Right Man for the Job
Steve Lawrence has succeeded at just about everything in life especially importing and distributing European wines in Texas
My buddy Mick Vann (a frequent Chronicle contributor) and his writing partner, Art Meyer, were cooking a special Spanish dinner to celebrate receiving the Gourmand World Cookbook Award for their book The Appetizer Atlas: A World of Small Bites (John Wiley & Sons), as well as Art's retirement from UT. All of the guests were asked to bring a Spanish wine and, as usual, I started poking about to see which wines people brought. With hundreds of Spanish wines to choose from locally, I was amazed to see that 80% of the wines were from Terra Verus, a wine distributor in Austin. The only way there could be such an unbelievable number from one distributor is if a lot of Austin stores were taking customers by the hand and telling them to buy these wines. That rarely happens.
I was already aware of Terra Verus. About six weeks before, I had gotten a phone call from Michael McGovern, manager at Mezzaluna. "Man, you have got to taste these Terra Verus wines," he said. "The wines rock, plus this guy is just starting, and he's local. And he used to be this big corporate dude, but he's really cool." McGovern was so excited about the wines and the owner, Steve Lawrence, that he could barely contain himself. Since McGovern has one of the best wine palates in town, I paid attention and called to set up a Terra Verus tasting.
Lawrence showed up driving a panel van with a "WINE 4 U" license plate. He didn't look like a "big corporate dude." He wore jeans, had a buzz cut, and appeared to be about 50 years old. He didn't act like one either: He was very self-effacing and as interested in listening as talking. We went through about 20 wines that afternoon, and in between his telling me the stories about his small portfolio of wines, I learned that he had lived in Europe as well as Central and South America. We talked about travel and the problems and allure of foreign living. Lawrence turned out to have both a fascinating background and a great group of wines (see Terra Verus Wines).
Later that week, my wife and I went to a benefit dinner at Mirabelle Restaurant for volunteers working on the Guess Who's Coming to Dinner benefit for Project Transitions. I spied the wine table and, again, went over to check out what was there and, again, found several wines from Terra Verus. I also found Steve Lawrence, who, as it turned out, had donated all of the wines for the hundred thirsty people attending. At this point, I wanted some answers.
Why does this guy who sells great wines care enough about the community to give something back? I was also curious about what, aside from the quality of the wines, made normally jaded folks like restaurant managers and store salespeople get passionate enough about Terra Verus wines to go out of their way to entice customers to buy them. Finally, I wanted to know what made Lawrence take the entrepreneurial leap of faith and risk his money and time to sell wine. The story ended up being even more interesting than I imagined.
Lawrence grew up in Illinois, spending every hour he wasn't in school working for his father and uncles in their construction business. After college, he went straight into the Navy, spending time in Washington and on a submarine stationed in Hawaii. After more schooling, he joined Pepsi, crunching numbers and trying to figure out which ads worked best. Just about the time he got tired of being a desk jockey, a management job that no one else wanted opened up in East L.A. At the time, very few companies seemed interested in marketing to Latinos. Lawrence decided to go out with the delivery personnel, to meet the people in the stores and see what he could do to make Pepsi the favored drink. He started watching the checkout stands and noticed that nearly every cart that left the stores had tortillas in it, so he started offering a free bag of tortillas with every 12-pack of Pepsi. Suddenly, a geographical market that Pepsi had ignored sprang to life, and Lawrence became a hero.
He moved rapidly up the ladder, mostly because his gentle style and his willingness to work in the trenches made his operations successful. Those characteristics also made him popular with both his workers and management. He was promoted several times, and Pepsi even sent him to an immersion school in Cuernavaca to learn Spanish. Lawrence ended up running most of Western Europe, including Italy and Spain, which would come in handy later in life. When Pepsi purchased the franchise from the Mexico City owner, they needed someone with a cool head who could speak Spanish and create some good feelings among the workers, so they moved Lawrence to Mexico City, where he was president of Pepsi Cola and in charge of 16,000 employees. But there was a problem. The air in Mexico City made Lawrence sick.
About that time, Dell called and asked Lawrence if he would like to run their South American operations. High tech seemed to have a bright future, and at least he'd be able to get out of Mexico City, so he took the job. He decided to buy a house in Austin (since the city served as Dell headquarters) and headed to an office in Porto Alegre, a huge industrial city in the southern tip of Brazil. There he met his wife, Silvana, a pediatric cardiologist, and everything was going well. But, after 15 years of living outside of the U.S., Lawrence was starting to realize he wanted to come home. He called Dell and asked for a transfer, but they wouldn't oblige him. After working his heart out for every company, sacrificing any kind of family or social life, he had a decision to make: remain a big fish in a big pond making big bucks, or chuck it all and go home. He and Silvana moved to Austin.
There were some roadblocks. Silvana found out she wouldn't be able to practice medicine. Despite being a respected physician in Brazil, she would have to live through a full residency program all over again and seek American licensing and board certification. Lawrence had to figure out something to do for a living. Luckily, he had saved some money and decided to enroll in the LBJ School.
