Spec’s Takes Retail To The Next Level

2016 Market Watch Leader Lisa Rydman builds on her family’s legacy at the Texas chain.

As the third generation of her family at the 165-unit Spec’s chain in Texas, Lisa Rydman has used her marketing skills to help manage the company’s expansion.
As the third generation of her family at the 165-unit Spec’s chain in Texas, Lisa Rydman has used her marketing skills to help manage the company’s expansion. (Photo by Julie Soefer)

Lisa Rydman remembers roller-skating down the aisles of her family’s Downtown Houston retail store while wearing her grandfather’s clunky and too-big skates. She also recalls  working in the deli, sweeping the floors and various other jobs she took on in her early years at the family business. Rydman’s responsibilities at Spec’s Wines, Spirits & Finer Foods, a chain of 165 liquor stores throughout Texas, have expanded since those days. Lisa and her parents, John and Lindy Rydman, run Spec’s from the company’s headquarters in Houston. The chain is known for its massive selections of wine, beer and spirits—about 34,000 SKUs in all—along with extensive deli offerings and gourmet foods at many locations.

“I have a hand in a lot of things,” Lisa says. “In terms of day-to-day operations, I run all the advertising and marketing. I also handle all charitable giving, and I oversee the food department. It’s hard to put Spec’s into a niche because a family business doesn’t typically operate that way. And although we’re on the large side, we’re still a small family operation at heart. We just happen to have about 3,500 people who are a part of our family.” For her commitment to beverage alcohol retailing in Texas, Lisa Rydman has been named the first-ever third-generation Market Watch Leader.

Spirits make up nearly half of all sales at Spec’s. Flavored vodkas (pictured) and craft whiskies thrive in the Texas market.
Spirits make up nearly half of all sales at Spec’s. Flavored vodkas (pictured) and craft whiskies thrive in the Texas market. (Photo by Julie Soefer)

54 Years And Counting

Lisa’s grandparents, Carroll “Spec” and Carolynn Jackson, founded the first Spec’s store in 1962. Spirits took center stage back then, with a broad selection at attractive prices setting the stage for growth. The store also sold beer. Customer service was a key focus and—at least for a few years in the early 1970s—came with a unique twist. Spec Jackson used to traverse the 15,000-square-foot store on roller skates to serve customers more quickly.

The Jacksons’ daughter, Lindy, and son-in-law, John, joined the company in 1971, and together they built a Texas powerhouse. Wine was introduced in 1974, and deli offerings were added in 1988. Lisa, who is John and Lindy’s only child, was part of the mix even back then. “This Downtown Houston store is all I’ve known,” she says. “Over the years I’ve done odd jobs here and there. Every time I had a school break, I was here. If you’re part of a family business, it’s just what you do—whether it’s answering phones, putting pints and half-pints on the shelves, sweeping up or making sandwiches in the deli.”

Lisa officially joined the family firm in 1995 after graduating from college. She says she had to apply and interview with her grandfather. “I had to create a résumé,” she recalls. “I was a psychology major and had all these ideas of things I wanted to do. I came down for my interview and told my grandfather all about my great plans. They didn’t exactly fit in with what he saw for me. He told me what I could do.”

Lisa commenced with scheduling and helping out customers on the sales floor. “My grandfather was right, of course—that was a great place to begin,” she says. Within a year of Lisa’s start at Spec’s, both Spec and Carolynn Jackson passed away, leaving the store’s management to John and Lindy. Lisa’s role expanded as well. “Everything changed at that point,” she says. “I took on more duties and started to learn about different segments of the company. That’s how it’s been for the last 20 years. I’ve been taking over various areas, learning different parts and finding my niche.”

Lisa has worked with her parents to expand Spec's (Smith Street location in Houston pictured) to 165 units over the past decade and a half.
Lisa has worked with her parents to expand Spec's (Smith Street location in Houston pictured) to 165 units over the past decade and a half. (Photo by Julie Soefer)

Texas-Sized Expansion

The 21 years since Lisa joined Spec’s have been marked by massive expansion for the chain—a strategy driven by her parents and embraced by Lisa today. In the early 2000s, the Rydmans focused on expansion within the Houston market, later broadening their reach to other parts of Texas. Today, Spec’s is present in most major markets throughout the state, with multiple locations in Houston, Dallas–Fort Worth, El Paso, San Antonio, Austin and other cities. The chain does annual sales of more than $1 billion. 

