Bacardi CEO Ed Shirley says the group is not interested in being the biggest

Bacardi CEO Ed Shirley says the group is not interested in being the biggest

Last week, just-drinks ran the first part of an exclusive interview with Bacardi's president & CEO, Ed Shirley. Here, in the second and concluding part, Shirley discusses the group's white spirits brands, emerging markets and the importance of promoting cocktail culture.

When it comes to white spirits, Bacardi is well represented in the gin category with premium brand Bombay Sapphire. Shirley concurs, saying that he is “thrilled” by its current performance.

“While the overall gin market has remained flat in recent years, the popularity of Bombay Sapphire continues to grow year-on-year, nearly tripling in size since we acquired it in 1998,” he says. The brand has “changed the way consumers and the trade think about gin”, claims Shirley. Meanwhile, the group is getting set to open a standalone distillery and visitor centre for Bombay Sapphire in the UK next Spring.

Another white spirit Bacardi has an interest in is Tequila. Exactly how much of an interest, however, still remains unknown. 

In 2008, the company took a “minority” stake in Patron Spirits.Shirley confirms that Bacardi still has the same, undisclosed, share in the company. Similar to when just-drinks spoke to then-Patron Spirits COO, John McDonnell, shortly after the deal, Shirley seems keen to leave the issue be. The controversial circumstances surrounding the transaction, which involved Bacardi launching a lawsuit against the estate of Patron co-founder, Martin Crowley, who died in 2003, may have something to do with that. 

When pushed on whether Bacardi would be interested in buying Patron outright, Shirley says: “I can't speculate on that. We love our interest, it's a great brand. If the owners felt like they wanted to get out of the business, I'd like to think they would look at our stewardship of the brand and see that we are a natural partnership.” However, Bacardi does already have its own two Tequila brands. 

The group seems to have most of the spirits bases covered, apart from Bourbon and rye whiskey. Shirley appears relaxed about that, though. “It's the American whiskies we have the absences in, but there's nothing we can really do about that, unless we choose to do something organically,” he says.

Instead, it's all about what's in the locker currently. “We are going to focus on the things we do have, which we think are really under-developed,” he says. “I think our portfolio stands up to anybody's.”

Shirley is convinced that the company's message about brand provenance can get through to consumers: “We have stories (with our brands). To be totally candid, I don't think we've done a good enough job telling those stories. We'll tell those stories and I'm confident it will connect with consumers.”

Why hasn't Bacardi done a good enough job telling those stories until now? “I think it's a combination of leadership and talent,” says Shirley. “We're bringing our marketing capability and brand-building fundamentals to the team. What's great is if you can overlay brand building with stories.”

Telling these stories is part of a global effort. In total, Bacardi's products are stocked in 136 markets. But, outside of the group's key North American and European markets, how is the group faring in some of the emerging regions? Shirley says its namesake rum brand is “exploding” in Brazil. Meanwhile, in Russia, the company has seen “very good growth” with the brand, he says. “But, we've only been there less than ten years,” Shirley adds.

Ultimately, Bacardi's CEO believes the spirits category as a whole has some work to do. “The spirits industry needs a shake-up in terms of how we present the category to consumers,” he says. “If you go down the large aisles of the large retailers, all you see is a sea of bottles, whether it's wine, or spirits. They're not differentiating themselves and helping consumers decide why they should enter this category or buy this brand. 

“If we as an industry can help consumers better understand how to make cocktails and enjoy them, we can continue to fuel the growth in the sector. With our portfolio, we stand to win on that and we're excited about where we are.”

But, realistically, Shirley says, size is not that important for Bacardi. “I'm not driven by being the largest,” he says. “Some of our competitors are clearly bigger than us, and congratulations. But, I think we have the opportunity to be the best with our portfolio.”