The operations director of the Jacksonville plant is responsible for the bottling and distribution of all the Bacardi rum sold in the U.S. and globally.
As Darrin Mueller passed through the Bacardi Bottling Corp. plant Sept. 24, he greeted employees as thousands of bottles raced around the facility. They start as empty glass containers, then are filled with Bacardi rum, capped and boxed into cases.
Mueller, 44, a five-year Bacardi employee, started in the plant’s top position in June. He calls it his dream job, something he’s wanted since starting in the industry more than 20 years ago.
He is responsible for the bottling and distribution of about 8.6 million cases of Bacardi rum a year, along with leading 200 employees at the company’s 12200 N. Main St. facility in North Jacksonville.
“I knew when I started in manufacturing and having the opportunity to work with senior managers that is something that I wanted to do,” he said. “How I was going to get there was always a mystery.”
He started as a summer employee at Anheuser-Bush in Colorado, working part-time while in college at the University of Northern Colorado.
He took on more hours, eventually becoming an intern. While he was studying mass communication, Mueller said his work in the beverage industry intrigued him.
“I thought, wow, this is a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s very competitive, it’s a product that millions of people enjoy, and it’s just something grandiose to be a part of. And so, I wanted to be a part of it.”
After graduating, he moved to Jacksonville with his wife and started a job at Anheuser-Busch in Jacksonville.
He held manufacturing roles at Metal Container Corp. in Jacksonville and Georgia-Pacific in Palatka. Metal Container Corp. manufactures aluminum cans and bottles for Anheuser-Busch.
He left Metal Container Corp. several years after InBev acquired Anheuser-Busch in 2008.
In 2015, he joined Bacardi as a senior bottling operations manager. A year later, he was promoted to manufacturing director.
Now, as director of the operations center, his responsibilities at the plant have “grown exponentially,” he said. He oversees the shipment of 6 million gallons of rum from Puerto Rico to the site each week, leads meetings with staff to streamline operations and sets growth strategies for the plant.
Mueller said no matter where you buy a bottle of Bacardi rum, it came from the Jacksonville bottling facility.
Although the company owns other brands, such as Grey Goose vodka and Patrón tequila, only Bacardi products are bottled in Jacksonville.
Bacardi calls its employees “primos,” which is Spanish for cousins.
“My motivation is first and foremost our primos,” he said. “And secondly, the opportunity to lead an organization that is world-renowned for its wonderful products.”
Improving, changing operations
Since Mueller took the lead role at Bacardi in June, the plant has been busy, he said. Although COVID-19 had an adverse effect on most industries, Bacardi’s U.S. sales have been on the rise.
The Jacksonville Bacardi plant ships out more than 8.6 million cases of rum each year. Mueller said it is on track to exceed that by almost 1 million cases in 2020. Of that, 95% is shipped domestically.
“What we’re seeing is a vast shift in our forecasts, and that’s really where a lot of our efforts have been focused,” he said. “One of the things that we don’t want to have happen is to not be able to supply our customers and our consumers.”
To respond to the increase in demand, and to reduce costs and increase safety, the plant is installing a $6 million upgrade to its packing equipment.
The first phase began in July. The second phase is set to begin in December and be completed in March.
Before the installation of the machine, it took five pieces of equipment to build a box, pack the bottles and complete the case. Now, that can be done with one machine, Mueller said.
There also were issues with bottles breaking in transit to the retailers. Mueller said that the boxes made from the new system are much stronger and can prevent breakage.
Mueller said he also is seeing a slight change in the popularity of Bacardi’s products. The ready-to-drink category is growing in the U.S. and Canada. Bacardi sells its lime and soda, limon and lemonade and rum punch in cans.
About 80% of what the Jacksonville plant bottles is Bacardi Superior rum, which comes in white, gold, black and spiced varieties. About 15% of its volume is its limon-flavored rum, which is a blend of lemon, lime and grapefruit.
Mueller said Bacardi covers the rum sector well. His personal favorite is the Bacardi Reserva Ocho, an eight-year aged gold rum.
“Quite honestly, there’s not much that I don’t like,” Mueller said. “That’s part of having the luck of this dream job, you get the opportunities to really taste a lot of great spirits. Clearly, rum is one of my favorite spirits.”
Lake Ray, president of the First Coast Manufacturers Association, said he has met with Mueller several times since he started as director.
“He’s very open-minded about his management, he’s got a number of years of experience and he’s used those years of experience to understand how to bring a team of people together,” Ray said.
As the leader of the Jacksonville plant, Mueller wants his facility to be well-known, both in the community and around the world.
During the pandemic, Bacardi produced 120,000 bottles of hand sanitizer to donate to first responders in every county in Florida.
Mueller said the facility also was recognized for its environmental conservation efforts. A team of employees volunteer to plant and maintain 21 acres of native plants and wildflowers at plant’s North Jacksonville campus.
Bacardi employees help with a bat and Eastern Bluebird conservation program on campus as well.
“We want to be that center of excellence,” Mueller said. “We have the right talent in place.”