The Masterful Marketer
Sidney Frank, a quintessential American entrepreneur, was known to remark often in his latter years, “I just love giving money away.” Frank, who made his fortune with innovative marketing campaigns that revolutionized the wine and spirits industry, brought his own personal flair and perspective to his philanthropic giving.
Born in Montville, Connecticut, to Russian immigrant farmers, Frank revealed his aptitude for entrepreneurial ventures at the age of 12, when he offered a ladder to tourists at Connecticut’s Mohegan Rock at a dime a pop. He later attended Norwich Free Academy, which, despite its name, was not free. In fact, his tuition was paid by his hometown, which did not have a high school. Afterward, tapping all of his personal charm to improve his chances, he was accepted to Brown University.
Unfortunately, Frank had to leave Brown after only one year because he could no longer afford the tuition. But he made the most of his time there, befriending a college dorm-mate, Ed Sarnoff, whose father, David, was the chairman of RCA and a founder of NBC. It was through Ed that Frank was introduced to his first wife, Louise Rosenstiel, daughter of Lewis Rosenstiel, founder of Schenley Industries, one the nation’s largest distillers and importers of wine and spirits.
After spending the war years working as a civilian troubleshooter for the aircraft engine maker Pratt & Whitney, Frank joined his in-law’s company. For the next several decades, Frank was in and out of favor at Schenley, eventually rising to company president, before leaving in the early 1970s following a family dispute. Blackballed by his father-in-law, Frank poured everything he had into his new company, the Sidney Frank Importing Company. By the late ’70s, he had found his first profitable product in Jacques Cardin brandy, but it would be Frank’s promotion of Jägermeister in the 1980s that would come to define his business style and prowess.
Frank remembered seeing men sipping the obscure licorice-flavored liqueur in old German neighborhoods and recognized its potential. No one could have predicted that he would lead one of the most successful (and now famous) rebranding efforts in corporate history. Before viral marketing tactics became the norm, Frank hired thousands of young women whom he called “Jägerettes” to hit the nation’s bars, offer free shots and promote this “new” drink. He also began providing bars with Jägermeister tap machines, which prepared ice-cold shots and acted as another promotion device. In the early ’70s, around 500 cases of Jägermeister were sold per year; by 2005, the brand was selling 2 million cases a year. Today almost 3 million cases are sold a year.
Frank’s next successful product would be even bigger and help establish the financial foundation for his eventual philanthropic ventures. Recognizing the anti-Soviet sentiment of the Cold War era, vodka’s association with Russia, and the wide acceptance of Sweden’s Absolut vodka, Frank launched Grey Goose vodka. As Frank put it, he chose France as the vodka’s source because “the best things come from France.” Building off the branding experience with Jägermeister, he knew that by packaging, pricing and promoting Grey Goose appropriately, he could create a profitable high-end buzz. In August of 2004 Bacardi purchased Grey Goose for over $2 billion.
It was after the sale of Grey Goose that Frank, now at the age of 84 and often referred to as “the $2 billion man,” began to vastly increase his philanthropic giving. However, a little over a year after establishing the Sidney E. Frank Foundation, Frank became ill and died in early 2006. Tending his philanthropic legacy, along with the oversight of the newly established foundation, fell to his daughter, Cathy Frank Halstead, who was also deeply involved in the family business.
Sidney Frank’s generosity was as intense as his business creativity. What motivated his philanthropy was:
His disappointment at having to drop out of Brown and his wish to spare others that hard decision;
His World War II experiences, which gave him insights into the role that technical innovation played in the Allied victory;
His identity as an entrepreneur, which reinforced his belief in individual opportunity;
His Jewish heritage, which made him realize the fragility of culture and the need to defend it.
As a master marketer, Frank was well aware of the importance of promotion, and his short stint as a major philanthropic force reflected this belief. Although some donors choose and cherish the ability to give anonymously, Frank relished having his name and persona in the philanthropic spotlight. Many of the projects he funded were high-profile and attention-grabbing, for reasons well beyond their substantial funding commitments.
Frank acted on his philanthropic inspirations with the same intensity “and flair for marketing” that he brought to his business ventures. Among his most impressive gifts were:
$100 million to Brown University for Sidney Frank Scholars—the largest gift in the university’s history—to establish an endowed scholarship fund that provides financial assistance for the neediest undergraduate students who cannot afford the full cost of tuition and other costs of receiving an education at Brown;
Grants and communication support to create an exhibit at the London Science Museum and a plaque on the Thames Embankment to honor the engineer R.J. Mitchell, designer of the Spitfire airplane, which many credit as the deciding factor in the Battle of Britain;
Lead funding—now leveraged significantly with public funds—to rebuild Bletchley Park, the once-secret site near London where Germany’s World War II Enigma code was broken – and where the foundations of modern computing were laid;
Underwriting two books about the prisoner uprising and escape from the Sobibor death camp in Poland.
Frank also supported scholarships at historically black colleges and at Israeli universities, funded the Israeli Olympic team, made generous grants to his high school, Norwich Free Academy, and provided the Robin Hood Foundation with a $10 million matching grant.
Sidney Frank’s generosity has been transformative:
To date, Brown University has graduated 114 Sidney Frank Scholars.
Awareness throughout Britain of the contributions of R.J. Mitchell and Alan Turing has grown significantly.
Of even greater potential impact is the legacy he created through his estate, which enlarged the Sidney E. Frank Foundation to around $300 million in assets. Building on her father’s values, Cathy Frank Halstead and her husband, Peter, have developed a foundation focused on:
Access to quality education for all Americans;
Confronting climate change;
Awareness of and access to great performances in theater and music.
could reshape the world. He also
believed in thinking out of the box.
I think he would be proud of how the
foundation is bringing his
philosophies to the scale
to which he was accustomed.”
—Cathy Frank Halstead,
Sidney Frank’s daughter