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Peter the 'Obeah Man' leaves ‘the bush’ - McConnell to quit Worthy Park after five ‘rewarding’ decades

Published:Sunday | December 27, 2015 | 12:00 AMChristopher Serju
Peter D. McConnell, chairman and managing director of Worthy Park Estate, speaking about his more than 50 years in the family-owned business.
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In the 52 years he has worked at Worthy Park Estates, the company has made profits for 51 of them, and now that he's stepping down at the end of the year, Chairman and Managing Director Peter D. McConnell is confident the family-owned business is in good hands, even though he has mixed feelings about the future of sugar.

"Sure, nobody is indispensable," he responded in a flash when asked if Worthy Park could survive his departure.

"We have very capable people. Robert, my cousin, is taking over from me and he runs the factory side, and young Gordon Clarke, he's in charge of the distillery. He's gonna become the co-managing director and we just employed Paul Henriques as our chief financial officer, and we have Andrew Hopwood and he's excellent.

"He will do the running of the farm side - so we have a good nucleus of very bright, talented people and I am sure they'll be all right. We are going to go through a little rough period here now but we have been through it before and you just have to draw in you belt, cut your cost and hold strain until things improve," said McConnell, without missing a beat.

"I'm 75. I think it's time to move out and give the youngsters a chance. I've worked hard all my life and I feel like I want to take a break. I'm moving on."

 

Educated in England

 

Fiercely nationalistic, McConnell chose to return to Jamaica after being educated in England and is looking forward to retirement - spending more time with wife Mary Joan (nee Desnoes), their three daughters and 10 grandchildren.

"I never even thought about migrating in the '70s," he confided. "Basically it was, 'Who was going to run the place if everybody packed up and left?' Somebody had to stay and keep the ship together.

"We lost a few top people, and I still think that the Michael Manley regime was the start of the demise of the sugar industry. We had excellent what I would call planters, people who knew how to grow cane, and all of them packed up and left and it really hurt me to the core," added McConnell.

"Although I despair a bit about the future, I think that there are opportunities for us. Sugar is really my life and I'd really like to see the country go back to the days when we produced 500,000 tonnes of sugar, but that's not going to happen."

Widely respected for his business acumen but feared in some quarters for his outspoken views, McConnell has worked hard all his life, leading by example, with a management team he believes has been critical to the success of Worthy Park over the years.

"You are like an open book and people can walk in and they walk out and come up and chat. They don't have to make an appointment or knock on a door - I'm open to talk to one and all. I'm a great believer in listening to the people," he disclosed.

As he prepares to walk away from the top job at Worthy Park Estates, McConnell explained that though he has enjoyed a life of privilege, to some extent, he has earned his keep.

When his grandfather Fred Clarke bought the property in 1918, the three sons Clement, Owen and George took control and ran the business.

Even with three uncles in charge, young McConnell did not look to the family business after completing high school education at first DeCarteret College and Munro College, then dropping out of college abroad.

"I went away to England to school and then I went to McDonald College of McGill University and I flunked out in the first year and decided to come back home and go to work.

"And I was able to get a job at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce at King Street, and my first job was a teller. I worked in that job for about six months and then they transferred me to Half-Way Tree branch and I became the first drive-in teller in Jamaica. It was the first bank that opened up a drive through, and shortly after that I was promoted to assistant accountant," he recalled.

 

Offer he could not refuse

 

The youngster was then earning the fat salary of seven pounds sterling a week when one of his uncles made an offer he could not refuse - 10 pounds a week plus a house.

"So I took the opportunity and decided to come and live in the bush, and I've now been here for 53 crops, 52 years but 53 actual harvests. And when I started at Worthy Park I started at the very bottom. I used to weigh cane, then I was promoted to assistant accountant in the office, thereafter one of other uncles said, why you don't come and work with me in the farm side?"

A keen sportsman and someone who still really enjoys the outdoor life, the youngster gladly went to work on the farm. From there, he rose up the ladder to become a director of the company, then managing director and eventually, chairman.

"I can only tell you, it's been very rewarding," he said in summing up the more than five decades 'in the bush'.

christopher.serju@gleanerjm.com