Global drinks giant Bacardi was born in Cuba 156 years ago – but it was from its adopted home in Bermuda that the company grew up into the major player in the industry it is today.
Bacardi – as a pioneering international company – also helped put the island on the map as a home for businesses from around the world. Bacardi, still family owned and the largest spirits company in private hands was founded in Santiago de Cuba in 1862 by Don Facundo Bacardi.
The firm’s more refined rum gained rapid popularity and was the tipple of choice for hard-drinking Nobel Prize-winning writer Ernest Hemingway, who drank Bacardi cocktails in Havana’s legendary El Floridita bar when he lived on the island for extended periods in the 1940s to the early 1960s.
The company would still be there, but for the 1959 revolution that propelled Fidel Castro and a hardline Communist regime to power. Bacardi assets in their homeland were confiscated, despite the influential family’s initial support for Castro’s effort to oust corrupt military dictator Fulgencio Batista.
The family was forced to flee to America, briefly setting up in the Bahamas before they settled on Bermuda as their new home in 1965. Cuba’s loss was Bermuda’s gain and the unquenchable Bacardi spirit, which had survived, and even been involved in, previous revolutions against Spanish rule, flourished.
Some inside the company believed Castro did the firm a favour – because Bacardi grew from relative small fry focused on the rum business to a worldwide brand with a portfolio of drinks including Italian vermouth, French vodka, Scotch whiskey, English gin and – most recently – the $5 billion-plus acquisition of Patron, Mexico’s top-selling upmarket tequila.
And the expansion came on the back of a rock-solid home base in Pitts Bay Road in Pembroke, in a custom-built building inspired by a design by modernist superstar architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – a design at first intended to be built in Santiago.
The company went from selling 1.7 million cases of rum in 1960 – the year its Santiago distillery was stolen in a state nationalisation programme – to more than 10 million cases a year in 1976.
Juan Prado, a top Bacardi salesman who fled Cuba with his wife and young children after Castro took power and who helped set up the company on the island, told Tom Gjelten, author of Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: “A lot of people think Bacardi should thank Castro for what he did because we would never have achieved what we did if we had stayed in Cuba.”
Prado argued that the loss of Bacardi’s Hatuey brewery in Cuba, a source of ready cash because beer was a lot easier to make than rum and needed no expensive aging, had forced the firm to concentrate on its spirits production, which propelled it to new heights. But the company might not have come to Bermuda at all.
Carlos Bosch, who died in Bermuda earlier this year aged 91, recalled his struggle with his father, the formidable Jose´ “Pepin” Bosch, who headed the company in Cuba and in exile for many years, to move the firm to Bermuda at a party to mark its 50 years on the island in 2015.
Mr Bosch, who retired from the company in 1975, said: “We got the authorisation – but I had to convince my father. It took two years to convince him.”
A handful of staff arrived on the island and started to rebuild the company, which had already expanded its operations outside Cuba to Puerto Rico and Brazil while corrupt Cuban military dictator Fulgencio Batista, toppled by Castro, was still in power.
Mr Bosch said: “Somehow, the small team we had gelled and it just worked.”
Eduardo Cutillas, who retired in 1998 and died last year aged 81, was also among the team that rebuilt the brand from Bermuda. Mr Cutillas said at the 50thanniversary celebration that “closest to our hearts are the people of Bermuda who welcomed us with such warmth”. He added: “I’m very happy we’re here and we are staying here. We’re not going back to Cuba. Bermuda is our home now.”
But the firm is not just known for its success in the spirits business – it has built a global empire with a social conscience carried on from its early days in Cuba, where its workers were well-treated and well-paid in comparison to most. Bacardi was named as one of the most reputable brands earlier this year for the sixth year in a row.
It ranked 89thin the the annual Global RepTrak list 100 list compled by the Reputation Institute and published in Forbes magazine. Companies were assessed on ethical behaviour, fairness, product value and transparency, as well as their reputation as an employer, based on more than 230,000 individual ratings.
Mahesh Madhavan, chief executive of Bacardi, said at the time: “To be ranked six years in a row is an honour and a reflection of not only our portfolio of premium spirits but especially our thousands of dedicated employees around the world who embody the entrepreneurial spirit and values of family-owned Bacardi.”
The firm has also pioneered green technology to cut down on pollution in its operations around the world and is a major contributor to charity and the community in Bermuda. When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, where most of the firm’s rum is now made, last year, Bacardi mobilised its staff to set up “stop and go” aid centres and donated millions of dollars towards rebuilding the shattered island.
In Bermuda, the company earlier this year won the annual corporate blood donor campaign for the second year in a row. The company is also the long-time main sponsor of the “Let us Drive” service run by anti-substance abuse charity CADA in Bermuda, designed to get people home safe after a night out in Hamilton. Bacardi pledged half a million dollars over five years to the Bermuda Hospital Charitable Trust in 2014, to be used to help redevelop the King Edward VII Memorial Hospital.
And Bacardi donated $600,000 to the hospital in 2005 to buy a new state-of-the-art X-ray machine.
The company also used a tanker – normally used to transport rum – during a serious drought in the early 1980s, loading it with water in Canada and transporting it to Dockyard. Bacardi is also a major sponsor of the arts, including the Bermuda Festival, as well as a backer of sailing and fishing events.
Douglas Mello, the Bermudian global vice-president of corporate strategy at Bacardi, who is responsible for the operation of the headquarters, said both Bermuda and Bacardi had both benefited from their half-century plus relationship. He explained: “Bacardi found a welcoming new home with a stable political and economic environment and a world class infrastructure that was crucial for its global expansion.
“Bermuda found a solid family-owned company that not only put the island on the international business map but also has helped to enhance the community for more than 50 years.”
Mr Mello said: “We are forging the future through a world-class finance function which is based in Bermuda.
“Many of our senior leaders have moved to the island with their families, much like the early leaders of the company did in the 1960s.”
He added: “We believe that Bacardi and its employees benefit through a greater connection with Bermuda’s worthy charities and a sense of fulfillment in the community where we live and work.”
Mr Mello said: “Today, staying in Bermuda makes perfect sense. As one of the highest profile companies on the island, we appreciate the Bermudian business community and the Government for continuing to support and welcome us.”
He added: “We have a building, we have a vibrant staff of eighty people in Bermuda, including top management of the company, we have great infrastructure to leverage and we are totally committed to giving a helping hand to our community.
“We are here to stay.”
A further symbol of the company’s commitment to the island came when it celebrated the 150thanniversary of its foundation. Bacardi commissioned a special time capsule encased in granite and cement and placed it at its headquarters on Pitts Bay Road. The time capsule will not be opened until the company’s 200thanniversary in 2062. And it’s an odds on bet a new generation of the family will be there to open it.