Lunch Express with… Robert Hamaty

From commercial airline pilot to the head of rum cake empire, Jamaican-born Robert Hamaty has called Cayman home for nearly 34 years. The Journal’s Alan Markoff sat down with the Tortuga Rum Company owner over lunch at Bamboo Restaurant at the Grand Cayman Beach Suites to get his impressions on the changing times. 

2012 started out with a bang for Robert Hamaty and it had nothing to do with New Year’s fireworks.  

Less than two weeks into the year, it was announced that as of 2 January, Jamaica Producers Group Ltd. had purchased a controlling share – 62 per cent to be exact – of Tortuga International Holdings Ltd., a company that had been formed to consolidate all of the Tortuga’s non-Cayman Islands international entities and their intellectual property rights. 

While this transaction is seen as a great thing for the family business, it doesn’t mean Hamaty and Tortuga Rum Company Ltd. is going to fade into the sunset. 

Hamaty explained that Tortuga consolidated franchises in Jamaica, Barbados, Bahamas and Miami. 

“It was valued and then we sought a strategic partner that had the cash to take the brand globally,” he said. “All of us in the consolidated group had built the brand successfully to where it is today, but to go into Europe and to go into Asia and carry the brand more globally, we needed the fuel – which is the cash.” 

The Hamatys, as a family, considered a number of companies that had shown interest in purchasing an interest in the company, but ultimately chose the Jamaica Producers Group, partially because of a long-standing, close family connection to members of the company’s board of directors. 

“It’s good to do business with people you know,” said Hamaty. “So when they showed an interest, we started pursuing. It was two years in the making; it took two years to finalise because there was a lot of lawyering and a lot of… due diligence on all the different entities.” 

Not only will the deal make it possible for the Hamatys to fulfil their vision of seeing Tortuga rum cakes become a large global brand, but it will also ensure the family’s ongoing generational involvement.  

“To be honest with you, a lot of [the reason for the deal] has to do with a family business and estate planning,” Hamaty said. “If you read history, a lot of family businesses collapse after the founder is gone. I’m not saying that would happen with our business, but this way we’re protected.” 

He said Jamaica Producers Group is a large, stable, public company that is very transparent to shareholders, and his family maintains a large percentage of the brand. 

“It’s protected as it grows,” Hamaty said. “As they say, when the tide rise, all ships rise, that is where we are. The next generation of my family will not have to worry after the departure of either myself or [wife] Carlene.” 

Here in Cayman, however, it will pretty much be business as usual. Tortuga Rum Company Ltd. remains 100 per cent owned by Hamaty and his wife. 

“A big part of our business still remains as is because we are distributors of fine wines and spirits,” he said, referring to Tortuga’s wholesale arm, Tortuga Wines & Spirits Ltd. In addition, Tortuga Rum Company Ltd. operates 10 retail outlets – more than any other liquor store in the Cayman Islands – and several duty free stores. 

It will still manufacture rum cake here, as well, although not for all markets. 

“You can’t manufacture in Cayman and ship product to Philippines, or Hong Kong or to Europe,” he said. 

However, there is still a demand for Tortuga rum cakes with packaging that states they are Cayman Islands rum cakes and not Caribbean rum cakes. 

“This is the home of product and we will always continue to bake here and supply the US market with a Cayman package,” he said. 

 

Lunch  

We’ve chosen Bamboo, the upscale sushi lounge at the Grand Cayman Beach Suites, which only started opening for lunch on 1 December, 2011.  

Hamaty said that it had been a while since he’d been to Bamboo, noting that a decade ago or so, he used to come to the bar quite a bit; it was the trendy place for professionals to go for drinks for a time. 

The only potential problem with my lunch choice is that Hamaty – who received a heart transplant in 1996 – can’t eat raw fish. That turns out to be no problem at all because Bamboo actually has a versatile – and healthy – menu. 

We started with some shared edamame (CI$3.50) and miso soups with tofu and scallions (CI$3.50). We then each got a different Bento Box – set menus that are only offered at lunch. The menus each have a number of items, which are served in a compartmentalised wooden ‘box’, hence the name. 

Hamaty chose Bento Box 2 (CI$10) which consisted of home-made pickled vegetables, vegetable maki, pork tonkatsu with cabbage, onion and leek and steamed rice – no raw fish whatsoever. 

I chose Bento Box 3 (CI$12.50), which offered home-made pickled vegetables, chirashi sushi, duck breast in a soy and red wine sauce and panko-fried vegetables. Chirashi sushi, it turned out, is a delicious little dish of rice and small pieces of mixed raw fish, kind of like mixed sushi unrolled. 

A true man of the Caribbean, Hamaty asked for hot sauce when the food arrives. The waitress named a couple of choices, including the chef’s own hot sauce. 

‘I’ll try the chef’s hot sauce,” Hamaty said. I opted for the same. 

When she brought the sauce, she relayed the chef’s warning about it being very hot. 

