Tue | Jul 7, 2020

Lennie Little-White | Money talks, wealth whispers

Published:Sunday | December 22, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Jamaica is a country where our primary concern is to make “money jingle in our pockets” rather than create a foundation of real wealth to maintain a stable economic base. We have become lost in the euphoria of the booming stock market, which is buoyant based largely on rampant speculation and cheap money rather than entrenched wealth creation.

For years, we wallowed in self-pity as we were conflicted by the merits of capitalism versus democratic socialism. For the most part, those with capital found a safe haven in North America or even the Mother Country.

Economic purists of the ’70s said the lumpen proletariat were forever enslaved by the economic chains of ‘The Twenty-One Families’, whose primary concern was preserving their wealth while leaving the masses to fight for “money jingling in their pockets”.

Who were these ‘Twenty-One Families’? Some of us are old enough to remember names that included Ashenheim, Issa, Henriques, Matalon, Hart, DaCosta, Mahfood, Hendrickson, Melhado, Clarke – to name a few. They achieved this economic branding based mainly on interlocutory corporate brand membership and intermarriage.

It is clear that many of these reflected a heavy concentration of old Jewish families or descended from the plantocracy. Those were the days before names like Butch Stewart, Michael Lee Chin, Mark Myers, Peter Bunting, Glen Christian, and Gassan Azan were integral to the economic landscape.

The compilation of the ‘Twenty-One Families’ was based on firm economic research collated at The University of the West Indies by a team headed by Professor Stanley Reid and published in a book edited by Professor Carl Stone and Professor Aggrey Brown.

In that era of social ferment, it gave rise to Michael Manley’s one-way ticket of “five flights a day to Miami”. The result was that a lot of Jamaica’s real wealth fled, leaving those who are content with “money jingling in our pockets”.

THOSE WHO STAYED

Thankfully, there is still a cadre of Jamaicans who have remained to convert their money into real wealth and with indigenous brands that can fly the Jamaican brand at home and abroad.

Yes, a few do have tangential linkages to the ‘Twenty-One Families’ and the plantation, but in all instances, these brands are world-class products, now enjoyed at home and abroad.

- Look no further than TRU JUICE – a testimony to the agribusiness acumen of the McConnells, who have created a brand that is much more diverse and of a higher quality than the knock-down imports that crowd our supermarket shelves.

- Time was when it was fashionable to boast of Perrier, Evian, Dasani, and Fiji as mandatory at the dinner table. For those still in the dark, those are the names of imported bottled water that became staples on the menu of the tables of the upwardly mobile. Then along came a truly Jamaican brand named WATA from the wellspring of the Mahfoods. Here is a product with no special claim of natural or mineral springs but just distilled NWC water that is now as Jamaican as Red Stripe and D&G soft drinks.

- GRACE is not just a brand name of great Jamaican consumer products, but also a great corporate entity that straddles a range of goods and services. GRACE’s Jamaican profile is attributable to a succession of great leaders, but none more than the late Carlton Alexander, whose views were lubricated by Jamaican blood. Some of the criticisms of GRACE products are based on the fact that the company continues to import ready-made processed material, which it merely bottles, cans, or packages to give it paternity with a ‘GRACE’ label – unlike our next indigenous brand name.

- Food and its by-products are one of our strengths as primary producers as evidenced by THE BEST DRESSED CHICKEN hatched by the Levy family. This company not only packages for retail, but is backward integrated to be the lifeblood of many in the Jamaican farming community who are the principal suppliers of the livestock that eventually become ‘Best Dressed’.

- Another indigenous brand whose footprint straddles all of Jamaica is LOTTO. As a people who like to take chances, this was a natural fit for our society. Like so many successful brands, its success has attracted big foreign investors and could very soon lose its Jamaican parentage and flavour. You can’t keep a good man down.

- Long before the rise of the local stock market, other Jamaican brands became hybrids by opening up to investors who have taken the products global.

Think of Red Stripe, Tia Maria, Appleton, and Caribbean Cement.

Our major finance houses are Jamaican in geography only. NCB, which was the progeny of Barclays, has now become an international brand, headquartered in Barbados. Life of Jamaica – a child of North American Life – was gobbled up by Sagicor – an American company. The latter is in the process of changing paternity, with the major player being Alignvest of Canada.

THINK GLOBAL

Since Independence, we have produced entertainment and sporting giants that have dominated the world stage and flown the Brand Jamaica flag around the world. It is easy to ask why our indigenous products, except SANDALS, have not been able to make that quantum leap on the world stage.

Our small population base does not encourage many of us to think global in creating new products and services. This has made us complacent with money “jingling in our pockets”.

This begs the question as to why in the digital era we cannot think globally and follow in the footsteps of living legends like Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google), Jerry Young and David Filo (Yahoo), and Daniel Er and Martin Lorentzo (Spotify).

All the names mentioned moved from just pocket money to real wealth that whispers above the crowd – using a digital platform as their base.

The digital arena does not require brawn or big, expensive money for a Jamaican brand to become global, but we give no real incentives to our own people who want to create “outside the box” – using their minds instead of borrowed capital.

Until we get serious and “water that garden”, “5-in-4” will remain a pipedream on somebody’s ambitious bucket list.

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