Alumni Association: Profile
Lee Einsidler ’78: Making things happen for himself and others
(posted September 8, 2011)
Update : On December 6, 2011, Lee Einsidler '78 was presented with the Outstanding Alumnus Achievement Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Alumni Association upon a SUNYIT graduate. The presentation was made at a special reception attended by students, faculty/staff, and alumni during a campus visit by Einsidler.
Every journey begins with a single step, including that of Lee Einsidler ’78. As a teenager, he believed in his heart that he had a head for business, and bucked the naysayers by facing life one step at a time. In doing so, he made his dreams come true while helping others. Today, Einsidler is a philanthropist and Chief Executive Officer of Sidney Frank Importing Company, Inc. (www.sidneyfrank.com), the largest importer of sake in America, marketing masterminds behind the Jägermeister brand, known for redefining the vodka category with Grey Goose vodka, and creator of “the next revolution in spirits”: American Harvest organic vodka. Here's the story of Einsidler's journey from teenager to business titan.
How it all began
What do you do when someone in a position of authority doubts your talents and capabilities? What if that person is a high-school teacher who says you won’t amount to anything, and you’re a teenager for whom college is the only avenue for your dream job? Ask Lee Einsidler ’78 and he’ll tell you what he did.
One of seven children, Einsidler was a teenager growing up in Long Island in a family of modest means; his father put bread on the table running a liquor store. Working there during his teens, Einsidler got to know the sales representatives coming in, each brand of bottled beverage, and the company image behind it. So it’s little surprise he would continue in the family business.
But as a teenager, Einsidler’s vision was bigger than operating a small family-run store. He wanted to work for Seagram’s, which was the largest distiller of alcoholic beverages in the world. However, to be considered for his dream job, he’d have to earn a college degree, a feat that seemed impossible given that his high-school teacher was telling him he’d never amount to anything.
Every journey, though, begins with a single step. And Einsidler believed in his heart that he had a head for business. So, in spite of his teacher’s judgment, he decided to take a few community college classes in sales and marketing, and then a few more, until he completed a full year of credits. Then, buoyed by that experience, he decided to take on a second full year of studies, leading to an associate’s degree.
From there, he applied to SUNYIT, transferred into the business major, and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree, and did so cum laude (with honors). Upon graduation, Einsidler used one of his father’s contacts to secure an interview at Seagram’s headquarters in New York and landed a job there, thus fulfilling his teenage dream. But that’s just the beginning of the story!
A new way of life
After seven years at Seagram’s, Einsidler felt the company he grew up with was no longer the company he worked at. So in 1986 he joined another huge name in the industry, Jim Beam®. “I was approached by Jim Beam® numerous times and became their Vice President - National Sales Manager and the youngest in the liquor business at the age of 29,” he said.
Five years later in 1992, Einsidler faced a personal tragedy that would change his life forever. His mother was diagnosed with cancer with a prognosis of only 30 days to live. Einsidler returned to Long Island to spend time with his mother. Given her situation and now being married with two children himself, Einsidler decided to reduce his travel and put down roots in the New York City area.
Einsidler’s move back to New York was personally and professionally rewarding. His mother miraculously lived another 10 years, and he was able to spend lots of time with his parents during their final years. He joined the small, privately-owned Sidney Frank Importing Co., Inc. (www.sidneyfrank.com), which became like a second family, and Chairman and CEO Sidney E. Frank, who founded the business in 1972, became a mentor to Einsidler.
In 1996, after reporting directly to Frank for four years as Vice President of Promotions, Einsidler was promoted to CEO with Frank staying on as Chairman. Leading up to this point, the company had been making huge moves in the industry, capturing consumer attention and demand. After obtaining importing rights to Jägermeister in 1974, the company turned this specialty brand into a mainstream success. Einsidler’s job involved continuing to build on the Jägermeister brand and its marketing efforts, while leading the sales and marketing of other imported beverages, and helping develop a totally new concept in the vodka market.
Continuing to build on the Jägermeister brand included its connection to music. “Jägermeister’s affiliation with music has been part of the promotion of Jägermeister since the beginning,” Einsidler said. “Over 500 independent bands plus headliners have been sponsored by Jägermeister, with promotion expanding from sponsoring tours to creating a tour. Today the Jägermeister music tour is one of the pre-eminent rock tours in America.”
