Bacardi Comes Through with Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief
By April Hall
As Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico, the Bacardi family made plans to help the island, working with its private company’s board and executives to line up the necessary resources for a humanitarian mission.
Five days after the storm hit, sixth-generation family member Ignacio del Valle flew on a company plane along with an emergency response team consisting of the head of operations for the Americas and other specialists to assess damage in San Juan and surrounding communities. Bacardi Limited, the fourth-largest spirits company in the world, has a rum plant in Catano, a San Juan suburb.
Del Valle, Bacardi Limited's regional president for Latin America and the Caribbean, says his first priority was to check on his employees and their communities. Next, he would assess damage to the rum plant and the family’s museum.
“I was able to walk several of the municipalities with the mayors,” del Valle says. While touring he spoke with “people who haven’t eaten for a couple of days -- no food, no water, no power.”
Bacardi became a part of a private industry initiative, Unidos Por Puerto Rico (United for Puerto Rico), that includes Coca Cola, Burger King and Walgreens. The group was formed by the island’s first lady, Beatriz Rossello, and is taking the lead on collecting funds for relief and rebuilding.
Governor Ricardo Rossello had a request for del Valle.
Because every event venue had suffered damage, there was no place to hold a benefit concert planned for November. The governor hoped Bacardi would host the event at the company’s campus.
“I gave the chairman [Facundo L. Bacardi] a call on that request,” del Valle says. “He said, ‘The Bacardi family is 100% behind it.’”
The willingness to lend a hand in the face of disaster isn’t new for the Bacardis.
Don Facundo Bacardí Massó, creator of Bacardi rum, volunteered as the chief organizer of disaster relief in his hometown of Santiago de Cuba after a devastating earthquake in 1852 — a decade before he founded the company — according to company history. Since then, the family and company have aided disaster victims in Southeast Asia, China, Australia, Italy, Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, Chile and the United States.
Bacardi, founded in Cuba, opened a plant in Puerto Rico in 1936. The company left Cuba in 1960, after its operations were nationalized by the Castro government. Its headquarters are now based in Bermuda, but Puerto Rico is also considered its flagship brand’s “home.”
In addition to its rum facilities is Casa de Bacardi, the visitor center that houses a glass-walled family museum and draws 300,000 visitors a year. The family planted a palm tree and erected a statue of the founder to commemorate the company’s 150th anniversary in 2012.
When the hurricane hit, “There were lots of calls from family all over the world,” del Valle says. “Miraculously, the building where we have the museum, not a window was broken, nothing happened. Pictures [of the museum, tree and statue] went out to family quickly.”
When the Bacardi team arrived in Puerto Rico from Florida, they brought with them 120,000 gallons of much-needed fresh water.
Once its local water production plant was up and running, the company was able to provide water in 6,000-gallon tanks to relief stations in Catano, where the Bacardi rum is made; San Juan; and neighboring Toa Baja, one of the communities hardest hit.
“[The island] is very close to our heart, in terms of people and the community,” del Valle says. “We want to give back to Puerto Rico what Puerto Rico has given us for so many years.”
In addition to the on-ground support, the family has dedicated $2 million to relief efforts. The company is sponsoring three relief centers, also in Catano, San Juan and Toa Baja, staffed by Casa de Bacardi employees while the museum is closed.
The rum plant is already back to full operation.
“We are already generating all the power we need for production and rum blending, and we’ve shipped out our first tanks of rum,” del Valle says. “Early next week we expect to be back on track [for] business as usual.”
As for any anticipated rum shortage in the future, del Valle says the risk was there. Bacardi rum is aged locally in barrels for three to five years. If any liquor in the midst of the aging process had been lost, there would be no way to recover it.
“But not a single barrel was spilled,” del Valle reports. “We are lucky. And blessed.”
Going back to work so soon after the hurricane could be a hardship itself, given the circumstances. Del Valle says he spoke with employees who lost family and their entire homes in the storm. He says Bacardi will continue to pay the salaries of any employees who cannot work, including museum workers helping at the relief stations, a decision that was approved by the company’s board.
The plant has all the employees it needs to be fully operational. The company was able to secure enough fuel for employee commutes, del Valle says.
At company facilities outside Puerto Rico, employees are contributing to help their colleagues.
In eight days, Bacardi employees raised $60,000, says Amy Federman, a company spokeswoman. In addition, every employee at the company’s operations in India donated a vacation day’s salary to their co-workers in Puerto Rico.
“There is empathy and caring coming from employees in this crisis,” Federman says. “I think that’s directly related to being a privately head, family-owned business. Our leadership walks the talk.”
After opening Bacardi’s first relief center, del Valle left the island Friday, but not to rest. From Puerto Rico he went to check on the company’s employees and its tequila and rum facilities in Mexico, which was hit by an earthquake earlier in September.
For del Valle, the experience was emotional. Most impactful, he says, was his encounter with a retired Bacardi employee while he was in Puerto Rico. “I walked in with a Bacardi T-shirt on, and he hugged me and was so grateful we were there. He worked for us in the ’80s. To be able to take some relief to this person was fulfilling.”