In Business Project Alcatraz

Here is something (literally) rather rum from the curious, violent, oil-rich country of Venezuela.

Sometimes the memos we send back while on assignment are the best way of telling the story, so here's what I emailed back to base from Caracas one hot August afternoon:

"We have just done a rather remarkable interview with Alberto Vollmer, president of the 210-year old family rum firm Santa Teresa, a neat and tidy hacienda in a lush valley an hour and a half from Caracas.

It is in one of the most dangerous counties in Venezuela, and seven years ago a gang from the close by town Victoria mugged the security man and took his gun. The security men found the perps, and said they could show up for work or be handed over to the police.

This started in a hurry what they now call Project Alcatraz, a scheme that turns violent gang members into Santa Teresa employees.

Vollmer is a fabulous talker about this self-interested social entrepreneurship, and it's specially poignant because this is all happening in a socialist country where the President dreams up political strategy in the course of seven hour live TV monologues every Sunday, and the threat of privatisation or land occupation hangs over every business.

We have two former gang members talking, and sounds of the distilling. Waitrose is now taking the rum, which is delicious."


I'd just add that Santa Teresa was struggling when the energetic Alberto took over the Vollmer family business, but he seems to have applied his social entrepreneurship skills to the business as a whole.

What a story it is to have in the back of the mind of the rum aficionado as he quaffs the glowing liquid.

It sets aside this brand from all the others, and when he comes to Europe, bartenders who've heard about it want to talk to Alberto Vollmer about it. Project Alcatraz is social entrepreneurship with a practical, pure business advantage as well. It's that awfully-termed thing, a win-win situation.

Listen to Project Alcatraz (31/12/2009)

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