San Antonio Business Journal, October 15, 2004
Lebermann's vision for business, community drives his success
by Paula Syptak Price
At 65, Lowell H. Lebermann has built several businesses, including the beverage distributorship he heads up today. He serves on numerous community boards, mentors students, and has been both an involved father and good friend. Not bad for a life that has come with its share of challenges.
But one of the challenges Lebermann has faced sets his success apart: He was building his business career while he was losing his eyesight, and was blind by age 28.
By that time, however, his love of entrepreneurship had been well established.
At age 12, Lebermann and a friend borrowed money from their fathers to buy fireworks and create fireworks stands. Within two years, they were driving to surrounding towns, selling fireworks out of a pickup truck, while their friends were selling from the stands back home in Commerce, Texas.
"You could get a drivers license at 14 back then," Lebermann says. "We not only had a good time, we paid our fathers back in the first year.
"The same guy and I had a snow cone stand," he continues. "And like other kids, I had car wash businesses. I always had some sort of business going on."
While he was earning a degree at the University of Texas in Austin, in "Plan II," an honors liberal arts program, Lebermann and his father started a rental real estate office.
"I continued to operate and expand it beyond graduation," Lebermann says.
He then bought a Lincoln Mercury dealership.
"I got in the car business because I needed an operating business," he remembers.
When a wholesale beer distribution opportunity popped up in 1981, he sold the car dealership and bought into the beverage distribution market. Under his leadership, it took only four years for business at Centex Beverage to triple.
Always along side of earning a living, Lebermann serves the community. He served on the Austin City Council from 1971-1976.
He's interested in such a variety of things that he has helped not only his alma mater and his city, but also the state, while affecting future generations.
"I think citizens have got to serve in a variety of ways," Lebermann says.
Indeed, variety directs his choices.
Lebermann mentors students and provides scholarships, such as the Texas Excellence Scholars, to help young adults get a head start on their dreams. He sits on numerous advisory committees, including the Lady Bird Johnson National Wildflower Center, and the 360 Summit, an annual technology conference.
He has a vision for Central Texas and participates in the planning of its long-term growth, particularly in the areas of health care and transportation. He remains an active founding member of the Seton (Hospital) Fund. Serving as vice-chair of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, his focus is to reduce traffic congestion in Central Texas.
While an Austin City Council member, he sponsored a study of the city's area waterways, and created the city's environmental resource management office.
His assistant, Nannette Chandler, says she is amazed by the commitment, perseverance, and hours that Lebermann devotes to activities apart from his business ventures.
"He does these things not because he has to, but because he cares so deeply about them," she says.
Learning by exampleLebermann traces his interest in community issues to his family's civic involvement.
"My father was a practicing physician, mayor of our small town, and president of the school board. My grandmother, Virginia Lebermann, was on countless boards and commissions in Austin, as well as sitting on numerous civic boards while running a photographic studio, Christianson-Lebermann. My mother was also very involved in things."
The lesson came through.
"I watched relatives and mentors doing civic things as well as earn a living," he says. "I learned that was important."
Serving as student body president during his senior year at UT was the first move into his lifelong dedication to community service.
"Being student body president was a fantastic experience," he remembers.
In addition to other reasons, the position was good for boosting his confidence.
"At that point, I was beginning to lose my eye sight in a serious way. Knowing I could still have that level of acceptance even though I had an apparent disability was a huge confidence-builder," he says.
Facing challengesThe word "disability" hardly fits this robust man. He wears an eye patch because his eye was shot out when he was 13 -- a classic "I didn't know the gun was loaded" story involving a friend. He still had one eye left, but it, too, was affected. Loss of sight in the second eye was complete by the time Lebermann was 28. He faced this fact as he faces all challenges.
"You just work around them," he says. "There are all sorts of mechanisms, and I've structured my life around the irritant of blindness in a variety of ways. I'm blessed to have a certain economic stability so I can have personal assistants with me, to read and drive, and help me with preparation for all the meetings I go to."
He does attend a lot of meetings. He is currently active on over 25 boards, committees, and councils.
He still "bleeds orange" for his alma mater, the University of Texas. He sits on six campus boards, and was thrilled to serve on the UT System's Board of Regents from 1993-1999. In appreciation for all his efforts, he was awarded a Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2000.
He considers staying economically viable in the late '80's, during the economic crash, and into the early '90's to be his greatest professional accomplishment.
Besides being a good father to one daughter and five step-children, he counts his public service efforts related to health care and education among his greatest personal accomplishments.
"I enjoy public policy making and public affairs," says Lebermann.
And people appreciate his efforts. Awards include Austinite of the Year, the Brotherhood award, presented by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the Herbert Hoover Service Award presented by the Boys' Club of Austin, and the Harvey Penick Award for Excellence in the Game of Life, given each year to a prominent community leader whose life illustrates dedication, discipline, and humility.
"He never forgets friendships or relationships," says attorney and Austin business man, Pike Powers, Lebermann's friend for over 30 years.
Powers says he enjoys Lebermann's sense of humor. Aware of his friend's love of big words, Powers describes Lebermann this way: "He's peripatetic and perspicacious." And beyond that, "Lowell has a solid, basic decency that's hard to emulate or duplicate."
Ben Barnes, owner of the Ben Barnes Group and former Texas lieutenant governor, agrees. "What stands out is his tremendous breadth of understanding, not only of business issues, but social and economic issues."
According to Barnes, this includes the economics and politics of other countries.
"He's a unique individual," says Barnes. "You really can't name a problem that Lowell Lebermann has not touched by serving in an official capacity or just getting involved as an individual.
"He is a person of great compassion who gets involved," Barnes continues. "If the business community of Texas and this country all had the same social conscience that Lowell Lebermann has, we'd have a lot of our problems solved."
Paula Syptak Price is a San Antonio-based free-lance writer.