There’s a general belief that everything is bigger in Texas—from the landscape to the cuisine to celebrated characters that exist in both history and lore. The founder of the Pinkie’s retail chain, Tom “Pinkie” Roden, was one such larger-than-life figure, renowned for bootlegging and widely influencing state politics. But the same man who was dubbed the “Wizard of the West” by local newspapers had a more understated philanthropic side—one that his successor, Austin Keith, quietly continues to this day.
A key figure in Texas beverage alcohol retailing from the repeal of Prohibition to the 1980s, Roden never flouted his success. Instead, he supported organizations that sought to improve the lives of the citizens of West Texas. In addition to playing an instrumental role in renovating the Odessa Medical Center hospital, Roden also fought hard for and won the establishment of the University of Texas of the Permian Basin (UTPB) in Odessa. There’s even a statue dedicated to him on the campus—a monument that belies the mostly anonymous nature of Roden’s lifelong philanthropy.
Much like his predecessor, Keith doesn’t trumpet his community service and support of charitable organizations. “I aim to be like Mr. Roden,” he says. “He was very quiet. He didn’t publicize a lot of stuff.” But, Keith acknowledges, “sometimes you can’t avoid it.” And as the public record shows, he’s dedicated to serving the needs of others and improving the communities where he does business. For his humble philanthropy and outstanding generosity, Austin Keith has been awarded the 2015 Market Watch Leaders Alumni Award for “Community Service.”
After 20 years in the distribution business with such companies as Lone Star and Terk, Keith bought Pinkie’s in 1998, nine years after its founder had passed away. Pinkie Roden’s brother, Ted, owned the business at the time, and Keith says both men influenced him enormously. “Ted told me, ‘This country is built on entrepreneurship,’” he explains, adding that Ted Roden started and ran a successful Budweiser distributorship before getting into retail at Pinkie’s. “He did a lot of things that made it possible for me to step out and buy the company. He was very gracious and helped me out quite a bit. I owe a lot to him.”
The chain had been struggling since Pinkie Roden’s death. Keith and his wife, Michelle, spent years growing the business, overhauling or closing some stores and opening others. The hard work has paid off. Keith was named a Market Watch Leader in 2004, and Pinkie’s now employs 140 people in 17 locations across Abilene, Amarillo, Lubbock, Midland and Odessa, Texas. These stores include 15 full Pinkie’s units and two smaller Pinkie’s mini-marts that sell only beer and wine. In addition, Keith owns a barbecue business, also called Pinkie’s, which serves patrons in Lubbock at the mini-marts and a stand-alone location.
Although individual stores vary by location, the average Pinkie’s stocks nearly 5,000 SKUs across beer, wine and spirits. Beer accounts for 17 percent of sales, while wine makes up 12 percent and spirits lead with 70 percent. The remaining 1 percent comes from tobacco products, mixers and accessories. According to Texas beverage alcohol law, specially licensed package stores can sell to on-premise operators, and wholesale accounts for nearly a quarter of the Pinkie’s business.
After taking over in 1998, Keith realized that three stores located just outside the city limits of Lubbock—which restricted off-premise sales at the time—needed makeovers. “They were all trying to vie with each other,” he says. So Keith hired graduate students from Texas Tech University’s Rawls School of Business to analyze the Lubbock market and devise a plan of action. “I told them that I wanted a store that would cater to women, and they came back with a plan to paint it blue and beige, run ‘Ladies’ Day’ promotions, and stuff like that,” he says. “They suggested the name Austin’s Korner because it would be the first in the phone book.” The same students helped Keith develop Raiderland—a discount store named after Texas Tech’s Red Raider mascot and decorated in the school’s signature black and red colors. “We went with it, and it all worked,” Keith says. He later closed the businesses after the town of Lubbock went wet in 2009.
The study launched a close relationship with Texas Tech and in particular a marketing professor there, Dr. Patrick Dunne. Although Keith says he and Dunne “have different ideas about retailing,” the two met continually over the years to talk and trade viewpoints. Simultaneously, Keith provided ongoing financial support of the Rawls School of Business and scholarships for its Tech Marketing Association. When the university asked him to increase his giving last year, they offered to name a scholarship after Pinkie’s. “I said no,” Keith explains. “Dr. Dunne had retired, and I asked them to name it after him.” In 2015, the Dr. Patrick Dunne Marketing Scholarship was one of three awarded to Texas Tech students, thanks to Keith’s generosity.
“Austin has a positive influence on the lives of our students,” says Texas Tech marketing area coordinator and John B. Malouf professor of marketing Dennis Arnett. “His continued support of our department enables us to both attract and retain top business students in our programs.” In addition to funding student scholarships, Keith gives each recipient a copy of Pinkie Roden’s biography—another way to pass on the lessons of entrepreneurship that he cherishes. He also provides financial support to faculty for travel to conferences and other expenses.
Keith doesn’t limit his support of education to just one institution. Continuing the legacy of Pinkie Roden, he provides scholarship funding to UTPB, and he sits on the board of the Odessa College Foundation. In addition to his own financial gifts, Keith helps cultivate new donors for the foundation, which last year raised over $320,000 during its annual scholarship campaign. The funds will support 200 Student Success scholarships this year.
