After spending his adult life living and working in countries around the globe, Howard T. Robinson was not inclined to take his retirement from the U.S. Foreign Service passively, or, as he put it, sitting on the beach in a visor cap.
Instead, Robinson decided to act on his belief in the importance of trade with Third World countries by launching a business that imports rum from Martinique and an import-export subsidiary that promotes trade between U.S. companies and African and European producers.
Robinson is now one year into management of the minority-owned enterprises he operates with his two sons, Howard Jr. and Bertrand. Rhum La Mauny, the brand of rum imported by Howard T. Robinson Enterprises Inc., is sold in about 85 liquor stores in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Alabama and Louisiana; applications are pending for permission to sell La Mauny in state liquor stores in Virginia and Pennsylvania, and plans include expansion into Florida and Texas.
The import-export arm of the business, Brussels International Corp., is selling to European caterers Aunt Lucy Quality Country Foods, produced by a 50-year-old family business located in Walkersville, Md. Brussels is also trying to penetrate the African marketplace with Amazing Lace shoelaces, developed by a schoolteacher from Atlanta, and negotiations are in progress to import carpets from Lesotho.
Aside from the economic success of his venture, Robinson says he is most concerned with promoting trade of what he views as "exceptional" products made by smaller U.S. and Third World companies.
"Philosophically, I believe that if you import from a country, you should export to them. You can help generate foreign exchange," Robinson said. "The big corporations already know how to export , but it's the Aunt Lucys, the Amazing Laces, the medium-sized companies, they can't pay to have someone market their products. Someone with my background, my contacts can help them. If they have something to sell, we can find them a market." hum La Mauny is Robinson's idea of an exceptional product. It is an "agricultural" rum, fermented directly from sugar cane juice, as opposed to "industrial" rum, which involves the added step of making molasses before fermentation. Robinson says that because the rum comes directly from the sugar cane, it has a unique taste that has proven to be its strongest selling point.
Robinson says he has been able to avoid typical problems encountered by import-export businesses--snafus arising from currency exchange and the transfer of good and titles between ports--thanks to his experience in the Foreign Service. But the territory that is uncharted for Robinson is marketing, and how to best present Rhum La Mauny to potential buyers.
"One of the things we've found consistently is that when liquor store owners taste it, they buy it," he said. "But we don't have a distributor that says to the local liquor store 'you buy our Gordon's gin and La Mauny rum.' We've had to do it all ourselves."
Promotional tastings at local liquor stores have been a main marketing strategy for the company, and advice from one store owner resulted in a new design for La Mauny labels. Robinson also plans to advertise in "regional newspapers" in the future.
But the driving force behind Howard T. Robinson Enterprises Inc. is the importance of international trade, on a relatively small scale, between entrepreneurs with high-quality goods.
"We're going to have fun if we don't get too serious about making money," Robinson said. "We can be reasonably successful if we seek out excellent Third World products. . . . An awful lot of people my age could come up with family businesses--not to compete with the giants but to become treads on the economic tire. If you bring your kids into the company, some day they may run it. If you couple that with an exceptional product, you may never have a huge market--we can't compete with Bacardi--but you can provide people with a choice."