By McPherse Thompson, Contributor
Robert Levy, president and chief executive officer of the Jamaica Broilers Group. - Contributed
ROBERT Levy, president and chief executive officer of the Jamaica Broilers Group, was only 17 years old and a high school drop-out when he joined the chicken-rearing business his father helped to establish during the late 1950s.
Back then, according to him, it was a challenge to get Jamaicans to accept that the "white fowl" meat Jamaica Broilers sought to introduce in the local market could be as appetising as their own "brown" or "peel neck" fowls, which were domesticated in most backyards.
By the 1970s, Mr. Levy had cemented his foothold in the rising conglomerate, having been propelled to the managerial ranks of the firm that by then had become a household name, partly made popular by its then well-known advertising slogan "Best Dressed Chicken in Town". Added to that he could be characterised as having all the trappings of the "ideal" family - a new house at the Constant Spring Golf Club in the posh suburbs of St. Andrew, two lovely motor cars, a wife and two children - every physical thing, he said, that a 30-year-old man could ever desire.
However, he recognised there was still a void in his life, discernible in the fact that "I found I was still so angry and arrogant," he said. "In one of my spurts of anger I told my father I was going to leave Jamaica Broilers, and for the first time I faced a situation of not knowing what my future would be." But the young Levy eventually took a decision that would change the rest of his life - a phoenix as it were, who was to emerge as one of Jamaica's most consummate businessmen.
PRINCIPLES OF CHRISTIANITY
In an interview with the Financial Gleaner earlier this week at his McCooks Pen, St. Catherine office, Mr. Levy said it was his eventual commitment to the principles of Christianity, having prayed for peace of mind and then "accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as my Saviour" that transformed his total life, and led to him being placed among the ranks of those officially recognised by the State earlier this week for their contribution to national development. Governor-General Sir Howard Cooke conferred Mr. Levy with the Order of Distinction in the rank of Commander (CD) for his role in the development of the livestock industry.
With his transformation during the early 1970s, Mr. Levy said, he was also catapulted from a high school drop-out into a graduate of Harvard Business School, one of the Ivy League universities in the United States. In addition, "my relationship with my father changed totally," and "my love for my wife and children grew in proportions that I never knew possible." In fact, with Christianity becoming a central part of his daily routine, Mr. Levy has credited all his achievements to "what the Lord Jesus has done in my life."
This committed Christian, yet shrewd businessman has nevertheless been forced to lead the charge in making unpopular decisions such as the dismissal of all 440 employees at Jamaica Broilers' plant in Spring Village, St. Catherine four years ago in order to save the company from going under. "So often we think of Christian businessmen as being soft and not having to face hard challenges," he said of the decision. "I certainly have had to face some of the most hard and challenging decisions in my Christian faith and being a businessman."
Mr. Levy's relationship with Jamaica Broilers started at its inception in the 1950s when his father, who was then importing poultry from the United States, decided to partner with his American exporting counterpart and his biggest local customer, Byron Coombs who used to operate a cold storage, to set up a business to grow chickens in Jamaica.
He recalled that "at that time, I was a 17-year-old drop-out of school, not even taking senior Cambridge or any examinations." Mr. Levy said the first person employed to help them set up the company was Andrew Wildish, who was later to become chairman of the company, and whom he joined in 1957.
In the early stages, the company, which operated out of 15 Hope Road, St. Andrew, concentrated on importing baby chicks and "bag feed" from the United States. "We struggled at first to get anybody as contract farmer to grow the chickens for us," he said. At that time also, most of the chickens being eaten in Jamaica were "brown fowl" and "people said there's no way these white fowl can taste like them good peel neck chicken."
To get past that negative response and the overall attitude of Jamaicans towards the "white fowl", the company organised "all you can eat bebbeques" on Friday nights at its Hope Road plant, and hence people became more and more convinced that "these white fowls really tasted tender and good, compared with the Jamaican peel neck and brown fowl." Mr. Levy explained that the "peel neck", which used to attract higher prices than the brown fowls, were so called because they had no feathers on the head and neck.
Over the years, Jamaica Broilers has grown from a small poultry operation to become the leading producers of animal feed, poultry and beef products in the Caribbean, serving all major international chains that market burgers in Jamaica. Jamaica Broilers has also ventured into the production of farm-raised fish, to which they are committed to developing as a new industry in the island.
Mr. Levy explained that during the past two years, the company has undergone a major reorganisation, the most significant being the relocation of its head office from Hope Road - which has been home to the Best Dressed Chicken for almost 50 years - to McCooks Pen.
"This brought significant efficiencies and management capabilities by moving into the very centre of our operations," said the president and chief executive officer.
According to Mr. Levy, "last year, our profits were a record high for us with hopes that we were going to better that this year." However, the company has been faced with two major challenges - losses incurred as a result of three weeks of heavy rain in May and June, and again for about two weeks during late September to early October, and significant increases in grain prices during the past few months.
"Very few people realise the impact" those increases "are having and will continue to have on food prices," he said. According to Mr. Levy, over the past few months, the prices of corn and soya have increased up to a peak of more than 40 per cent above prices that have been in the market for the past two years. The rise in grain prices "have increased our costs significantly and we obviously struggle with the increases that have to come through to the selling price of our product," he said.
His deep-seated commitment to the Christian faith has also been evident in the running of the business as, according to him, his executives and himself would invoke the power of "an active God" and look "to him to give us the direction through these challenging times."
Asked about the company's controversial decision to dismiss the entire workforce at the Spring Village plant four years ago, Mr. Levy summed it up this way: "Any company that is 40 to 50 years old has to go through traumatic changes. Jamaica Broilers is one of those that faced the changes that had to come, in what has been a build-up of uncompetitive labour costs and inefficiencies in our largest labour area, being our processing plant. We realise that no small fixes were going to bring the necessary changes. We decided our only future was to change our total relationship and move from a hourly paid work situation to contractual, performance-based employment.
"The unions in Jamaica were certainly not ready for these changes and so it did bring about a complete breakdown which we had to face, go through and is now behind us," he said.
He said it was important to mention "that we also face another challenge in our farming community, where more than 50 per cent of our farmers are over 60 years-old. Many, of course, are not willing to make the type of investments which are absolutely necessary for new growing techniques, forced upon us by the changes in the breed type of the chickens now being reared across the world. This is going to be a future challenge as we try and address what must come in the development of tunnel-ventilated or environmentally-controlled houses for the growing of poultry."
Jamaica Broilers currently operates two overseas operations, one of them International Poultry Breeders in South Georgia, which undertakes production of fertile hatching eggs. That facility supplies about 50 per cent of Jamaica Broilers' needs for hatching eggs, while the remaining 50 per cent is produced in St. Ann here in Jamaica. "This facility also markets to others areas of the Caribbean and to other customers in Jamaica," Mr. Levy said.
The other overseas operation is an office in Miami, Florida, called Wincorp International Inc., which sources and ships mainly poultry-related business to Jamaica Broilers and other poultry operations throughout the Caribbean and Central America.
Mr. Levy, who was joint managing director with Dr. David Wildish from 1996 and became president and chief executive officer of the company in 1999, said that when he received the national award this week, he wondered whether his father, Sydney, had thought that the company would have gained such recognition. Noting that Mr. Wildish was the first company official to receive a national award, Mr. Levy said he really received the award on behalf of the Jamaica Broilers family and "specifically the tremendous team of executives that I am fortunate to have. We work as a close team and decisions are really made by us together."