“Austin plays a huge role in our annual campaign, talking to potential donors and even recording television and radio spots,” says Cindy Graham, assistant director of scholarships and development at Odessa College. “The scholarships meet a huge need in our community. Odessa College serves nontraditional students, and that money allows us to help them reach their educational goals.” Graham notes that Keith played a key role in setting up Odessa College’s program in instrumentation technology, a skilled trade in high demand in the petroleum industry. “Through his work with the Odessa Development Corp., Austin was instrumental in getting that program funded and started,” she adds. “Now our students are highly sought after by a lot of companies.”
Keith contributes to a number of other causes. He has continued Pinkie Roden’s support of the Ben Richey Boys Ranch, located in Abilene, as well as the Boys & Girls Club of Odessa. “We try to be anonymous when supporting those kinds of organizations, since we market a regulated product and don’t want to bring in associations with underage drinking,” Keith notes. “But we like to help people early in life.”
As a board member of Meals on Wheels of Odessa, Keith helps deliver food whenever possible and participates in the organization’s annual fundraising event, Mudbug. “A group comes up from Louisiana with about 800 pounds of live crawfish—the mudbugs,” he explains. “We cook them along with 800 pounds of shrimp and 300 pounds of fish. We hold it at the Ector County Coliseum, where they have big barns. Corporate sponsors buy tables, and people come out, load up a plate and eat. It’s a lot of fun.” This year, the event cleared over $94,000 for Meals on Wheels.
Keith is also a board member of numerous other organizations, including the nonprofit industrial development group Grow Odessa, Compass Academy charter school in Odessa, the Odessa Development Corp., the Midland-Odessa Transportation Alliance, the Odessa Chamber of Commerce and the Permian Basin Rehabilitation Center, where he helped develop an annual fundraiser called The Great American Steakout. The retailer also serves as president of the Texas Package Stores Association. “Sometimes I think I’m too boarded up,” he says. “But it’s not just about giving money. It’s about being active.”
Keith doesn’t see a difference between the charitable giving he undertakes as owner of Pinkie’s and his personal philanthropy. Both are rooted in the goal of caring for others and giving back. “I think there’s a calling to do these things,” he says, citing his Christian faith. “My role model is the Bible. We’re to be stewards of what we’ve been given. I’ve been very blessed, and the beverage alcohol business has been good to me. I like to help out where I can.”
Doing service in the community means that Keith and his customers get to know each other—an exchange that puts a real face and name to the complex environment of beverage alcohol retail in West Texas, where eight counties remain wholly dry and most others are a patchwork of wet and dry municipalities. The altruistic efforts of Keith’s neighbors inspire him to continually serve. “West Texas is a giving community,” he says. “People out here step up and do things. It’s humbling.”
In 2014, Keith decided to extend his community involvement through politics, running for the state representative seat of District 81, which covers Andrews, Ector and Winkler counties. He hoped to be a voice for an area that often gets overlooked down in Austin. “Out here in West Texas, we’re kind of on our own,” he explains. “But as my former boss David Terk always told me, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Although Keith lost in the primaries and has no plans to run again, he’s positive about the experience. “I met a lot of nice people out in the district and I really enjoyed it,” he says.
As a businessman, Keith encourages his employees in their own service efforts. “We support the chamber of commerce in every community we’re in, and I try to get my people involved with them as much as possible,” he notes. “If they say they’re helping out with a board or an event, we try to facilitate whatever it is they’re working on.”
Additionally, Keith aims to help employees with training and education on the job. “Knowledge is power,” he says. “Especially with the number of products that we carry, I want my employees to have a good understanding of them.” To further this goal, Pinkie’s gives bonuses to employees who voluntarily take classes in beer, wine or spirits. The company also offers bonuses called promotional money to motivate sales of particular items, which Keith notes has the added benefit of increasing knowledge about each item and its category.
Pinkie’s also includes informational packets that detail a particular category or product with employees’ weekly paychecks. “I like to be tricky,” Keith explains. “We’ll choose one employee from each market and put a letter in their packet that says, ‘If you read this letter and send it back, you’ll get a $25 bonus. If no one else does and you’re the only one, you get the whole pot.’ And sometimes just one person out of the five sends it in, so he or she gets $125 just for reading.”
As an employer and a member of the West Texas community, Keith demonstrates an unrelenting dedication to helping others. Graham of Odessa College calls Keith “one of the best guys I know. He really cares about the students and having a well-educated workforce here in the Permian Basin.” Much like Pinkie Roden, Keith plays his philanthropic activity close to the chest and doesn’t seek out public recognition. But his actions echo loudly in the lives of those he touches. “Mr. Keith fosters a passion for education and honors students for their incredible achievements,” says Zach Stewart, president of the Tech Marketing Association. “We are proud to have him as a friend, partner and mentor as we strive for excellence.”
Keith aims to continue building on his business’ success by opening additional stores in existing markets. He’ll also keep serving the West Texas community in any way he can, looking to the example of his predecessors to guide his actions. “When Ted sold me the business, he afforded my family a great opportunity,” Keith says. “I hope one day to do the same for others.”