These sons of a Venezuelan dynasty saved the family rum company. now they're helping save street kids and slums.Driving into Venezuela's capital city, Henrique Vollmer points, with a rueful half smile, to a handmade banner hanging from a highway overpass. "Welcome to Caracas," the graffiti reads. "Take care of your life."
The warning might not seem to apply to a man like Henrique Vollmer, who, along with his brother Alberto, runs the family rum company, a generations-old business dynasty. But it is exactly what the Vollmers have been trying to do for five years, not only by rescuing that family business from near-bankruptcy, but also by rehabilitating Venezuelan street gangs and helping homeless squatters.
In some profound, positive ways, the Vollmers are working both ends of Venezuela's economic spectrum. The tropical country's natural landscape is lush, and it is home to some spectacular wealth produced by natural resources like sugar cane and oil; the nation is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, the source of about 15 percent of the U.S. oil supply. But because Venezuela was an oligarchy for centuries, where a few rich and powerful ruled the many, there's an equally spectacular gap between rich and poor.
It's this gap the Vollmers are trying to bridge. In rural areas like the municipality of Revenga in the state of Aragua, where the Vollmer family lives, poverty and crime have been problems for decades. As the car proceeds from Caracas to the town of El Consejo, where the Vollmers' 209-year-old hacienda is located, slum dwellings increase - but Hacienda Santa Teresa certainly isn't one of them. Built in 1796 by the count of Tovar y Blanco, the expansive estate joined the extensive land holdings of the Vollmer brothers' great-grandfather, Gustavo Julio Vollmer Ribas, in 1885. It was converted to sugar cane fields, and by 1896, Santa Teresa was Venezuela's first rum-making operation.
Today, the 5,000-acre empire produces, blends, and ages the country's primo luxury rums and raises coffee, citrus, cattle, and cane. And politically, the Vollmer brothers' backgrounds could hardly, in the new world, be more old-world conservative and aristocratic. Their father was Venezuela's ambassador to the Vatican; their mother, a countess and a Palm Beach socialite.
Since taking over leadership of C.A. Ron Santa Teresa in 1999, however, President/CEO of CARST Alberto and President of Santa Teresa International Henrique have been raising cane in more ways than one - most spectacularly, through initiating corporate social responsibility initiatives so unprecedented, so ingenious, and so successful that they have already attracted attention from international political and business leaders. Most notably, their Proyecto Alcatraz, which Aragua officials estimate has cut local crime in half by rehabilitating gang members, is being used as a case study by Harvard University and nearly a dozen noted business schools in Spain and Latin America. Even Hugo Chavez, no friend to rich land owners, has praised the program as truly revolutionary, urging other businessmen to adopt similarly humanist economic approaches that might just save Venezuela.