Tortuga a plan that grew

Small businesses
in the Cayman Islands are following in the footsteps of now-established brands.
Tortuga is famous both for its rum products and rum cakes, with the initial
idea coming from founder Robert Hamaty, who was gainfully-employed as an
airline pilot by Air Jamaica.

“When I was flying I was
hyper-vigilant – unbeknownst to me that’s where I got my training in marketing
and promotion, because of my awareness. I never went to school or got a degree
in marketing, I developed it naturally. My father and brother were attorneys so
the legal side was always there.

“I grew up in the sugar belt in
the western part of Jamaica and noticed Cayman had no rum industry,” he noted.


Securing a trademark

decided to call the new business Tortuga, after Columbus’ original name for the
Cayman Islands. In order to secure the trademark, negotiations were undertaken
with Haiti regarding their Ile de la Tortue. Because of its small population –
and, Hamaty said, the country’s unwillingness to associate itself with Spain – permission
was granted for the rum company to register the name.

“I was able to start a label
design and move ahead with $28,000 which is about what I had in cash. I rented
a little office in the old Atlantic building [that used to be] right in front
of Burger King. I was still a pilot laying the groundwork in my spare time. I
got the label trademark registered and met with Appleton,” Hamaty revealed.

Distribution was set up through
Overton Traders and the company began to grow, doubly so when rum cakes were
introduced. Initially the company was being funded by Captain Hamaty’s wages
and those of his wife Carleen, with only one employee on the books and costs
kept to a minimum and built on cash flow rather than capital borrowings from


A tricky proposition

a business in the modern era is a tricky proposition, with some fees and costs
that must be taken into consideration.

is difficult right now because labour costs are extremely high; work permit
fees are also very high. I personally feel it’s what government uses to avoid
taxes because they have to get the money from somewhere, but I believe also
there should be a two-tier system. What that the bank and the law firms can
pay, local and small business cannot and if they don’t look at that they’re
going to kill small business.”

Every business has different
start-up requirements, which may involve any number of factors.

“If you’re speaking to somebody
right now who wanted to do a bottled water business you’d need automated
bottling equipment, which is very expensive. When I started I used to use a
person who’d use a machine to pull a bag down and seal [the cakes] but the
automated machine we have now [was expensive].

“When you look at the type of
business you need a proper business plan to say how much it’s going to cost.
When I started it was from an idea and then I was able to think it through but
if I was starting a rum cake factory now I would have to have a proper business
plan. To reach the volume we’ve reached I would have to have maybe half a
million or more just to get the equipment together.

“A high-tech business would look
at computers and personnel, but the equipment comes before the personnel and
when you have that you know how many people you need. Cayman is ripe for
high-tech type of business – anything that is labour-intensive here is a very
difficult thing.”


Fighting hard

noted the Tortuga chief, is about having a good plan and fighting hard in what
you believe can work, based on knowing what your business is, who your customer
is and from that working out realistic running costs and overheads.

is finding a need and satisfying it; in a small country like this you need to
find that need, look at the demographics and the numbers, what is the
competition and not just jump into it because you think it’s a good idea – and
controlling your costs. If you want to be a small entrepreneur find a need,
start small, control your costs. Try and do most of it by yourself. That’s how
we started; my wife used to bake the cakes at home, I’d do the marketing and

“We never had the money to pay a baker, we
never had the money to pay a marketing expert and that’s how we kept the costs
down. You have to do whatever you can. If a construction man got a contract to
build a house and he’s a good handyman himself, he’s going to maximise his
profit on that house. But if he’s going to stand up and supervise the labour,
when it’s finished there’s hardly anything left in it for him.”