Editorial | This one’s for Billy McConnell
Prime Minister Andrew Holness has described Billy McConnell, who died on Wednesday, age 71, as a "trailblazer, nation builder and inspiration" to generations of Jamaica's corporate leaders. All of which, and more, is true.
Two other things are significant about Mr McConnell. Given the length of time he was at the top of the corporate ladder, and the breadth of his achievements, you might have thought he was substantially older. And at first blush, he mightn't have been perceived as the business titan he was, if only for the role he played in transforming one of Jamaica's most iconic companies, J. Wray & Nephew, and its Appleton rums, into global brands.
Billy McConnell hardly, if ever, raised his voice. He spoke in low, measured tones. He was often self-effacing, almost, some might claim, apologetic. But these characteristics masked a sharp intellect and business savvy that were engaged to the value of Jamaica.
Indeed, while he operated primarily in the private sector, there was no question of Mr McConnell's public-spiritedness and his deep commitment to Jamaica. Having studied abroad and returning at the start of the 1970s, Mr McConnell, significantly, chose to stay during that ideology-riven decade when many people of his background preferred to leave. Indeed, he was a founding member of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, into whose Hall of Fame he was inducted in 2005.
Mr McConnell joined J. Wray & Nephew in 1973 as a financial accountant. At the time, while an important rum distiller with iconic status inside Jamaica, it largely exported bulk rum, and its brands were not well known abroad. Within four years, he was the company's managing director. Billy McConnell had barely turned 30.
Throughout the 1980s and '90s, Mr McConnell sought to build equity into the Appleton and other J. Wray & Nephew brands, while trying to drive exports with forays into the United States, Mexican, Australian and New Zealand markets. At one point, Appleton rums accounted for the largest growth of imported spirits into the latter market.
In the meantime, Mr McConnell and George Ashenheim engineered the merger/acquisition of the sugar manufacturer and distiller by the diverse group, Lascelles deMercado. Mr McConnell became the CEO of both entities and Mr Ashenheim, also an astute businessman, the chairman.
In 2009, when Lawrence Duprey's CL Financials, via its Angostura Holdings, sought to acquire Lascelles deMercado in a bid that valued the company at nearly US$900 million, most of the worth resided in its rum-related assets, which the Trinidadians hoped to leverage internationally. It was characteristically Billy McConnell that he took little credit for that achievement, ascribing it mostly, as he did at Mr Ashenheim's death last year, to his chairman's vision. Really, they were partners.
It was neither's fault that CL collapsed under the weight of its debt, wrought by overly rapid expansion, but it was testament to Wray & Nephew's global potential, and Billy McConnell's achievement, that Italy's Grupo Campari soon stepped up to acquire Lascelles in a deal that valued the Jamaican group at €330 million. While J. Wray & Nephew was his flagship, Mr McConnell's involvement in several other companies and organisations, as Opposition Leader Peter Phillips put it, assisted many sectors "towards national development".
Dr Phillips is right: "Jamaica has lost a stalwart of industry and a good, faithful son."