Ed Shirley became the president & CEO of Bacardi in early-2012

Ed Shirley became the president & CEO of Bacardi in early-2012

As a privately-held company, Bacardi has the luxury of only having to disclose to the wider world what it wants to. But, with a long and rich history, the spirits group is keen to talk up the provenance of its brands. Here, in the first of a two-part exclusive interview, Bacardi's president & CEO, Ed Shirley, talks about the benefits of working for a family-owned firm, the opportunities for its brands and the rise of cocktail culture.

Eighteen months into his reign as Bacardi's CEO, Ed Shirley is not afraid to make an honest call on the company's current state. “I'm not satisfied, I think all our brands are under-leveraged,” he tells me. “But, I see nothing but growth and major acceleration for our topline because we are family-owned, so we can do things long-term.” 

Shirley returns to this fact - that the Bermuda-based group is privately-owned - a number of times over the course of our time together. The 56 year-old father-of-three, clearly enjoys this set-up, having previously spent time working at listed company Proctor & Gamble (P&G), and with Gillette prior to P&G taking over the razor firm; a total of 33 years. He retired from P&G at the end of 2011, before being tempted to take on the mantle at Bacardi in March last year.

Bacardi president & CEO Ed Shirley

On one of his riffs on this theme, Shirley tells me: “Unlike my prior role, where it was quarter-to-quarter, we've got the opportunity to do the right thing. We can concentrate on the long-haul, rather than short-term tactics that can be brand-eroding.”

So, he enjoys the freedom? “It's liberating,” he replies. 

Despite the company's long history, Shirley clearly sees Bacardi as a work in progress. As we speak, the company is marking the 150th anniversary of its Martini Vermouth and sparkling wines brand: A star-studded, anniversay gala on the shores of Lake Como, Italy, was held last month as part of the celebrations. The brand is the group's second largest behind its namesake rum marque. “We see it as the strategic growth driver for the company in the long haul,” says Shirley. “Sparkling wine will be (our) second largest growth contributor over the next five years.” 

It appears, however, the brand may have struggled overall of late. Pushed on whether the Martini range is in growth, Shirley says: “Because of our footprint in southern Europe, the Vermouth category, the whole industry took a hit: France, Spain, Italy, Portugal. But we have seen growth in the sparkling wine segment globally, so we are growing there.”

Shirley says the company will aim to use the celebrations to “invigorate” the brand globally, particularly in the US. 

Turning to Bacardi's number one brand – its white rum – Shirley, again, is forthright. Is he happy with how the rum is performing? “No,” he says. “But, at the same time, I see great opportunities for us to re-establish what the brand stands for. Any brand that loses its way finds itself in its past. And, Bacardi has such a rich history and we have the opportunity to tap into that and tell our story again.” 

Despite fears of market saturation in the white rum category, Shirley believes the drink has an opportunity to capitalise on the on-going growth in cocktails. “I think consumer tastes will continue to shift out of beer, into wine and spirits and more towards cocktails,” he says.

“One of the things I've learned in the industry: It's not about the liquid as much as it's about helping consumers to learn how to enjoy it (the drink). If we can have consumers learn how to make cocktails, that's the biggest growth opportunity."

Getting away from Bacardi's namesake brand, we turn to the subject of vodka: notably Grey Goose, part of the company's stable since acquiring it in 2004. At the time, the fact that Bacardi emerged as the successful bidder and the price tag (a reported US$2bn) raised eyebrows.

“I think a lot of people have wished they had paid more than that, because when we got it (Grey Goose), they were stunned,” Shirley says. “Yes, they were surprised at the value. But Grey Goose has established super premium in the vodka segment, it's an iconic brand and we are thrilled to have it in our portfolio.”

And, again, Shirley sees nothing but growth for the brand, which is set to benefit from a new global marketing push. But he adds: “We see it as a luxury brand. We don't have to chase volumes.” In terms of its global positioning, Shirley says: “We want Grey Goose to retain its position as the number one super premium vodka.” 

Part two of this interview can be found here.