the Tireless Business Man
Joseph Bento “JB” Fernandes, the grandson of Portuguese emigrants, was born in Trinidad in 1903. An astute businessman, he revolutionized rum production in the island nation, at one point owning the largest distillery in the region, as well as substantial real estate holdings.
During his life, he conducted his philanthropy as private giving on an annual or ad hoc basis. It was not until after his death in 1992 that, at his instruction, a formal structure for his philanthropy was established.
Initially, Fernandes’ personal philanthropy centered around his strong sense of heritage, particularly in Madeira and Trinidad, coupled with his Christian tenets. His Portuguese-Trinidadian roots broadened his horizons, and he provided support to people in Trinidad, as well as his family’s region of origin, Madeira Island in Portugal. Fernandes maintained strong contacts with Portugal throughout his life, and in fact met his wife, Maria Manuela, with whom he would have five children, during one of his visits. During his life, Fernandes focused his support on:
◆ Aiding those in most need, especially poor children, the elderly, and the infirm;
◆ Providing scholarships and other financial aid directly to individuals who sought his assistance.
The Portuguese began arriving in the former British colony of Trinidad and Tobago in small numbers as early as the mid 19th century. They came in a variety of capacities, many as contracted or indentured servants for the sugar and cocoa estates, to escape religious persecution, or to find better opportunities for themselves and their families following a series of blights that affected wine growing on Madeira Island.
In Trinidad, the Portuguese were heavily involved in the rum industry and owned small “rum shops” that sold rum as well as wines and other spirits. These small enterprises individually produced, blended, bottled and labeled their own varieties of rums in an artisanal style.
After completing his studies in both Portugal and Trinidad, Fernandes traveled further in Portugal and England before returning to Trinidad in 1922 to join his father’s firm. The post-war years were difficult in Trinidad, and young Fernandes contemplated emigrating to Brazil to seek better fortune, but his uncle, João, a master rum blender, convinced him to stay and convinced Fernandes’ father, João, to allow his son to contribute in a meaningful way to the business.
A visionary in his field, Fernandes revolutionized local rum production standards. Not only did he convince his father to make investments that would allow the company to begin blending rum in much larger quantities than most of the rum shops, but he also standardized each blend of rum, assuring the quality and consistency of the various types he sold, and produced new packaging for the products. His perseverance paid off, and the company’s reputation and market share grew substantially. Fernandes and Company was a family affair, and Fernandes worked closely with his father and uncle to produce high-quality products to bear the Fernandes name until his father’s death in 1930.
At the age of 27, young Fernandes took over the company, growing it further and innovating production standards still yet to be rivaled to this day. His bold but calculated guesses had allowed the business to grow and gain international prominence. By the 1970s, the small company founded in 1890 by Fernandes’ grandfather Manoel controlled 85 percent of the local rum market, and his warehouse had grown to 900,000 square feet. In 1973, following the independence of Trinidad, Fernandes sold the business to Bacardi and diversified his holdings under the Fernandes Group of Companies, principally a property investment company.
A creative and tireless businessman, Fernandes recognized that intellect and opportunity provided the means to a better life. Fernandes’ second son, Joseph E. Fernandes, notes, “My father once told me that as a young entrepreneur he was helped by many people, and he was glad to help others in return.” In fact, in recognition of his contributions, he was made Honorary Consul of Portugal in Trinidad in 1948. Among many other awards, he also received a commendation from the Royal Air Force Association for having sent all Trinidadian servicemen a monthly ration of Fernandes Vat 19 rum during World War II.
Fernandes’ observations, life circumstances, and Christian tenets drove him to:
◆ Giving generously during his lifetime to Catholic charities, which at the time made up the bulk of institutions working to clothe and feed those in need;
◆ Establishing scholarships to provide education for gifted needy
◆ Maintaining family and philanthropic ties to his country of origin, despite having established a full life for himself in his place of birth.
Given his penchant for privacy, it’s not surprising that Fernandes kept his significant philanthropic pursuits tightly under wraps while alive. But, since his death in 1992, the memorial trust that bears the Fernandes name has played an increasingly visible and vital role in a number of countries in the Caribbean and Europe.
Since the trust began making grants in 1998, it has focused on three main areas aligned with Fernandes’ interests: education, health, and poverty alleviation. It has awarded over 1,000 grants to date, totaling more than $72 million in Trinidad and Tobago, Madeira, Portugal, and several Portuguese communities in the United States.
The Fernandes trust has evolved over time, yet has remained true to its founder’s core values. While the trust provides direct support, it also supports work that identifies and addresses the root causes of societal problems and targets ways to bring about significant change.
The trust is still one of the few private funders working in Trinidad and Tobago, and for some organizations has been their sole source of nongovernmental support. Likewise, in Portugal and the United States, where it is one of many other private funders, its ability to provide general operating support has offered important flexible funding to small and mid-sized nonprofits.