Thu | Apr 27, 2017

Roderick Francis - Inspired to succeed

Published:Tuesday | May 5, 2015 | 5:00 AM

Four years ago, Roderick Francis saw his father get shot and killed. It was a Saturday morning, about 10 o'clock, and Roderick, with his father, the well-known Roderick 'Bunny' Francis, and other family members had just walked out of their St Andrew home. Men who had earlier appeared to be attending to a broken-down vehicle, nearby, without warning revealed their true purpose on the roadway that morning by turning guns on the family and firing several shots.

The family scattered to save themselves. In the end, as the shooters made their retreat, Bunny Francis lay bleeding. He was shot in the back and losing blood fast. Frantic efforts on the part of the family and doctors at Andrews Memorial Hospital failed to keep Bunny Francis alive, and from that moment, his son Roderick, even in the depth of despair, knew what he needed to do.

"I felt his spirit and my grandfather's spirit telling me that I had to respond to this obstacle, as huge as it was, and pick up where my father left off," said Francis when he and I met up in downtown Kingston recently.

Bunny Francis was the owner of B and D Trawling Limited, a major exporter of conch and other fish products. The family business was, at the time of his death, thriving, and employed dozens of persons primarily from inner-city areas. The company also employed a number of physically disabled persons - people who could not find work elsewhere.

"We couldn't just shut the business down, even though the death of my dad was so devastating to all of us. Too many people depended on it, and everyone who knew my father knew that he would have found a way to overcome any challenge. I had to do the same," said Francis.

father was best friend

The 34-year-old Francis is soft-spoken and has a warm smile. He's quick to brush off personal praise, and even quicker to heap praise on others. Even though it's still hard for him to think about the day his father was murdered, he does, without hesitation, speak about the life his father lived. "My dad was my best friend. I watched him and the way he related to people, the way he handled difficult situations, and I was inspired by him. He was a lot more outgoing than I am, and people loved him because of the care he showed them. I hope to be half the man my father was," said Francis.

He attended St George's College before going abroad to attend Morehouse College where he studied business management. When he returned to Jamaica, in 2005, he started working with his father in the family business.

"During this time we became really close. Working side by side, we got to know each other in different ways. Yes, we were still father and son, but we were also co-workers and we became friends. I'll always be grateful for that time we spent working together," said Francis.

"My father was an old-school, hard-working man who used street smarts to build the business. He never went past high school, yet he bought his first car at 13 years old. I had the more formal education and I think that we complemented each other well."

grandfather overcame odds

Francis speaks proudly of his father and grandfather (also named Roderick) who, in different ways, defied expectations and managed to overcome tremendous odds. He said his grandfather, a marine pilot, was interested in horses but was barred from keeping animals at the whites-only stables. In response, the eldest Roderick Francis built his own stable. He was also a lover of boats but was muscled out of sharing the docks. So, he built his own dock.

"My grandfather showed us that you don't allow people or circumstances to stop you. If there's a challenge, you have to find a way around it. That was passed down to my father and to me and my siblings. You never give up. That's not an option," said Francis.

One of the many challenges he must have faced when he stepped in to run the company after his father, died, was being accepted by the people who worked loyally for his father for several years. Francis was only 31 years old at the time. He has a completely different personality from his father who the workers cared deeply for. How would he get them to accept him?

"There are two things. There's love, which was passed on to me because of the love the employees had for my father. Then there's respect. That, I had to earn over time by demonstrating that I could do the job," said Francis. "Another thing that helped was that my father, in his wisdom, had planned for succession. He was training me. Even though I was called up much earlier than anyone would have liked, the foundation was there."

He's also quick to point out that he had a lot of help.

"My uncle, Francis 'Paco' Kennedy was instrumental in helping to stabilise things at the time of my father's death. He stepped in and became the chairman of the company and held my hand, literally and figuratively, all the way. What he and his family did for me during those tough times, I would never be able to repay them for."

Kennedy recently passed away, and it was another blow for Francis. "He became like my second father so it was hard on me when he died, but what he taught me will stay with me forever."

I asked Francis if he ever regrets not packing up and leaving both the business and the country when his father was killed. "No," he said.

"I think that it's in my blood, coming from my father and my grandfather, to make a difference in the country. I want to help people and help Jamaica. If all the good people leave Jamaica what will be left? If all the light leaves, all that will be left is darkness."

I asked him what was one thing he learned about running a company only after he was forced to do it. "You have to have the best people around you. You have to have good team members who are motivated to help you and the business succeed. You can't do it alone," he said.

I asked him what he learned about himself after his father's death.

"I learned that I do have the strength to bear this burden, and I learned that I have the ability to lead. Just like my father, I have resilience and I can, with faith in God, overcome anything."

It's striking how positive Francis remains even when reflecting on the darkest times in his life. I asked him about this.

"A negative attitude really only affects the person who is being negative. It doesn't help. That, to me, is one of the essential pillars of being a man and being a leader. Hate consumes you from within and I refuse to let that happen to me," he said.

robert.lalah@gleanerjm.com