In addition to his Jägermeister brand work and other promotional responsibilities at that time, Einsidler was part of the team developing a new vodka concept that would become known as Grey Goose. “We built the company importing Jägermeister, which targeted ‘entry level drinkers,’ an industry term for this market,” Einsidler said. “And during this time we saw that ‘entry level drinkers’ were drinking vodka martinis, not gin martinis like their parents. So we wanted to create the best tasting vodka in the world. We had a relationship with a company in France making brandy, and we asked them if they could make vodka. They said yes, but it would be very expensive because of the methods involved. We spent over a year collaborating with them and tried hundreds of samples until we fell in love with one. Mr. Frank, who was a marketing genius, applied the name Grey Goose to the vodka because it resonated with consumers. Shortly after Grey Goose’s introduction, an institute was doing a tasting competition and we entered and won.” Einsidler said the company created Grey Goose advertising around the independent taste-test results and, from there, sales took off.
Building a legacy
“We built a magnificent company,” Einsidler said. “We built America to be the largest market for Jägermeister in the world. And in the mid ’90s we had an idea and created Grey Goose vodka. About a half dozen of us were instrumental in its creation. We introduced it in 1997, and then in summer 2004 we sold it to Bacardi because Sidney’s health was not good and he wanted to leave his fortune to charity.”
Einsidler said the Grey Goose sale – estimated at over $2 billion – resulted in huge employee bonuses and millions of dollars donated by Frank, particularly to education, allowing Frank to leave an amazing legacy prior to his death in 2006.
Einsidler said that legacy included gifts to Brown University, which a 2006 Brown press release described as follows: “In May 2004, Frank presented Brown with the largest single gift for an academic building in the University’s history – $20 million. Three months later, Frank stunned the Brown community with a gift of $100 million in support of undergraduate financial aid. In the fall of 2005, following Hurricane Katrina, Frank provided $5 million for the University to use in its efforts to assist colleges and universities that had been devastated by that natural disaster.”
“All of us involved in Grey Goose take pride in that gift,” Einsidler said. “Collectively we built Grey Goose into the number-one selling brand, the number-one call ultra-premium vodka in the universe. All those efforts helped make the Brown gift possible.”
Einsidler said Frank’s generosity inspired him to also become a philanthropist, donating to causes that address cancer and the often under-paid, behind-the-scenes folks in thoroughbred racing. “I’ve been going to Saratoga my entire life,” he said. “My dad took me to the track and I really enjoyed it.” Einsidler turned his passion into a business with the purchase of his first horse in 2004, and has been giving back to the thoroughbred community ever since.
Among his personal achievements, Einsidler cites “being a father to two fabulous boys,” and he added, “The sale of Grey Goose has given me the opportunity to learn how great it feels to give rather than receive.”
Passion as a life lesson
Considering the obstacles he overcame in his teens to get where he is today, Einsidler can offer great insight into making it in business. “I would encourage students to get involved in any business that they have a passion for,” he said. “If you do this, you have a real chance to be successful in any field. Working any job just to have 9-to-5 hours or collect a pension is no way to live life. No matter what you do, some days are better than others, but if you follow your passion, you can really live.”
Living that life takes Einsidler to Japan, Ireland, Germany, and other global destinations, and spans multiple time zones with communications occurring early in the morning or going late into the night. However, Einsidler said technology has enabled him to follow his business passions while fully enjoying family life.
Einsidler has followed his heart and his head into a highly successful and rewarding career, so it’s no surprise when he said, “I don’t look at this as work. It’s a huge part of my life and I do it because I want to, not because I have to. I plan to be the CEO of this company as long as the family lets me.”
Einsidler said the company stands apart from other businesses because of its family approach and its size and structure that allow it to be very nimble and quick in making decisions, providing maneuverability that is essential to compete against big companies.
“The business continues to do well,” Einsidler said. “We’re the largest importers of sake in America, we have over 200 employees, and we’ve just introduced another vodka. Our four-year non-compete expired in 2008, so we’re re-entering with American Harvest, an American-made organic vodka rolling out in test markets.”
Einsidler rose above his disparaging high-school teacher to be embraced by SUNYIT professors he describes as “excellent teachers” and to whom he could relate. In pursuing his college degree, Einsidler said, “I was a good student. I really worked hard at it. I had one SUNYIT professor in particular who challenged me and I challenged him.” That’s no wonder considering the heights to which Einsidler has risen over the years.
Looking back on his college days Einsidler said, “It was fabulous for me, my time at community college and at SUNY Utica-Rome. Utica-Rome was a perfect fit.” Finding a “perfect fit” seems to come naturally to Einsidler whenever he follows his heart and his head for business.
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