Tortuga: 30 years old and ready for sweeter success

Come the first of the year, Tortuga Rum Cakes, one of the signature brands born and nurtured in the Cayman Islands, will celebrate its 30th anniversary.  

More importantly, the beloved local confection company’s three-decade milestone comes just as a new owner seeks to launch Tortuga into the commercial galaxy of big-time gourmet foods. All this while its proud parents watch, hoping their offspring becomes the next bright star in that galaxy – and intent that it hang onto its generations-old Cayman roots. 

A merger inked in 2012 between the rum-cake maker’s co-founder Robert Hamaty and publicly traded Jamaica Producers Group Ltd. (stock symbol JP on the Jamaican Stock Exchange) has positioned the enterprise to extend distribution way beyond its current Caribbean and limited North American markets.  

This new owner, JPG, is no giant – it recorded CI$65 million in annual revenues, mostly from producing and shipping fruit and fruit juice. But it has deep enough pockets for marketing and connections only a global food and shipping company can provide. So Tortuga may now reach customers from Amsterdam to Singapore, London to Los Angeles, even Lagos to Rio de Janeiro. That means the little rum-cake maker can set its sights on perhaps becoming the $100 million-a-year enterprise that Marcus Simmonds, Tortuga International’s chief executive officer, dreams it will be.  

Hamaty, for years the president and public face of Tortuga, along with co-founder, partner and wife Carlene Hamaty, agrees that the dream-figure Simmonds, his son-in-law, predicts is within reach. Robert Hamaty, a Jamaica native formerly with Cayman Airways, says, “I think that with this merger, we might actually reach that stage.”  

An ever-expanding market  

Just consider the United States and Canada (some 350 million potential customers), plus the Caribbean (40 million more), and that nine-figure revenue seems plausible. The European market adds another 400 million. Hamaty, 65 and chatty, smiles. “Then, when you think about distribution in China…,” he says. And he gives an open-arm shrug, as if to say: “The sky’s the limit.” 

 

A bit of history  

Clearly, Tortuga has come a long way since its modest rollout in 1984. That’s when Robert and Carlene first hit on the idea to build a local business that might help them financially through rough spots in the airline industry. Robert started as a commercial pilot in Jamaica, then moved to Cayman Airways, where he became a captain; Carlene was a Cayman in-flight supervisor.  

They married and settled here, then sniffed around for income opportunities for those inevitable times when air travel might slip and their regular jobs pause or cut back. “It’s what a lot of airline employees do,” according to Robert. 

His father, a sugar industry lawyer in Jamaica, where Robert grew up, welcomed his son and daughter-in-law’s notion that they do something connected to sugar cane. Creating a private label rum – with spirits blended from products distilled in other Caribbean islands but with the imprint of Cayman – seemed like something tourists and residents alike would relish. 

The senior Hamaty helped them get a handle on the legal ins and outs of creating a private-label product, and the young entrepreneurs and friends experimented with combinations of Jamaican, Barbados and other area rums. “Sometimes we tested them to the hangover stage,” Robert said, laughing. “We were young and energetic.” 

Once satisfied with the blend’s bouquet and palette, Robert sought a name for the company. He learned that long before his island home was called Cayman, a European sailer named Christopher Columbus mapped it as Tortuga, after the sea turtles here. Good name, Tortuga. It gives the local elixir a sense of place. True, Cayman grew no sugar cane and had no significant distillery, but it did have a seafaring tradition. “And people here like their rum.” The name stuck.  

Right away the couple had to spend $28,000 on the design of a classy sailing ship logo, label and packaging, major bucks for them in the mid ‘80s. “We financed the expenses out of our salaries from the airlines,” he remembers. It’s a reminder that so many entrepreneurs do likewise – save their money and invest in their own dreams. 

 

From rum to rum cake  

The efforts – including aging the premium “Gold” product in oak barrels – paid off. Tourists, who come by air and cruise ship, found “Cayman Rum” – for sale at island gift shops and liquor stores – a great keepsake and hauled it back to their home ports in memory of sunny vacations. 

Meanwhile, Carlene, like many island women, had a terrific rum cake recipe her mother and grandmother (who knew how far back?) had handed down. Naturally, she ladled Tortuga Gold over the cakes. “We served it to friends, and they said, ‘Never mind the rum. Sell the damn cakes!’” And they did, wrapped in aluminum foil, hand-delivered to restaurants and shops around Grand Cayman. 

The delicate morsels with an intoxicating sauce generated enough oohs and ahhs from diners to encourage Robert and Carlene to take their product farther than the local dining spots. He picked up a European gadget called a Modified Atmospheric Packaging (MAP) device – an early take on vacuum wrapping – and tried it out. 

“It squeezed the hell out of the cakes,” he found. But after a little research, he learned to introduce food-quality nitrogen, and the wrapped confections remained firm, fresh and moist for nine months. That turned out to be more than enough time for tourists who purchased cakes in Cayman gift shops to get them home and happily devoured. It could even permit export. 