The chef obviously took us for tourists, for neither Hamaty or I blinked at the heat level. It was pretty tasty though. 

Hamaty enjoyed lunch, telling the waitress, “I shall return” when she asked how the meal was. 

I agreed. 

 

Cruise tourism and a dying George Town  

Our conversation turned to current events. 

Hamaty is a member of the Association for the Advancement of Cruise Tourism and is a strong advocate for the building of a cruise ship berthing facility on Grand Cayman.  

The decline in cruise tourism over the past five years, caused largely because Cayman does not have a berthing facility for the ships, has hurt his business just like all others in George Town. 

The Tortuga Group of companies on Grand Cayman is down from 120 employees to 114 because of the decline in cruise ship business, Hamaty said. 

“The overall numbers of cruise ships reduction has been identified in the region of about between 25 to 29 per cent,” he said. “The retail side of our cruise ship business has been impacted more than any other sector of our business. 

Although he said the airport duty free and resident business at the retail stores is doing reasonably well, he said overall retail sales are down “somewhere between 17 to 19 per cent”.  

“And that is.. what most of the other [George Town retailers] have experienced,” he said. “It’s a direct [result of] the decline in the number of cruise ship passengers.” 

Hamaty said building a cruise berthing facility on Grand Cayman was of paramount importance, but he dismissed the idea of building it in South Sound – as has been recently proposed – as “crazy”. 

“The ideal situation right now, and the only thing to save George Town, is to build it into a beautiful cruise destination,” he said, commenting on the fact many of the financial services industry businesses have already migrated to places like Cricket Square and Camana Bay. 

Many events have also migrated out of town, he said. 

“The only thing left in George Town is Pirates Week, which I believe that will go eventually,” he said. “The Royal Watler Terminal Area… under the previous government, was used as a staging area for boxing, for festivals and various things. Well that has all migrated to Camana Bay… even the parade of lights has gone to Camana Bay.” 

Hamaty said he hopes Pirates Week doesn’t move from George Town. 

“It’s a very old festival and it’s a matter of actually street dancing over an area that has heritage,” he said. “Camana Bay has no heritage. That’s what George Town has to build itself on.” 

However, Hamaty is quite aware that there’s one major hindrance in George Town. 

“The parking has always been a big problem,” he said. “When I was the chairman of the Port Improvement and Beautification Committee, we as a group had identified the library area to be an area where the government should allow the private sector to build a 10-storey parking garage, with the ground floor being a bus terminal.” 

Before any such plans could come to fruition, Hurricane Ivan hit in 2004 and then there was a change in government in 2005. Nothing has been done since to address the parking issue in George Town. 

Transforming George Town into a shopping district for cruise tourism is the only way to prevent George Town from becoming a ghost town in Hamaty’s view, because he sees the migration of the financial industry continuing. 

“George Town is the ideal place for a cruise dock because the people want to step off and walk into a shopping district,” he said, noting that the building of a cruise berthing facility away from town at Mahogany Bay in Roatan in Honduras hasn’t worked out well. 

“When [cruise passengers] get off at Mahogany Bay, there’s no culture; there’s nothing. It’s all man-made and brand new and they’re a ways from town and they have to take a bus, and it costs some $20 to go into  

town,” he said, adding that cruise ship passengers just seem to have a different mind set.  

“When people come on an airplane, they don’t mind renting a car or taking a taxi. But when they get on a cruise ship, it’s almost like they say ‘I expect to walk and do what I want to do if I’m not on a tour’. So some pre-book a tour and the rest of them want to walk.” 

As to which company builds the cruise berthing facility, Hamaty doesn’t really have a strong opinion. 

“We really need to get that built, whether it’s the Chinese or whoever it is,” he said. “[The Chinese] have the money and to be honest with you, they’re investing so much in the rest of the Caribbean, that if we’re not involved with them, we might get left behind.” 

 

Caymanian-Jamaican relations  

Hamaty was born in Jamaica, but he’s lived in Cayman for 34 years and he says he loves both countries. 

He served as Jamaica’s honorary consul for Cayman from 1992 until 2009. During that time, in 2005, an event occurred 

, which he thinks significantly impacted the relations between Caymanians and Jamaicans, specifically the implementation of reciprocal visa requirements. 

Hamaty said the visa requirement for Jamaicans wishing to come to Cayman initially wasn’t supposed to happen the way it ultimately did. 

“The initial proposal by the [Cayman] government for the visa was that due to the very close ties with Jamaica for many years, that the visa restriction had to take into consideration the strong ties with the clergy, the strong ties with the judicial systems… and that they were giving a consideration to ensure that those people who had a UK visa, American visa or Canadian visa – countries that had due diligence on their passport system – would be omitted from having to get a visa,” he said. “And the response of the Jamaican government was very acknowledging. They said ‘we understand that we’re a high-crime destination and we understand that every country had a right to control its own immigration policies and we thank you for the consideration.” 

Because of that consideration, Jamaica did not intend to implement a reciprocal visa requirement for Caymanians travelling to Jamaica. 

