Take 5: Kathleen Smith of Bacardi USA, Inc.

An in the Mix Feature Interview

Kathleen Smith

National Account Manager,

Bacardi USA, Inc.

In this in the Mix Take 5 Feature Interview, Kathleen Smith, National Account Manager, Bacardi USA, takes us on a journey through her recently recognized, incredible 35 years with Bacardi where she sheds light on how the brand continues to successfully adapt to the ever-evolving consumer trends and forecasts challenges the industry may face 10 years from now.

Mallory Ambrose: Hi Kathleen. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me I want to start off by congratulating you on reaching such an incredible career milestone, I understand you were recently recognized by Bacardi for 35 years of service.

To start, would you please tell myself and the in the Mix audience a bit about your background, what inspired you to pursue a career in the spirits industry, and what led to you joining the Bacardi team 35 years ago?

Kathleen Smith: It was divine intervention! I had just moved to Chicago and a neighbor told me that Bacardi was hiring. I applied, went in for the interview, was offered the position, and never looked back. Five years into my career, Bacardi found value in creating a separate on-premise division and named me as the first On-Premise Region Manager. I have had several different positions within the company throughout my career, but on-premise had always been my passion.

MA: In your experience as a National Account Manager for Bacardi USA, how have you witnessed consumer preferences in the spirits industry evolve over the years, and how have both you and Bacardi as a whole adapted to these changes?

KS: When I first started, Bacardi was a rum company. The family very smartly saw where consumer tastes were headed and sought out to purchase the best brands in each category. This business is and will always be relationship-based, but our customers need a reason to believe in our brands. Providing our customers with consumer insights, trends, and solutions has been a game changer for the way we now do business. Customers are also looking for guest experiences and ‘instagrammable’ moments. Our marketing and customer marketing teams work incredibly hard to create those experiences.

MA: I am sure your role requires quite a bit of traveling, what is one of your favorite cities you’ve visited during your career?

KS: In the U.S. I love Aspen. The Aspen Food and Wine Festival is one of my favorite events of the year! In the Caribbean, the Cayman Islands. The Cayman Cookout is a “foodies” dream. In the EU, I love Dublin. I recently visited the Teeling Distillery and absolutely fell in love with both the city and the country.

MA: I understand that you are based out of New Orleans but have a strong love for Chicago, what is one of your favorite things about the city?

KS: Chicago is the first city I fell in love with for its beauty, walkability, and of course, Wrigley Field. The city has everything you could want– restaurants, music, arts, culture, and diverse neighborhoods. It is and always will be my heart home and favorite city on the planet.

MA: What do you like to do when you are not working?

KS:I love hiking, concerts, festivals, sporting events and spending time with my big Italian/Irish family in Pittsburgh.

MA: What do you attribute to your long and successful career with Bacardi?

KS: Bacardi has a true entrepreneur spirit that really suits me. It is also a family company that has the same values I grew up with. I worked hard in every position I had with the company and Bacardi valued my work. I had tremendous leaders that helped me along the way and gave me the room I needed to succeed. I have had some crazy, over the top ideas over the years and they always encouraged me to go for it. Trust me, not all my ideas landed, but Bacardi always allowed me to get back up and try something new.

MA: Can you highlight a particularly proud moment or achievement that stands out to you from your 35 years at Bacardi?

KS: There are two that really stand out. A few years ago, I won Marriott’s “Supplier of the Year” Award and was truly surprised. In that moment, all of the hard work that the Bacardi team had done was recognized – not just my work but everyone from Bacardi that touched their business from our leadership team to customer marketing. I also received an internal company commercial sales award called the “Bad Ass” award. It made me laugh and cry at the same time! To get an award from Bacardi at this stage of my career means more to me than I can ever convey. Bacardi has loads and loads of talent, so to receive this one meant something.

MA: Forecasting for the year ahead, what was your overriding takeaway from 2023?

KS: It was a year of reconnecting with hotels and providing solutions at every level from speed of service to guest engagement experiences to trainings. I traveled so much this past year that I ended up becoming friends with several gate agents across the U.S.

Kathleen Smith and creative partner, Julien Lafond, Customer Marketing Manager On-Premise National Accounts, Bacardi USA 

MA: What do you see as the future challenges and opportunities for Bacardi in the next 10 years?

KS: The world and this industry are both moving so fast at every level in not only the US, but globally. I think for all companies it is not only about keeping up, but also being able to deliver on so many levels ranging from technology to product innovation and everything in between.

MA: What guidance would you give someone just starting out in this industry?

KS: Talk and connect with everyone that you can in the industry. Learn as much as you can about your customers so that you can help them achieve their goals. Go the extra mile for them as they are incredibly busy with many different facets of the job. Take on a project that will stretch you past your comfort zone and teach you. Place great importance on being a good teammate and friend, I am blessed to have so many close relationships with people that work for Bacardi.

MA: I understand that you have partnered with IMI Agency quite a bit throughout your career. From a supplier standpoint, can you share some insight into this partnership and the role IMI has played throughout your career?

KS: First and foremost, it starts at the top. I have tremendous respect for Larry McGinn and the support he has given me throughout my national account career. The account/project directors and managers know their client’s specific needs and hot buttons. They are willing to share their knowledge with suppliers like me to ensure that they are providing their clients with the best programs and outcomes possible.

The first call I make after receiving an RFP is to IMI Agency so that I can make sure we have all the information we need to deliver a presentation that meets the customers’ needs. I recently told one of their directors that she has the navigation skills of a pilot and I think that holds true for everyone I work with from IMI Agency.

Kathleen Smith and Evan Traub, Director of Accounts, IMI Agency 

About Bacardi

Bacardi Limited, the largest privately held international spirits company, produces, markets, and distributes spirits and wines. The Bacardi Limited portfolio comprises more than 200 brands and labels, including BACARDÍ® rum, PATRÓN® tequila, GREY GOOSE® vodka, DEWAR’S® Blended Scotch whisky, BOMBAY SAPPHIRE® gin, MARTINI® vermouth and sparkling wines, CAZADORES® 100% blue agave tequila, and other leading and emerging brands including WILLIAM LAWSON’S® Scotch whisky, ST-GERMAIN® elderflower liqueur and ERISTOFF® vodka. Founded more than 161 years ago in Santiago de Cuba, family-owned Bacardi Limited currently employs approximately 9,000, operates production facilities in 11 countries and territories, and sells its brands in more than 160 countries. Bacardi Limited refers to the Bacardi group of companies, including Bacardi International Limited. Visit www.bacardilimited.com or follow us on LinkedInInstagram and X.

About IMI Agency

Since 1989, IMI Agency has been dedicated to Building Better Beverage Business™ earning the trust of countless clients along the way. IMI team members are the connectors, building relationships between their clients and beverage partners in the industry channels. IMI’s core values center around personal and professional ethics, utmost financial transparency, and unwavering adherence to the myriad of rules governing our restricted environment. These principles set IMI apart and establish them as the trusted fiduciary beverage marketing, data and fintech agency. For more information, visit IMI Agency’s website, or follow us on LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook.