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Hanging on to hope - MoBay businesses racked by pandemic anticipate 2021 turnaround

MoBay businesses racked by pandemic anticipate 2021 turnaround

Published:Tuesday | January 5, 2021 | 12:12 AMMark Titus/Senior Staff Reporter
The Ironshore-based Whitter Village in Montego Bay, St James.
The Ironshore-based Whitter Village in Montego Bay, St James.
In this Gleaner file photo, a store clerk assists two customers in selecting a dress at the Lloyd’s Department Store in Fairview, Montego Bay. Although experiencing a dramatic decline in sales, Lloyd’s has been able to retain all staff, without cutting
In this Gleaner file photo, a store clerk assists two customers in selecting a dress at the Lloyd’s Department Store in Fairview, Montego Bay. Although experiencing a dramatic decline in sales, Lloyd’s has been able to retain all staff, without cutting salaries, at its Fairview and St James Street locations in the Second City.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which held the local economy in its stranglehold for much of last year still raging on, a number of business operators in Montego Bay, St James, are looking forward to 2021 with renewed hope and confidence.

Businesswoman Denisher Forbes is hoping that her lending firm will be poised for a more profitable performance this year.

According to Forbes, the managing director of E-Loan Micro Financing Limited, her company closed in 2019 with approximately $40 million in loans, mainly to clients in the hospitality industry, which represents about 75 per cent of her customer base.

The pandemic had virtually crippled the travel and leisure sector for a significant part of last year, a heavy hit to the close to 300,000 direct and indirect employees in the local tourism sector, many of whom were put out of work.

Expansion plans

Forbes is expecting a doubling of her 2020 bottom line, and plans to expand the company’s services to Trelawny are well advanced.

“We experienced exponential growth in 2019. ... Business was getting ready to take off,” Forbes told The Gleaner last week.

“I projected 2020 would be our best year, but COVID-19 shattered my dreams, and we are now struggling to stay afloat because the closure of the tourism sector saw most of our customers losing their jobs and cannot repay their loans. Now our working capital is almost eradicated because it’s tied up in the hotel sector,” Forbes continued. “In fact, the last cheque we got from one of our main hotels was less than $20,000 about a month and a half ago.”

Jamaica’s first confirmed case of the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, was in March 2020, but by then, E-Loan had already loaned some $20 million to hotel workers, Forbes claims.

“We have spent $11 million to maintain our business – $1.1 million per month – and we have only collected about $500,000 between March and the end of November,” she said.

“I am not sure what we are going to do because money we used is now tied up, and the banks will not lend you money to lend, so we are in very bad shape right now, and I don’t know how long we will last in 2021 if we cannot penetrate a new market.”

The company has kept its five employees on the books and is now looking to establish a customer base in the outsourcing sector.

Angella Whitter, managing director of the Whitter Group of Companies that specialises in building and property management, remains confident that there will be a turnaround even as she hopes that doing business in Jamaica will become easier for locals.

Whitter said that she was far advanced with plans for a 30-acre housing development for the working class in Ironshore, Montego Bay, but is using the pandemic to get all the plans and approvals in place in readiness for an economic turnaround.

“This is to be the springboard for plans I have for approximately 130 acres of land that I want to put into housing in St James,” she revealed. “I also have another 200 acres in St Margaret’s Bay, Portland, and we were in discussions with the National Housing Trust regarding their buy-back programme and working with an architect and a planner to come out with something that would cost about $15 million, or thereabout.”

“We have gone through times like this before, so those who have been around long enough know that we always bounce back because we are resilient people, so COVID is not going to stop the flow, but this is now a perfect time for us to refocus and prepare for the reopening of the economy,” she said.

“A lot of millions” was her response when quizzed on the group’s cost to operate in 2020 but proudly reported retaining all 52 workers.

The group is now focused on maximising the potential of its flagship operation, Whitter Village, but the managing director is eyeing a shift to attract more local consumers at the 92-shop facility.

For 2021, Whitter is hoping that the Government can establish a level playing field so that local and foreign investors can have equal opportunities.

“We practically have to beg,” she said. “It cost billions of dollars to build Whitter Village, and all the Jamaicans that are going out there to build Jamaica need to feel happy, too. It’s not just the foreigners, and it needs to stop,” she told The Gleaner.

‘In MoBay, when tourism is down, everything is down’

Lloyd’s Department Store Managing Director Anthony Pearson believes that the family-owned 55-year-old operation is still the market leader in the region.

“The problem we have here in the west is that we are dependent on the tourism dollar. [We don’t have many options] to buffer things like in Kingston, where the effects are not as bad,” Pearson said. “Here, when tourism is down, everything is down, even though we don’t directly depend on the sector.”

He said that with 2019 being “a fairly good year”, the store was hoping for a phenomenal 2020, “which, obviously, did not happen, but was a major loss.

“Yet the wisdom it has taught us is that we can actually survive off less, and we have been forced to become very creative and proactive,” added Pearson, who succeeded his late father, Lloyd, at the helm of the company.

Lloyd’s has managed to retain all its staff at its two Montego Bay locations without cutting salaries.

“We kept all 50 members of staff without any loss of income because the human side of things is very important to us, and we have some members of staff that have been here with us for 30 years. They have become somewhat family, and while I don’t think we will see any profit for 2020, we know it will come back,” he said. “It’s going to take a while, but we know it’s going to come back.”

Adding that the business was exploring an e-commerce option, Pearson is not expecting an uptick in activity until year end, with firms operating in survival mode for the first half of 2021.

The annual Build Expo and Conference is a top-rated trade show and exhibition on the calendar in western Jamaica.

Dwight Crawford, founder and chairman of the three-day event, is already planning for the next event.

“We were forced to call off the event in 2020, but interestingly, a lot more companies from overseas have advised us of their interest in participating when things turn around,” said Crawford, a building contractor with more than 20 years’ experience.

The Canadian High Commission has also made contact, indicating growing interest from companies in the North American country.

“We have had some good sponsorship. There were some people who really believe in the project and supported it, but Build Expo is still operating at a loss, but up to 2019, I was pleased that the main objective of the event was being met,” Crawford told The Gleaner. “It gave an opportunity to share knowledge and expose my Jamaican brothers and sisters to what real low-cost housing is all about.”

His dream for 2021 is to see Jamaicans exploring real low-cost housing solutions such as the use of 20-foot containers to build homes.

“I realise that the game for some of our industry leaders at maintaining their position at the lead of the industry is by keeping our people ignorant, but thanks to Build Expo, more Jamaicans are now looking at the tiny-home technology,” he said.