Or at least that's what the people at the Beverage Tasting Institute said. In 1998, the independent group rated Grey Goose as the best among the world's top vodkas. These people are alcohol professionals. So, sure, they know what they're talking about. But, let's be honest. Few people can really taste - as in really taste - the difference between one vodka and another, especially if they're both well made. So most of us amateurs who think Grey Goose tastes better than another brand can probably just thank Sidney Frank for convincing us.
"We put $3 million that we didn't have into the marketing of Grey Goose because we believed in it," Frank says, when I ask him about the secret to building a successful brand. "Some people are afraid to put their money into something, even if it is something they believe in. But you can't be afraid in life, because fear will stop you from achieving success."
TO ACHIEVE HIS SUCCESS, Sidney Frank didn't need an Ivy League degree. He just needed a whiff of one. He dropped out of Brown after a year because he couldn't afford the tuition, but one year there on his résumé was enough to catch the attention of a hiring manager at Pratt & Whitney, where he landed his first full-time job. On his first day, the foreman asked if he knew how to use a slide rule. "I said, 'Sure,' " Frank recalls, chuckling. "But I didn't know how to use a slide rule. So I went out and I bought one and read the instructions. You always have to be positive."
Frank left Pratt & Whitney after World War II to join the biggest distillery in the country at the time - Schenley Distillers Corporation. In a shrewd self-marketing move, he married the owner's daughter. By 1972, Frank was ready to go out on his own and founded Sidney Frank Importing Company. (His wife passed away shortly after.) The first product his company represented was Gekkeikan Sake, which is still today a sushi house mainstay.
It wasn't all alcohol-fueled good times back in the early days, though. "I went belly-up a couple of times," Frank says. "But you learn from that. It took me 60 years to have enough knowledge to bring out a Grey Goose and in seven years sell it for over $2 billion."
Most of that $2 billion went straight to Frank. Thanks to the sale, he made the Forbes 400 list of the world's richest people in 2004. The magazine estimated his net worth last year at $1.6 billion. "One of the things I've found is that it takes a lot of time to invest a billion dollars," Frank says. He's bought a lot of things - hog bellies, oil futures, euros, Travel Savvy magazine, and a golf course in the Bahamas.
That last one isn't so much an investment, per se, although the course will be open to the public. It's more of an obsession for Frank. Golf is his game. But because he has bum feet and balance issues that keep him from playing his favorite sport, he now ponies up a reported $500,000 to $1 million a year for a staff of full-time golfers - a group of about eight professionals and amateurs who take turns playing in foursomes. They play for his amusement, and at his direction, nearly every day, no matter where he is in the world. Actually, the way Frank puts it, "We play 18 holes."