Lisa says she and her parents decide together on new locations. “When an opportunity arises, we discuss where we want to go,” she explains. “If it’s something that the three of us agree on, we’ll do it. We then turn it over to our real estate and construction departments. We have a fantastic team that goes in, puts up all the shelving and does the hiring. I get involved again when we start doing the advertising, marketing and outdoor signage.”

Continuity in style and service are important across the range of stores. “The feel and design are pretty much the same in every location,” Lisa says. “The signage will look the same, and the staff are trained in the same way. We have a consistent vision for providing selection and service.”

Lisa and her parents are open to further expansion. “Texas is a big state, and there are still some spots where we aren’t represented,” she says. “When those areas get more developed or when it makes sense, we’ll go there.” The family has thought of expanding beyond Texas, but has no immediate plans. “There’s still a lot to be done right here,” Lisa notes.

Lisa calls the company headquarters in Houston the “mothership,” but notes that Spec’s also has motherships in cities like Dallas and Austin. “They’re all similar in terms of product selection, but no two stores will carry the same product listings,” she says. “A lot depends upon what the local customer base is requesting.”

Square footage at Spec’s stores varies depending on the location. The larger stores measure 30,000 to 35,000 square feet, while other units can have a footprint as small as 5,000 square feet. The product sales mix also varies, but Lisa says that on average, spirits make up about 49 percent of total sales, wine accounts for roughly 40 percent and beer takes the remaining 11 percent.

“We’re right on trend with the rest of the country,” Lisa says of the current top-selling products within Spec’s massive selection. “Craft beer has gone crazy, brown spirits are everywhere, and craft whiskies have taken over. The distillers have seen what the wine world did in creating demand for hard-to-get products. It’s nice to see that it’s not just the wine side anymore. Whisk(e)y companies are also creating products that get everybody talking.” Perhaps a bit off-trend compared to many other parts of the country, flavored vodkas continue to thrive. “Brands are launching new flavors all the time, and our customers love them,” Lisa adds.

Beverage alcohol is the overwhelming focus at Spec’s, but food is a growing area. “The food department is my favorite part of the business,” Lisa says. “I love to eat and cook. We have 15 delis around the state where we offer sandwiches, fresh cheese, coffees and pastas. That’s exciting, and it makes us different from other liquor stores.” Lisa says every store offers some food, but in the smaller stores the selection is limited to snacks. The larger the store, the greater the food component, which can account for up to 10 percent of sales. “It’s a nice part of the business, but obviously that’s not our core,” she adds. “People don’t come to us for food, but I want to change that. I want people to shop here rather than at a grocery store.”

Lisa and her parents, Lindy and John Rydman, oversee the company and make decisions together.
Lisa and her parents, Lindy and John Rydman, oversee the company and make decisions together. (Photo by Julie Soefer)

Spreading The Word

In her main role, Lisa oversees advertising, marketing and charitable giving and aims to communicate Spec’s commitment to superior selection and customer service. She says that the company takes a comprehensive approach. “We’re on pretty much every medium you can find for spreading the word,” she notes. “We do television, radio and print advertising. Social media is big for us. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram get the most attention.”

Spec’s charitable activities are a big job, considering the extent to which the chain gives back to its employees and the community. Spec’s received the Market Watch Leaders Alumni Award for “Community Service” in 2012. The company partners with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston to provide scholarships to children of employees. In addition, it offers a full scholarship at the University of North Texas to any children of employees who gain admission to the university. Spec’s stores also strive to positively impact their local communities, and Lisa fields about 400 to 450 charitable requests each month. “It’s daunting,” she says. “I try to give to at least half of those every month. I do as much as I can.”

While Spec and Carolynn Jackson started the company and John and Lindy Rydman have overseen its massive expansion, Lisa is just beginning to put her stamp on the family firm. And the generational progression looks unlikely to end with her. Lisa has three sons, all of whom have grown up with the company just as she did. It’s too soon to tell where their careers will take them—the oldest is just 17—but like their mom, they’re being raised in the business.

Lisa’s goals, meanwhile, are clear. “Every day, we try to make ourselves better in markets where we’re already present,” she says. “We can always improve, change and adapt to be what our customers want us to be. We focus on the service that they deserve—that’s really what we’re all about.”