The Rum Dynasty: Bacardi
Bacardi Breaks with Tradition To Keep the Company and the Family Together
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96
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He tells the story as if it happened last week rather than 36 years ago. "They came in. They were soldiers. For some reason or other they were marines. The previous day or that morning somebody called me and said, 'The confiscation decree is out and you are going tomorrow, or that day,' " Prado recalls, sitting in the conference room in Bacardi's Miami building, overlooking Biscayne Bay. "Castro had been confiscating individual companies like a bank here or another company there, but never really took a Cuban company, and that day he did. He took like, I think there were 384 companies or something like that, and my family also fell in that one. My father was in the food wholesale business and they were on the same list, so we all went in the same group. And the way it happened is that they just showed up, a couple of guys from the navy and a few milicianos [militiamen] and so on and a copy of a decree that if you saw it you wouldn't believe it, misspelled and it was mimeographed and it was a one-page thing and the open space is what they filled in with [the words] Ron Bacardi and such-and-such an address."
Prado, who retired from the company in 1994 after 42 years of service, is smiling as he tells the rest of the story. "It was funny. It was something of a joke," he says. "Somehow when you're in trouble like this some things come to your mind; you don't know what to do. I don't know why I said, 'Gimme a receipt.' I said, 'This guy, [my boss] may think that I took the money from the bank or something.' " No receipt was given.
Just a year or two earlier, after Castro triumphed, the atmosphere had been far different. "Everybody was happy," Cutillas recalls. "The war [was] over. Peace [was] back in Cuba." But the mood soon darkened. "At dawn, I started hearing gunshots again," he says. Cutillas' own house outside of Santiago had been shot up during the war and he and his family were staying at his mother's house in town. "I said, 'Jesus Christ, I thought this was over. What's happening?' And the next day [I found out] 28 [of Batista's] guys had been executed that night on San Juan Hill. That was the day I convinced myself that the Revolution was not going to be good for Cuba."
Cutillas fled Cuba, but not with ease. After the confiscation of the company, he tried to get an exit permit. "My exit permit was denied," he says. "Then they took my passport away when I went to Havana to ask for permission to leave the country, so then I left by other means. I left in a boat with about 15 or 20 others. I arrived in Miami six days later. Terrible sailing," he recalls with a laugh.
"El Coco," the towering palm tree that had been planted in Santiago at the company's founding, had survived earthquakes and hurricanes and 98 years. The corporate literature immortalizes El Coco as "a symbol of the organic connection of Bacardi to the soil of its homeland," and reports that, "In the year that the Bacardi family members were uprooted from their Cuban homeland, the palm, as if in protest, withered and died." (Last year, a young palm tree was planted outside the Miami headquarters of Bacardi-Martini USA--a unit of Bacardi-Martini North America--as a symbolic replacement.)
Prado thinks that getting kicked out of Cuba is responsible for Bacardi's success as a multinational corporation. "Some people say that Castro is the best thing that happened to Bacardi," he says, clearly not fully convinced of the concept. "There is something there. Because we were kicked out and our backs put against a wall and we were hungry; what were we going to do?"
What they did was reinvent the company. Prado was sent by Pepin Bosch to drum up business overseas with instructions to tell Bacardi's buyers that they would have to make a choice: Castro or Bacardi. Anyone doing business with Communist Cuba would not be welcome at Bacardi. Prado, giggling, recalls a particular encounter with a Dutch client who "was more anti-Communist than we were." The man stayed with Bacardi. During one visit to Australia, Prado gave a speech to a group of buyers in which he emphasized the Bacardi family's role in the company. After the talk, one of the buyers, until that moment unaware that there was a Bacardi family, enthusiastically approached Prado and said, 'I want to meet Ron.'
"I said, 'Ron? Ron who?' And this fellow said, 'Ron Bacardi,' " recalls Prado, who delights in the retelling. The Aussie thought that the family was headed by someone named "Ron," not recognizing ron as the Spanish word for rum that appears on the bottle.
The whole experience of leaving Cuba, Prado believes, made the company less parochial and broadened the its view of potential world markets beyond the United States and Latin America.
Ironically, the appointment of someone who is neither a family member nor of Cuban descent to head the company comes as Bacardi is reemphasizing its Cuban heritage after so many years of letting it stay in the background, almost unnoticed.
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