In the meantime, Lawrence's love of wine had grown. One night, he attended a wine dinner at Sullivan's and met a man who was selling Italian wines. In casual conversation, Lawrence asked him how he got into the business. It sounded pretty easy. "That," he said, "was the day I started changing careers." After a year at the LBJ School, he quit and started preparing to be a wine importer.
It was much harder than he anticipated. He spent a few months just getting together the paperwork; then the background check for his import license took more than six months. All the while, there was no money coming in, Silvana was back in training, and Lawrence started questioning whether he had done the right thing.
"I was really depressed," he said. "I kept thinking I would never find any good wines and, even if I could, I wouldn't be able to compete." Then he decided to call some of the people he had worked with in Spain and Italy and ask for help. His friends rushed to his rescue.
"Luis Alcacer used to work for me, and he had also left Pepsi," Lawrence said. "But he lived in a beautiful part of Spain and had decided to start a little winery. He told me that if I would come over, he would help me meet some people." Lawrence also sent a note to the Italian Trade Commission and told them he was looking for wines that he could import. Two wineries contacted him, but then a great stroke of luck hit: A friend of Silvana's from Brazil met Giuseppe Quintarelli, one of the most respected winemakers in Italy, a man whose Amarones, when they can be found, sell for more than $300. He had a young friend, Luca Fedrigo, who was trying to establish an export relationship with an American firm and needed some help. Good enough, but there was more.
"Quintarelli really cared about Luca," Lawrence told me, shaking his head as if he still couldn't believe the luck. "He said I should import the wines and he would help Luca make them." In the wine world, that's like having Larry Brown offer to help coach your college team. But this also taught Lawrence a valuable lesson. Wine in Spain and Italy is handled as a friends-and-family business. The credo is that if you need help, I'll help you; if I need help, you are there for me. Vicious competition is frowned upon; friendly compatibility is rewarded. "Over there, wine is not a commodity," Lawrence explains. "When I go over there, I don't stay in hotels. I stay with the families of the people I deal with. I know their kids' birthdays. Allesandro Romana always takes me to his mama's for dinner, and she makes this wonderful six-course meal that she knows makes me so happy. I love them and I love helping them sell their stuff in the U.S."
In all, Lawrence drove 4,200 miles around Italy and Spain, searching for great wines that weren't being exported. He put together a small portfolio of wines, arranged for them to be shipped over in refrigerated containers, and headed back to Texas. He found an inexpensive warehouse not far from the airport and went to Office Depot to buy some cheap furniture. I wondered how it felt to go from the CEO of Pepsi Mexico to sitting cross-legged on the floor assembling office furniture.
"I love it because it's mine," he says. "It's funny. I do everything myself unload the trucks, stack the wines, fill orders, sell, sweep the floors, and turn out the lights. And I've never had so much fun in my life." All this is pretty different from the multinational soft-drink business, but he clearly loves the change.
Sales also turned out a little tougher than he imagined. One big chain told him they wouldn't take his wines because they were too tied in to the two giant distributors in Texas. Another lowballed him on his wines while demanding they be the exclusive store for Terra Verus. After a lot of work, Lawrence finally found three places willing to take a chance on his wines: Wiggy's, Mezzaluna, and Vespaio. He feels some affection for these places because "not only did they give me a chance, but they recommended me to others. I mean, like Michael McGovern calling you. If I just called you out of the blue, would you have given me the same reception?" I had to admit, my response probably would have been more courteous than enthusiastic.
"Next, I tried to get into Central Market," he told me. "[Wine buyer] Seth Pollard was excited about my wines, but Central Market makes you show liability insurance and workman's comp. That's pretty funny, workman's comp I'm the only employee. Do they think I'm going to sue myself? Anyway, I did what they asked and then I got into Central Market, where both the staff and the customers love my wine." From there, word of mouth, good will, and good wine opened a lot of doors.
In the 10 hours I spent with Lawrence, I did get all of my answers. He took the entrepreneurial leap of faith partly from necessity but also because he felt excited about wine. I think his kindheartedness and respect for other people has always helped him, but the answer to why salespeople and restaurant managers take the time and trouble to push his wine is a little more complicated, but it's an important lesson. Chalk it up to the school of "what goes around comes around" or karma or whatever you want to call it. People want to help Lawrence because he is doing it right he's treating his customers and his community as if he wants to be a part of the family. And when you've spent some time with him, you can't miss how much he loves to share the excitement he feels about his wine and his life. He might not be making the money he used to, but he has a happier existence, with time for Silvana, his three Labradors, and his new friends. Above all, he loves finding wines that make people happy.
At one point during our interview, Lawrence leaned forward, excited and happy. "The other night, we sat down for dinner at Vespaio. I was looking around and I just love this all three of the tables around us had a bottle of my wine. That made me feel about as good as I can feel."