly advantageous position during their first year on campus because of Simmons’s lifting of the work-study requirement for freshmen two years ago. “If you think about it,” says Director of Financial Aid Michael Bartini, “for the first year we’re probably more competitive than Princeton”—which has replaced all loans with grants but does require some work-study. “For low-income students, this gift puts us in one of the most competitive brackets.”

So why did Frank do it? Why give $120 million to a school he’d attended for only one year? Frank likes to say that one of the most important elements to his success has been relationships, and it was at Brown that he first made the connections that would lead to a happy marriage and an extremely prosperous career. Senior Vice President for Advancement Ronald Vanden Dorpel ’72 AM, who has probably spent more time with Frank than anyone at Brown, believes Frank has studied philanthropists for years. Vanden Dorpel says that during one visit to New Rochelle, Frank gave him articles about George T. Delacorte, who was once described by the New York Daily News as a “delightfully eccentric philanthropist” who gave millions of dollars to New York City for various fountains, statues, theaters, and schools. “He mentioned Delacorte during our first meeting,” Vanden Dorpel recalls. “He said he liked philanthropy, and he hoped someday to be in a position to be able to do it in a major way.”

Jeff Peace, Frank’s attorney, says that he is in the process of setting up a Sidney Frank foundation to channel his philanthropy. “One thing that’s different about him,” Peace says, “is that he is generous. It’s not, ‘mine, mine, mine’ with him; it’s ‘let’s pass it out.’ ” Then Peace adds, “He’s eighty-four. I think he also wants to make another $10 billion before he dies.”

The fog had lifted by the time we finished eighteen holes at Anglebrook. The match ended in a tie, so the golfers resolved it with a chip-off, whereby everyone takes a turn chipping a ball onto the last green. The winner is the one whose ball lands closest to the hole. Today the amateurs beat the pros, a result that seemed to delight Frank.

Before we parted company, I asked Frank if he had any advice for Brown students. “Work hard,” he said. “Extra hard. If you meet any important people, keep in touch with them. Work for a big company before starting your own, just so you can get experience.

“And marry a rich girl. It’s easier to marry a million than to make a million.”

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