Ruben Rodriguez Helped Bacardi Remain a Major Force in Liquor

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Ruben Rodriguez stepped down as CEO in June 2003 but remained chairman. Photo: Business Wire

Ruben Rodriguez served as chief executive of Bacardi Ltd. and oversaw one of its boldest efforts to remain a major global force in liquor—the $2 billion acquisition of the Grey Goose vodka brand.

He died of congestive heart failure May 5 at home in Fairfield, Conn. He was 79.

Mr. Rodriguez was born on April 27, 1937, in Havana and grew up in the Miramar district. His father was a lawyer and diplomat, while his mother’s side of the family owned a tobacco farm, where young Ruben spent part of his childhood.

He attended the University of Havana and married the former Graciela Pujals in 1960. Soon after the wedding, they emigrated to the U.S., where Mr. Rodriguez first worked as a dishwasher at a department store cafeteria in Fort Lauderdale. “They came (to the U.S.) with just the clothes on their back and a suitcase,” said one of their daughters, Grace Rodriguez, a lawyer.

He then earned a degree in accounting at the University of Houston and became a certified public accountant. Early in his career, he worked as an internal auditor for the Wall Street firm of Goodbody & Co. He later worked for Chesebrough-Pond’s Inc. and Bristol-Myers Co. in Latin America, Europe and Asia.

In 1989, he joined Bacardi, where he rose to chief financial officer a few years later. The Bermuda-based company, founded in 1862, promoted him to chief executive in March 2000 and gave him the additional title of chairman four months later, making Mr. Rodriguez the first person outside the Bacardi family to hold that post.

Determined to avoid being eclipsed as other global makers of liquor rushed into mergers, Bacardi wanted a wider selection of liquors to sell alongside its signature rums and Bombay Sapphire gin.

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In 2000, Bacardi and Brown-Forman Corp. made a joint offer for the Seagram Co. liquor and wine business, featuring such brands as Chivas Regal and Crown Royal, but were outbid by Diageo PLC and Pernod Ricard SA, which offered a combined $8.15 billion.

Bacardi then went shopping for individual brands.

At the time, the trend was to create gorgeously packaged vodkas for people willing to spend $25 or more on a 750 ml. bottle. In 2002, Bacardi introduced a pricey vodka called Turi from Estonia, but that didn’t generate large volumes of sales. Two years later, Mr. Rodriguez and his colleagues splashed out $2 billion to buy the Grey Goose brand from Sidney Frank Importing Co. of New Rochelle, N.Y.

Though many drinkers had trouble telling one vodka from another, Sidney Frank had persuaded urban sophisticates that Grey Goose, imported from France, was the brand for wealthy people with flawless taste.

Mr. Rodriguez dismissed warnings that Bacardi might not be able to maintain the marketing magic behind Grey Goose. “We are a very strong marketing company,” he said. “This is something we have been doing since 1862.”

Grey Goose remains the top selling vodka brand in the U.S. among those above $25 a bottle, according to Impact Databank, the research arm of M. Shanken Communications, New York. Last year, Grey Goose shipments in the U.S. slipped 4.4% to 2.65 million cases, but that was still well above the 1.65 million cases shipped in 2004, when Bacardi bought the brand.

While making deals and overseeing a global business, Mr. Rodriguez also had to take diplomatic note of the sometimes-conflicting advice of family shareholders. Some opposed the management’s desire to give Bacardi the possibility of raising funds by selling shares to outsiders.

Mr. Rodriguez stepped down as CEO in June 2003 but remained chairman. His successor as CEO, Javier Ferrán, left the company 18 months later for what were described as “personal, family reasons.” Mr. Rodriguez resumed the CEO duties temporarily.

When he announced plans to retire in 2005, he told the Miami Herald: “This is a very stressful job. I’ve given it every drop of my blood. I never planned that I was going to stay here forever.’’ He added: “I want to be able to go to Yankee Stadium any day I want. I want to spend time with my grandchildren and travel at my leisure.’’

After retiring, he was a member of the finance council at his church, St. Pius X, in Fairfield. He also served as chairman of St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, Conn. An ardent baseball fan, he cheered for both the Yankees and the Mets.

Survivors include his wife of 55 years, Graciela, two daughters and five grandchildren.

James R. Hagerty at bob.hagerty@wsj.com





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