Local Obituaries

Renowned entrepreneur Leslie Rudd, 76, loved to combine history with innovation

Leslie Rudd
Leslie Rudd

Leslie Rudd, a Wichita native who became an influential entrepreneur, developer and philanthropist, died Thursday in New York. He was 76.

Rudd, the chief executive officer of Leslie Rudd Investment Company, built Standard Beverage Company into the largest beverage distributor in Kansas, owned the upscale grocery chain Dean & DeLuca for years and opened wineries in California's Napa Valley.

"He was a terrific entrepreneur, full of ideas, always learning," Charles Koch said of Rudd, whom he called one of his oldest and best friends.

"He was a student" in everything he did, Koch said of Rudd. "He would constantly strive to improve, and would go do the work.

"He did that in every business" that he owned or developed, Koch said.

Rudd succeeded because he built trust and aimed to build the best in whatever he was doing, Koch said. He would ask Koch about the latest concepts he was developing and then figure out a way to apply it to his businesses "to great success."

Koch said he would ask his own executives why they couldn't do that as well, but it boiled down to a simple answer.

"None of us were Les Rudd," Koch said.

Rudd graduated from Wichita State and remained close to the family of one of his international business professors there, Dharma deSilva.

"Leslie had an extraordinary capacity to be kind and generous to those who were close to him, whether it was his family, his friends or his staff," said Deema deSilva, Dharma's wife and the retired student support services director at WSU.

"He always expected everyone to rise up to the highest standard he set," she said. "He could envision a standard that those around him didn’t even know they could reach. He helped them understand what was possible."

Wendi Webster Green, who grew up in Wichita and graduated from Wichita State, was hired by Rudd to help run his businesses in California.

"He always had a soft spot in his heart for people from Wichita," Green said. "He wanted to see people succeed."

Rudd opened two wineries in Napa Valley: Rudd Oakville Estate and Edge Hill Estate, as well as Distillery No. 209.

"The unifying thread for all of his ventures was combining Old World craftsmanship with an innovative twist," Green said. "Respecting the past while tracking the future."

Rudd worked to combine the best of American innovation with traditional French wine-making at his vineyards, she said. He loved to preserve history where he could.

He bought Oakville Grocery, the oldest continually operating grocery store in California, in 2007.

"He didn't want to see it go away," Green said.

Distillery No. 209 has its roots in a distillery that first opened in the 1880s, she said. Rudd owned PRESS, a farm-to-table restaurant in Napa Valley, because he liked the farm-driven component of it.

"He really was a creative person at heart — a curious spirit," Green said. "Always ask questions. That's probably one of the things I learned most from him. To really understand something, you've got to ask questions."

Rudd wasn't afraid to try something new, either. He developed and sold a number of businesses, including restaurants.

He was a born entrepreneur, Koch said, who knew how to choose good partners and also knew when to let go.

"He created all the value he could in that field, and then he was willing to part with it," Koch said.

For all his accomplishments in the business world, deSilva said, Rudd told her he was most driven by something else.

"He wanted to leave a legacy of uplifting disadvantaged youth," deSilva said.

In 2014, Leslie Rudd Portfolio Group established the LRIco Scholarship Program for full-time employees and children of employees who have been with the company for 10 years or more..

The Rudd Foundation provided funding to help establish the UCONN Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, which promotes solutions to childhood obesity and poor diet.

Rudd was also a substantial supporter of the Guadalupe Clinic in Wichita, which provides medical care for people in need.