The remains of St. Philips church at Kingstown Photo by Daniel Mejia

Bring It On!

Charles Tobias started Pusser's Rum over three decades ago and transformed it into a chain of restaurants, retail outlets and apparel.

by Jan Critchley

Charles Tobias is well known in the BVI for being the Founder and CEO of Pusser's Rum, the successful Pusser's chain of bars, restaurants and stores. What is less widely known is that he was a fighter pilot and was shot down by enemy fire, has sailed around the world twice – for a time with a cheetah and a chimpanzee on board, and made a movie of his adventures at sea.

Charles Tobias with one of his many items of memorabilia
Above: Charles Tobias with one of his many items of memorabilia

When I met with him for the first time recently he told me about how Pusser's has evolved from the four-seater rum shop that he started on Main Street in 1979 to the global business that he has today. About the early days, Charles said, At the time The Hon. H. Lavity Stoutt was the Chief Minister and he was regularly approached by people with business ideas. He told me that he hoped that I would come through for him. Some years later, and by this time a firm friend of mine, he said to me, 'Chuck, you did it man!'

It all started with rum, the spirit at the heart of any true sailor. The home of Pusser's Rum is right here in the sailing capital of the world – the BVI, where there are now five Pusser's bars and restaurants plus associated stores, collectively called Outposts. Pusser's is also currently operating Outposts in the US, Germany and Gibraltar and there are bigger plans in the pipeline.

The stores are a big part of the Pusser's operation, and the apparel and merchandising are something Charles spends a lot of his time on and is an area that is ripe for expansion. He explained, After spending 25 years building the company, our plan now is to continue to expand both here in the Caribbean and in the US, Canada and Australia. Our goal is to franchise up to 100 Outposts in the next five to seven years. We currently have several licensing opportunities for our clothing line, a catalogue and the internet, plus the licensing of Pusser's Landings in the US.

The company also has two new rums, one is an aged brand called "Charlie 'T's" in both gold and white rum. "The Gold is in the stores now and is a blend that I've been working on for two years. Another line that does really well is condiments; chutneys, jams, sauces and our Pusser's rum cake that is getting a lot of kudos in the US – so we'll continue to go strong on those," he added.

Charles Tobias in a Harrier jet

Above: Charles Tobias in a Harrier jet

Charles's story however, starts way before this. A Canadian by birth, after high school he attended the University of Southern California on an athletic scholarship (he was the Canadian and US High School One Mile Champion) where he graduated with degrees in Aeronautical and Mechanical Engineering. After immigrating to the US, he received his US Army draft notice and the same day, chose instead to enlist in the US Marine Corps, became a US citizen and ultimately served in Vietnam as a fighter pilot and Laos in Special Operations. The medals he earned during his military service include a Silver Star, one of the highest military combat decorations, a Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart for wounds received when he was shot down by enemy fire in Laos and lived to tell the tale.

Following his second military tour of duty, and the sale of a successful high tech company in the 70s, he became interested in sailing and set out around the world twice on his ketch MAR. It was over this five-year period, that he wrote, filmed and produced his classic sailing film, The Way of the Wind. Not content with just three crew, he also had two more unusual crewmembers aboard, a chimpanzee and a cheetah that were given to him along the way.

Charles with Fifi and Tommy.

Above: Charles with Fifi and Tommy.

Before crossing the Atlantic to Barbados, they made a stop in Gibraltar, where Charles met the Captain of a British warship and was given a one-gallon jug of Pusser's Rum. The name Pusser came from a corrupted pronunciation of Purser who was the officer in the Royal Navy that administered the daily ration of one gill or tot of rum to the sailors. This was a 300-year-old tradition, one of the longest in seafaring history that continued until 1970.

Looking for his next enterprise, Charles decided to resurrect the Royal Navy's rum tradition and planned to make it available commercially. After many meetings, the Admiralty Board of the Royal Navy gave him the formula for the rum and their blessing. Shortly afterwards, Pusser's Rum was being shipped commercially for the first time.

So it was in 1979 that the entrepreneur formed Pusser's West Indies in the BVI and started to bottle and sell the spirit to the public. In return, The Royal Navy Sailor's Fund, or Tot Fund, a naval charity, receives a donation from the sale of each bottle. This contribution, aside from the Fund's original bequest, is the Fund's largest source of income.

Pussers Outpost in Road Town

Above: Pussers Outpost in Road Town

Since then his charitable work aided many other projects and charities both in the BVI and for Armed Forces organizations in the US and UK. It was for his charitable work and for the resurrection of the Royal Navy's rum tradition, that Charles Tobias was recognized by the Queen in her 2011 Honors List by appointing him an MBE.

His current project is the design of a new cocktail menu for his restaurants with the phrase, Excess on occasions is exhilarating. It keeps moderation from becoming a habit! When talking about the future, Charles does admit to wanting to step back a little this year so that he can spend more time with family and friends, travelling and writing two books, which he's had outlined for years. As he quite rightly says, the clock hand turns... However, home for him is here in the BVI. He said, I would live nowhere else in the world, some of my best friends are here, I like the people and I feel very free here, and freedom is such a great thing.

Read about the history of the most romantic Pusser's on Marina Cay.

You soon realize after a short time with Charles Tobias that this is a man who has lived life to the full, with a passion for adventure, a vision and an incredible amount of drive. He has danced to the beat of his own drum in both his professional and personal life. His office mirrors his personality and is full of elements of his life from clothing samples and menus to medals and engrossing memorabilia. An eclectic mix you might say, and one that gives you a glimpse into the life of this fascinating character who just looks life in the face and says, Bring it on!