Thu | Nov 14, 2019

Lennie Little-White | New Jamaican business marquees

Published:Sunday | October 20, 2019 | 1:25 AM
Lennie Little-White
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Jamaica needs more innovative homegrown winners in business if we are to move beyond just being money-changers and margin gatherers. I grew up celebrating Jamaican brands like Red Stripe, Tia Maria, Appleton, and Pickappepa. The first three are no longer Jamaican-owned, so who has stepped up to take these indigenous spots?

Random research tells me that many Jamaicans are disillusioned by government red-tape and lack of affordable capital – two ready disincentives to budding entrepreneurs. Against these odds, I found more than 40 brands that were started from scratch since Independence and provide the prototype for the new Jamaica, where vision and innovation are the catalysts that will trump family “hand-me-downs” or drug money.

I have the freedom to be subjective in the twelve examples I have chosen to highlight today. This group is by no means exhaustive, and there is room for many other articles with diverse brand names. My choices were not based on gross income or profit, but rather on their unique profile in the Jamaican marketplace.

1. Without question, there is no bigger indigenous brand than SANDALS, whose footprint now straddles the Caribbean. It is no secret that the genesis of this hospitality giant is Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart, who went from being an air-condition salesman in his merchandising company before becoming a hotelier in 1981.

Arguably, no other Caribbean brand has such a prominent place in the international marketplace, with hospitality properties and subsidiaries in several countries.

2. It seems that being a salesman is one of the stepping stones to morph into an entrepreneur. After being a teacher, Glen Christian became a salesman of pharmaceuticals. The monthly commission was nice, but Christian saw a bigger opportunity on the horizon in owning his own pharmaceutical distribution business. This was the spark that led him to start CARI-MED in 1986 – now a household name whose portfolio straddles manufacturing, distribution, and real estate.

3. The need for good, affordable food has always been a money-machine for international giants like KFC, McDonalds, and Burger King. It was not rocket science that persuaded a 16-year-old schoolboy to start making patties in his mother’s kitchen in May Pen to sell to his friends. Today, his nascent, homegrown endeavour has grown into the biggest chain of restaurants in Jamaica under the marquee of JUICI thanks to the foresight and hard work of Jukie Chin.

4. While still under 30 years old, Marcus James made a bold stride when he launched a financial entity to lend money to working-class Jamaicans with little or no equity, but who were honest and hardworking. This foresight led to the creation of ACCESS FINANCIAL SERVICES, which many consider to be the progenitor of the booming micro-financing industry. His vertical vision has now planted ACCESS roots in the United States.

5. He grew up with brand names like Grace, Eve, and D&G, which were at the apex of the mass food distribution brands. Along came another salesman who decided to single-handedly challenge the status quo. In 1988, Lascelles Chin transformed himself into LASCO, and today, his brand is a powerhouse in manufacturing, distribution, and microfinancing. Against the odds, LASCO has created niches in the marketplace, allowing it to enter the lucrative export market.

6. Time was when the female of the species was not expected to become captains of business. Many operated at the micro level but not on the stage with the big boys. Along came an ambitious nurse who was never content to being traditional. Her name is Audrey Hinchcliffe, the conceptualiser and head honcho of MANPOWER AND MAINTENANCE SERVICES, a company that elevated office maintenance and sanitation to a fine art and profitable business.

7. When teenager Kenny Benjamin migrated to Jamaica in the early ’70s with his suitcase, he left the giant India for a little island in the Caribbean. At a time when Jamaica was going through major social upheaval, Benjamin started a “guard-dog service” with two dogs. This was the birth of GUARDSMAN in 1977. Today, the company has expanded to several Caribbean neighbours and diversified into hospitality, landscaping and plant rental, pest control, and professional sanitation services, to name a few.

8. When you graduated from law school, the logical progression was to have your own chambers on Duke Street. This was not the obvious route for a feisty and unconventional young man who decided that the world of fashion and entertainment was embedded in his DNA. So Kingsley Cooper decided to take down his attorney’s shingle and replace it with one named PULSE. Cooper seized the opportunity to be the first to train young Jamaicans to take their rightful place on the runways of New York, London, and Paris.

9. When the inter-island airlines went out of business, travel between Kingston and Montego Bay took longer than going between Jamaica and Miami. Along came a young entrepreneur in the west who saw the need for a first-world ground-transportation system that could rival Greyhound or other similar outfits in North America. Oliver Townsend wasted no time in starting KNUTSFORD EXPRESS with two buses – a fleet that has continued to multiply as their presence is now evident all across Jamaica. Not content with this, Knutsford Express has now expanded to the United States.

10. To own a home is the dream of most people, but dreams and reality don’t usually travel on the same highway. Thankfully, there have been entrepreneurs who have created affordable housing developments across Jamaica. Without much fanfare, but with an enviable track record for over 30 years, along came KEMTEK DEVELOPMENT AND CONSTRUCTION, a housing and real estate development company that is the brainchild of Sylvester Tulloch. KEMTEK is the leader in providing affordable housing across St Mary, St Ann, Trelawny, St Catherine, and St Andrew.

11. Every family has a maverick, and this nomenclature is very apt for Chris Issa, who went on his own to create his unique hotel brand – in Kingston – SPANISH COURT. With its edgy South-Beach style, it did not take long for Chris Issa to venture West to create ‘S’ – the new “wow” on Jimmy Cliff Boulevard in Montego Bay.

12. Walk into any supermarket and you cannot escape the RAINFOREST brand across the store. What started as a seafood distribution business has skyrocketed into a multidisciplinary food enterprise that not only packages a range of seafood and product lines extending to bammy, but is now a producer of fresh fish and lobster at farms across the CARICOM region. Rainforest now exports products to many countries – as far as China. This brand has made quantum international leaps under the hands-on management of its founder – Brian Jardim.

All things considered, Jamaica must be proud of its sons and daughters who have started to etch their indigenous brands at home and in the export markets. With a little less government red tape and more progressive financial institutions, we could spawn a new generation of visionaries who will fly the ‘Brand Jamaica’ flag high.

- Lennie Little-White, CD, MA, is a Jamaican film-maker and writer. Email feedback to: columns@gleanerjm.com and lennielittle.white@gmail.com