Daughter Monique, who earned a marketing degree from Florida International University in Miami, came into the business. She helped Tortuga get a warehouse rolling there, a gateway into the lucrative U.S. market. Soon, the Hamatys ran a thriving family enterprise with 100 employees. (Monique married Marcus Simmonds, who later became the international holding company’s CEO.) Astonishingly, Tortuga shipments became the major export from Cayman, according to government documents. 

 

Energy and entrepreneurship  

It wasn’t all adventures in paradise. Robert became ill and had to give up his aviation career. Passengers never want someone in the cockpit whose heart might fail, so he left commercial flying behind. Eventually, he had to undergo a heart transplant in Miami. That was 18 years ago, and Tortuga got him back in the president’s office four months after his operation. 

“I’ve never been a lazy person,” he said. “I’ve been working since I was a boy, with my dad in his sugar-cane fields. I was a pilot at Air Jamaica at 24. I’ve always been busy.” Of course, that’s part of the entrepreneur’s mantra, isn’t it? And the hard work must have contributed to his selling 62 percent of his company for $4 million. 

The product is key, too. The private label blended rum remains among Tortuga’s offerings – as does a variety of rum and Caribbean-inspired sauces, rum-chocolate turtles, Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee and other specialty items. The spirits long ago slipped into the background, leaving the company known for its rum cakes.  

“They’re like nothing else in the world,” Angie Niehoff, of the Florida firm of Niehoff Marketing Associates, said. She has contracted with Tortuga for more than a decade and insists that “you cannot taste these cakes and not want more.” She’s no unbiased sampler, but she echos what Cayman visitors and cruise ship passengers say over and over. “The quality, the standards,” Robert says. “That’s why we have so many repeat customers” to catalog, online and telephone sales, especially in the U.S. 

 

High standards key to success  

He hits a note you hear often talking to family business people; they’re proud of their products and services and insist pride is another key to success. However shrewd one’s business savvy, how effective one’s management, it’s high standards that carry the day. 

When Hamaty talks about Tortuga’s standards, he zeros in on “the recipe.” He said, “My wife is a very humble person. She doesn’t like a lot of publicity – as I do. But a lot of the credit goes to her for the recipe. And how she pushes me forward. She has been such a hard worker for the brand. It’s a big part of our success.” 

In recent years, as he considered his role and dreamed of leaving a treasure to his family, Robert also weighed the effort and risk of further expansion. He realized he needed what’s called a strategic partner that could supply the capital and connections Tortuga needs to reach new markets. “Strategic partner” is code for a bigger outfit that can take over the business, infusing it with new cash.  

But working out such a deal is a dangerous trek along a perilous trail. Family business experts like George Stalk and Henry Foley, consultants in Boston and Cambridge, have noted how different the corporate culture can be from that of a company like Tortuga. Shareholders want good quarterly reports, an emphasis on short-term ways to turn a dollar. Clearly, the Hamatys always focused on the long term. 

 

The hard part  

Marcus and Monique Simmonds are the executives who must navigate Tortuga through its Jamaican corporate partner, now owner of most of the rum cake holdings. Robert and Carlene, keep control of 13 Cayman stores where they sell wine, spirits, rum cakes and the rest of the Tortuga line. He’s considering other investments for their cash windfall, including a technology business. He’s dying to talk about that, too, but not till he gets further along with details.  

Suffice it to say, the sale was a family stress. Giving up control always is. “A very difficult transaction,” Robert calls it. “But I think we’ve crossed the hurdles and got it done. We’re in a good position for longevity of the brand.” 

He has studied what happened to another family liquor business that cashed out. And the story of one of the richest business families in Canada was not pretty. “Seagrams & Sons was huge, and they sold out for billions. But then one of the heirs went into the movie-making business and lost a fortune.” 

Robert took the sad waste the Seagrams family experienced to heart before selling the intellectual property he and Carlene had so protected over the years – the old family recipe – assuring as best they could that it would remain at the core of the Tortuga brand.  

The future company will operate more like a franchise business, in Hamaty’s vision, on the order of Kentucky Fried Chicken (with very different products and clientele). “The recipe, this intellectual property, will be delivered to the franchise operations to assure the standards and quality,” he said. He is adamant that no cheesy rum cakes will disgrace the Tortuga brand. 

Still, they are losing their accustomed tight control over their almost 30-year-old offspring. “It’s been sad for myself and my wife. It’s as though I had a child, and it was adopted out.” 

A second passes, and Hamaty brightens. He remembers the actual outcome on this, the cusp of his pearl anniversary. He and Carlene still have a nice piece of their old business. The children are well employed. There’s cash in the bank for new ventures and a comfortable retirement. In time they may even claim to have founded a world-famous brand. What could be better for a proud patriarch? 

Tortuga-Rum-Anniversary-Cayman-Islands

Leroy Lofters and Sheldon Allwood know what makes a perfect rum cake.

Tortuga-Rum-Anniversay-Company-Cayman

The family behind the brand, from left, Monique Hamaty–Simmonds, Robert and Carlene Hamaty, and Marcus Simmonds.

NO COMMENTS