However, later, the Cayman government changed its mind and decided at all Jamaicans would require a visa to come to Cayman. 

P.J. Paterson, the Jamaican prime minister at the time, called Hamaty. 

“He said ‘Robbie, I’m asking you to go back and have a meeting with them and ask them to reconsider. He said ‘this is not an idle threat, but to be honest with you, if this is the route they’re going to go, we’re going to put in reciprocity and Caymanians are going to require a visa’. He said ‘the reason is, we can’t continue to have these countries beat up on Jamaica in that respect’.” 

Hamaty said he and his consulate officer, Elaine Harris, then met with Cayman officials, including then-Chief Immigration Officer Franz Manderson and then-Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts, They put forward a proposal and asked the government to reconsider its decision. 

“We were surprised when they came back and said they had information that there were false visas floating around in Jamaica and for that reason, everybody required a visa,” Hamaty said. “Then Mr. Patterson called and said the minister of foreign affairs in Jamaica would be instructed to put in reciprocity. That’s where the whole animosity [betweem Caymanians and Jamaicans] came from.” 

Hamaty thinks the decision hurt Cayman. 

“My views on it is that what has transpired has not helped the crime situation in Cayman, and economically it has hurt the Island,” he said. “Some businesses have actually closed… I use Sounds & Things as one example; I could mention more – they had tremendous support from Jamaican people who came here and shopped.”  

In addition, Hamaty thinks Cayman has isolated itself from the rest of the Caribbean – visa requirements were implemented for an number of countries – from where Cayman could be attracting commerce and tourists. 

“They’re not all poverty-stricken people who can’t afford the Cayman Islands; there are plenty of them who have a lot of money and would visit here.” 

Hamaty thinks Cayman lost significant numbers of visitors from Jamaica as a result of the implementation of mandatory visas. 

Tourism statistics indicate Cayman might have lost as many as 10,000 tourists a year from Jamaican since 2005. Although the posted tourism statistics don’t specifically list Jamaica in their regional breakdown, there is a category ‘other’, which would include all countries not specifically listed. In 2004, the year before the Jamaican visa requirement, 27,330 stay-over visitors arrived in Cayman. Almost 30,000 visitors were in that category in 2001. In 2006, that number fell to 17,575. In 2011, that number was still low, at 17,068. 

Last year, the government relaxed the visa requirement for children younger than 15 and adults older than 70. Although Hamaty agrees that this decision was a good thing for children and the elderly, he doesn’t think it goes far enough. 

“What it’s almost saying to the people is that everyone between 15 and 70 is a criminal,” he said. 

“I would like to see the government and the governor revisit it.”  

He noted that the governor reiterated concerns about forged visas, something he thinks isn’t an issue in places like the United States, the UK and Canada.  

“I’ve asked the question publicly and I got no answers,” he said. “How can a Jamaican with a British visa not be able to enter the Cayman Islands?” 

Hamaty said that today, with all the due diligence needed to get into places like the United States, people can’t have false visas. 

“No American false visa can pass through the US system,” he said. “The man scans your passport, a number comes up and in the computer is the fact that Robert Hamaty was issued a visa.”  

 

Foreign investment and Dart  

  Once upon a time, Hamaty flew Boeing 727s for Air Jamaica. But in the late 1970s, Jamaica had a foreign exchange crisis, which changed the course of his life. 

“That meant no foreigners, no foreign investments. Supermarkets dried up. There was no money to pay for the oil and there were oil rations,” he said. “To get US dollars, you got $100 stamped in your passport and if you were caught with any further US dollars, you went to prison. Because all the foreign exchange… was needed for basic food items, medication… the government, to protect from the collapse of the country, put those things in place.” 

“Cayman never experienced anything like that,” he said. “When you hear people talking about [foreign investment]… they have to realise that foreign investment is what allows them to maintain the standard of living that they have here. Our supermarkets in Jamaica used to be like Foster’s and Hurley’s; grapes, apples, all of that – until it changed in the 70s, early 80s because there was no foreign exchange.” 

Hamaty doesn’t agree with all the bashing of foreign investors going on in Cayman in recent times. 

“All of these people who are shooting off their mouth about foreigners and foreign investment and Mr. Dart and all this kind of stuff… it’s he they should be praising, because that money wasn’t earned here and… whatever money he’s invested here is here to stay.” 

Although he said he can’t say he is happy to have the Dart Group as a competitor in the liquor business, Hamaty still sees the value in Dart’s investment in the Cayman Islands. 

“I am told from one of the people from Dart that their legacy is not to be like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates and give away their money to charity, but to create jobs for people many years, hundreds of years, after they’re gone,” he said. “That is their legacy and what they’re doing here is exactly that because Camana Bay will be a city that Caymanians in the future will always have somewhere to work. So somebody has to rethink this fighting against foreigners.” 

Robert Hamaty

Robert Hamaty at the Bamboo Sushi Lounge at the Grand Cayman Beach Suites.

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