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Bob Leggett: Founder of Artisanal Imports

Innovators Series Issue 24
Bob Leggett, CEO of Artisanal Imports

For Bob Leggett, 1977 was a landmark year. It was the year he broke into the beer business, and the year he started sporting a beard. Bob's been around ever since – as a natural storyteller, he's a perfect fit for a profession where sales are based on the strength of a product's story. The beard has also remained. It's a fitting symbol of the man and his commitment to both time-honored tradition and the growth of the beer industry.

We talked to Bob about the “locals only” mentality in beer, how he helped shape the Corona bottle, and the surprising cultural exchange that craft beer has spurred.

Finding Spirit in Beer

Before founding Artisanal Imports, which has prided itself on bringing some of Europe and South America’s most carefully cultivated beers stateside since the turn of the millennium, Bob was fresh out of Austin-based St. Edwards University with a business degree but no particular direction.

“I always had an entrepreneurial spirit,” Leggett said, “and enjoyed creating stuff and diving into things, but I didn’t have any jobs lined up. I took the summer off after graduation and when I came back, my dad had just retired after 25 years of a state job … and he bought a small distributorship — Shiner of Austin.”

Leggett on his early days of business as a distributor: "Desperation drove a lot of what we did."

With nothing to lose, Bob hopped on board.

“I said ‘I don’t know anything about the beer business and I don’t know anything about beer specifically other than how to drink it, but it sounds like fun. I’m interested in business, you know, why not give it a try?’ We had one guy that drove around and one guy that made hotshot deliveries out of a van and I took care of the office and did some of the deliveries, loaded trucks and did the bookkeeping. So that’s how I got started.”

Far from the powerhouse brand it is today, the Shiner of 1977 was a small, local brand with minimal market value, accounting for roughly one percent of the Texas beer market. The going wasn’t easy for the three-person distributorship, which was just the way Bob liked things. In his words, “desperation drove a lot of what we did.” Faced with selling people on unfamiliar brands, he looked for what made them stand out most.

“We didn’t have any brands that had any real market pull,” Leggett said, “and we didn’t have any advertising or marketing money. We pretty much had to sell them on their specialty, and the only specialty Shiner had was that it was from Shiner, Texas, which is 90 miles southeast of Austin, a very little town.”

“The people that drank Shiner in Austin were basically older people from that community that moved to Austin when they were kids to find jobs so they still drank their hometown beer, or it was sort of the counterculture – we were the little guys fighting Schlitz and Budweiser and Miller and all of the big brands out there. Back then the pricing structure had the national brands at the top and then brands like Pearl and Lone Star which were statewide brands, pretty good size, were the middle tier. Then products like Shiner were on the bottom. We were the cheapest thing out there.”

In the 70s, a pitcher of Shiner was about $1.50, compared to around $1.85 for Budweiser, but as demand grew, so too did the price people were willing to pay, a trend that craft drinkers across the board will recognize today with top craft brands asking $14-$16 for a six-pack.

“After fifteen years we were basically on par with the national brands, and had that kind of reputation. What we found was that price, to a certain degree, adds a connotation of quality to a lot of consumers, so as we inched the price up the image of the brand also inched up.”