Wed | Aug 16, 2017

Peter McConnell reflects on a lifetime in sugar

Published:Sunday | January 10, 2016 | 1:00 AMChristopher Serju
Peter D. McConnell, outgoing chairman and managing director of Worthy Park Estate, speaks about his more than 50 years in the family-owned business at the property in Lluidas Vale, St Catherine.
A worker beside a truck laden with cane at the Worthy Park Estate in Lluidas Vale, St Catherine.
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His more than 50 years spent in the industry has given the outgoing chairman and managing director of Worthy Park Estate an insight into sugar production operations that few can match.

"When I started in 1963, there were 19 sugar factories operating. Five of them were owned by multinationals, and the other 14 were family-owned, privately owned estates. Now there are only five factories left, none of them family-owned, except for Worthy Park. We are the only ones that have survived, and the other four that remain are all in big trouble," Peter D. McConnell shared with The Gleaner recently, providing some context in terms of how things have changed.

But the St Catherine sugar factory, which has also diversified its operations to cash in on the lucrative rum market, has also been hard hit by a combination of socio-economic factors, as well as global issues beyond its control.

"It's not an easy business. We've been in it for 10 years and haven't made a profit yet, but we are gaining market share and climbing up the ladder. We were doing really well up to three years ago, had about 18 per cent of the white rum market, and then the Government put on a tax of 260 per cent and our sales dropped in half," McConnell recalled, pointing out that Worthy Park has no thought of giving up.

 

BUILDING BACK

 

"So we just kinda building back to where we were then, but it's been a long haul and cost a lot of money. Luckily, we've been making good profits in the sugar side and that has been able to subsidise the rum side, and I hope in a few years' time it's going to be the reverse. That is the plan but it takes time and it is a very competitive business today, very competitive," he said.

And that day can't come soon enough, given that the good price Jamaica has been enjoying for sugar on the international market is coming to an end soon.

"We looking at this coming crop of a drop of ... we not even sure yet but somewhere like 30-32 per cent of our price of sugar. Some estates, Frome and Appleton, usually start in December, and with the drought now nobody seems to have a lot of cane so it may be cut down back to January. It's gonna be very difficult, not only for the estates but for cane farmers because nobody makes enough profit to take that kind of drop of 30 per cent on their business or farming activity. So I think it's going to have a very negative effect on the industry, and on top of that you have this devastating drought," he lamented.

"At Worthy Park, we normally get 60 inches of rain per year, that's our 100-year average, and so far this year I think we have had 17 and a half; it's the worst drought in the history of Worthy Park. The worst one I knew before we had 29 inches and our yields are going to drop and so is the price, so it's not good - a double whammy."

Efficiency has been the hallmark of Worthy Park's operations, and which has kept it ahead of the field in terms of conversion of cane tonnage to sugar, as well as energy costs. Its average rate of about eight tonnes of cane to one tonne of sugar (TCTS) is well ahead of the industry standard, with some estates having a TCTS ratio in excess of 14-1.

 

ENERGY COGENERATION

 

It all starts with energy cogeneration, which has long been a major component of operations there, where for many years a steam-driven turbo-alternator, powered by bagasse (cane trash) has been used to generate electricity on the property.

McConnell explained further: "The bagasse that just goes to waste normally, we burn it in the furnace and push the steam back through the turbo-alternator, and we don't have any JPS (the Jamaica Public Service Company) at the factory at all - we have our own power. During crop, we are running on the turbo-alternator and we don't burn any oil, just straight running off the bagasse, and we have done it for years. Why other people haven't been doing it, don't ask me."

Even for the houses on the property Worthy Park has not gone to the national grid for electricity. Instead, out of crop when the turbo-alternator is not in use, it depends entirely on diesel-powered generators.

"That's what provides the electricity for the whole of Worthy Park. We have about three of them as standby, just in case one breaks down, and I couldn't tell when last we have had an unscheduled power outage. It's just suppen that hardly ever happens. We have scheduled outages because we are cleaning the lines or whatever, but just a normal power cut where the line just gone, I can't even remember when," boasted the outgoing managing director.

He went on to explain that factory efficiency over the years has been pegged to a consistent programme of preventive maintenance.

"We do a lot of that, particularly in the out of crop, when the factory is basically pulled down and rebuilt and get ready for the next crop. And if you look at what they call downtime, during the crop, our downtime is between three and four per cent. Most factories are lucky if they operate 70 per cent of available grinding time because of equipment breakdown."

This commitment to excellence has drawn the attention of the Sugar Industry Research Institute, which has leaned heavily on Worthy Park for running cane variety trials, for what McConnell calls a "simple reason".

"We tend to be overloaded by the department for running experiments, for the simple reason that when anybody else does it on the other estates - whether they allow cattle to eat it down, or goats to eat it down, or fire to burn it down - they don't end up getting the results that they are looking for. And as a result of that they beg us to do more and more experiments.

"We must have three or four variety trials where we have maybe 40 or 50 varieties on trial at any one time in four different experiments and so they rely on us a lot to get the results because we are more reliable than the others in producing genuine results. So we get a lot of that and its very burdensome, but in the long run somebody has to do it for the industry's sake."

However, McConnell's commitment to the country extends well beyond the boundaries or concerns of Worthy Park Estate, and includes a four-year stint in the Senate, a call to service triggered in large part by the politics of former Prime Minister Michael Manley.

 

MICHAEL MANLEY REGIME

 

He explained: "I got involved in the politics in the '70s because of what Michael Manley was doing to the country. In my opinion, he was ruining it, and I got involved. It started with Hugh Shearer, then I worked for Eddie Seaga then for Bruce Golding, mainly on the financial side, raising funds for them, and that was very rewarding, and I did it because I felt that I wanted to give back."

Continuing, he had this to say: "I still think that the Michael Manley regime was the start of the demise of the sugar industry because we had 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. And what brought it home more, I was in Miami about two months ago and a friend of mine invited me to play golf with him. They have a Jamaican contingent that plays golf every Saturday at a different course somewhere in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area, and I went and played with them and there were 22, all Jamaicans. Everyone of them very successful, and I said to myself, that is what Michael Manley caused. They should have been in Jamaica being successful, not building America but building Jamaica. And if all those people had stayed here this would have been a different country today."

For his service to country, Jamaica recognised this son of the soil with the national honour of Commander of the Order of Distinction (CD) some time around 1980, but he "can't remember which year".

As he prepares to slow the work pace, McConnell will still find time to spend with the people he has served for more than 50 years, having been a justice of the peace since 1963, and will have many opportunities to continuing hearing their many stories and sharing jokes with them.

christopher.serju@gleanerjm.com