Spirits from Cuba
Another celebrated family-owned company is Bacardi & Company, the producers of Bacardi rum. Journalist Tom Gjelten, like Jeff Rothfeder, set out to tell the story of an idiosyncratic family empire. Unlike Rothfeder, however, Gjelten had the complete cooperation of the family members. He has produced a solid, engaging book that is as much a history of Cuba as it is of the company. A sip of your next daiquiri will summon up the stories in Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause. And you will love the vintage photos of white-suited Bacardi family members and employees (they have a regal, tropical look).
Gjelten traces the history from 1862 — when Don Facundo Bacardi, an immigrant from Catalonia, figured out a way to make the first light rum and started a distillery in the eastern Cuba city of Santiago — to 2008. The company, which is headquartered in Bermuda but run, in effect, from Miami, ranks as the world’s third-largest alcoholic beverage company. It makes not just rum but Dewar’s whiskey, Martini & Rossi vermouths, Bombay gin, and Grey Goose vodka. And it is still owned by the same family that started it.
Fidel Castro’s takeover of Cuba in January 1959 was a life-changing event for Bacardi. And Gjelten has painstakingly demonstrated why this was not a simple case of a rapacious company being upended by a Socialist-minded government. The politics of the Bacardis, going back to the founder, were liberal and nationalistic. They treated their workers well and opposed Spanish colonial rule. Don Facundo’s son, Emilio, was a writer and activist who became mayor of Santiago and a senator in the Cuban legislature. He was imprisoned twice for aiding rebels seeking the overthrow of the Spanish regime. And the family had no use for Fulgencio Batista, who seized power in a 1952 coup and established a harsh and corrupt military dictatorship.
When Fidel Castro first appeared on the scene, the Bacardi family welcomed him. Pepin Bosch, who was married to the founder’s granddaughter and was then chairman of Bacardi, told reporters: “The triumph of the revolution makes me very happy.” Three weeks after the fall of Batista, there was a wedding rich in symbolism: Castro’s brother, Raul, was married to Vilma Espin, the daughter of a longtime Bacardi executive, Jose Espin. The winter 1959 issue of Bacardi Grafico, the company’s quarterly magazine, celebrated Castro’s victory with an article called “Crusade of Freedom.”
But less than a year later, it was all over. Castro moved to nationalize 300 companies; one of them was Bacardi. On October 15, 1960, Daniel Bacardi, great-grandson of the founder, met in his office with representatives of the government. With him was the treasurer of Bacardi and three executives who had married granddaughters of Emilio Bacardi — and they turned the company over to the state, including every physical asset Bacardi owned in the country.
Most of the Bacardi family members fled to the United States, where they regrouped. In fact, from a business standpoint, the exile may have been a blessing in disguise. Fortunately for rum drinkers, the company already had distilleries in Puerto Rico and Mexico. In 1961, a new distillery came on line in Brazil, and the company announced that it would build a $4 million distillery and bottling plant in the Bahamas, enabling Bacardi to export rum tax-free to all the British Commonwealth countries. Later on, distilleries were opened in Canada, Martinique, Panama, and Spain. In 1960, when its Cuban company was nationalized, Bacardi had sold 1.7 million 12-bottle cases of rum worldwide; by 1976 annual global sales had jumped to more than 10 million cases.
Now, with the acquisition of other brands, Bacardi has become a major player in the global wine and spirits business. But the Cuban connection still hangs over the company. As Gjetlin puts it, “Rum is one of the precious elements — along with cigars — that keep a hallowed place in Cuba no matter which ideology rules.” What will happen if the Castro regime ends? Will the Bacardi family ever want to return to Cuba? Gjetlin doesn’t try to answer those questions. But he deserves high praise for presenting a dramatic and sensitive portrait of a company placed against a canvas of political upheaval. That’s what a good corporate history is all about.