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Stabroek News

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW: LASCELLES CHIN - Brand domination at its best
published: Monday | May 22, 2006

Barbara Ellington, Lifestyle Editor


Chin: 'I don't plan to retire. I will die on the job; if the mind is not used, it deteriorates. - WINSTON SILL/FREELANCE PHOTOGRAPHER

LIKE MANY before him, Lascelles Chin, the force behind the popular Lasco brand, is a third-generation Chinese Jamaican who through hard work, frugal living and a vision to grow, carved for himself a place in the echelons of big business in Jamaica.

In his words, the 45 years that have culminated in phenomenal success did not happen by chance. There have been many trials, some failures, sleepless nights and dogged perseverance.

Mr. Chin began in 1961 with an initial investment of £175 . His first business was National Trading Company, but he also operated Kingston Heirlooms Ltd., Datrex Ltd., Triple A Car Rentals, Zenith Insurance Brokers, Soft Sheen and Exotic Farms Limited. Then in 1986 Versatile Packing Ltd. was incorporated and the name later changed to Lasco Foods Ltd. in 1992. Lasco Distributors Limited began in 1988 and Lasco Foods Successors Limited set sail in 2004.

The companies currently in the portfolio are: LASCO Distributors, LASCO Foods, LASCO Foods (Successors), LASCO Properties, LASCO Financial Services, LASCO Barbados, Zenith Insurance Brokers and Summit Development.

Mr. Chin has received several national and business awards including Champion Exporter of the Year, Ernst & Young Caribbean Entrepreneurship Award, the Order of Jamaica and the Order of Distinction in the rank of Commander Class for outstanding service to industry and commerce. He has also held several past and present positions on boards.

The accomplished businessman, who told The Gleaner's Lifestyle Editor Barbara Ellington, that he still feels excited about business 45 years later, shared his journey to the top, challenges of the business and his plans for the future.

Barbara Ellington: Take us back to the early days, how did you start out in business?

Lascelles Chin: My grandmother had a grocery shop in Knollis, Bog Walk, and later in Balaclava, St. Elizabeth. We moved to Kingston and I went to Wolmer's Boys' School in 1953. After graduation I worked as a lab technician before taking up a job as a salesman. My boss was so impressed he encouraged me to stay. Those days I walked from the railway station downtown to Spanish Town Road, before getting my first car which was a Vauxhall. I had saved over £100. From my £7 10 shillings a week I started National Trading Company with savings of £175.

I sold black pepper and peas on commission and dealt honestly with the customers. I did business from a briefcase, then half of a house. When a Henkel representative came to Jamaica, he recommended me to become a distributor of their products and I entered into a 50-50 partnership with them. We grew to become the largest sellers per capita in the world of adhesives. The hardware stores were a hard sell but we targeted furniture manufacturers and the demand for Patex grew.

Henkel flourished, we had good staff at the factory. It was during the '70s when everyone was leaving, but I just could not leave my country in the mass migration; instead, I expanded the warehouse. People thought I was crazy, but I never wasted money. Those days I did the leg work during the day and paperwork at night. I started at Orange Street, moved to East Street, then finally to Red Hills Road. Foreign exchange was extremely difficult to come by in the '70s but we persevered. Then in 1988, LASCO Distributors was born.

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BE: Did you think it would grow this big?

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LC: Yes and no. We began with three items and we stressed best value for money; we used the tag line: 'Lasco Makes Living Affordable' and we have now grown to over 100 items, usually in three varying sizes. In our pharmaceuticals we have many more under the LASMED brand name. We now have seven strategic business managers who are guiding the growth. We have upgraded our computer systems and will spend $200 million on our information technology system that will be completed next year.

At our other branch in White Marl, St. Catherine, we are putting up a three-storey building which will house our IT system and additional warehouse space.

BE: How much bigger do you expect to grow?

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LC: We are starting a different phase now; we can put in many more products, especially in the pharmaceutical line. Once you start business and have a good name, your business will grow and that is the case for LASCO.

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BE: How much of what you distribute do you source locally, as against regionally and internationally?

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LC: We buy 50 per cent locally, about 15 per cent from CARICOM countries and the rest from finished products internationally.

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BE: How about continuity in the business, do family members work with you?

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LC: My eldest daughter works in a managerial capacity.

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BE: What are some of the challenges that you've encountered along the way?

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LC: In the early days, I wanted a line of credit of £1,000, and the banks would not give it to me. They thought me crazy but I eventually got it from Scotiabank. When I was at East Street I had problems with pilferage. I lost money in the furniture company. Not all of my businesses have been successful, but I learn from my mistakes.

The food business is competitive but I try to remain cooperative with the consumers.

BE: How then do you manage to remain so competitive?

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LC: I source well and I am not greedy for a big profit margin; I give customers value for money, go for the volume and think about the poorest people in the society. That is how we keep prices at one tenth, one fifth or even half of others.

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BE: What are some of the high points of your business?

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LC: We felt very excited when we introduced food items, the LASMED line and the HIV medication. We have made donations to Government and to mothers and in return we have earned customer loyalty. There is no envy on my part; I am just fortunate to have a business that benefits Jamaica and Jamaicans.

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BE: With the increase in crime and violence, businesses have had to add security costs as a line item on their annual budgets. What is your experience in that regard?

LC: Those costs are high for us because we are in two troubled areas. But, we work with the communities, establish good relationships and avoid going home late. We are not obsessive about it, but we are lucky that we are not in the retail business. If we did not have crime, Jamaica would be a much more successful place; we have a good name in the world in many respects but we could do much better.

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BE: What do you think is the answer to our crime problem?

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LC: Jamaicans are aggressive for better or worse; we need to fix the police force and fix the judiciary.

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BE: What about staff? How do you find them?

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LC: The entire team is very good and dedicated. We have a family relationship and we treat them well, so they are usually willing to go beyond the call of duty. Our growth rate is fast so it's been exciting for many of them to work here; they are among Jamaica's best workers. We plan to take the company public next year so they can participate in that.

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BE: You instituted annual awards for teachers, nurses, the police and pharmacies. Why did you do that?

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LC: I feel that if a company is making a profit, its owners must give back. The awards were not done out of self-interest but at the start it was out of a recognition that we have some of the highest quality, most dedicated teachers ever.

Our nurses are not fully appreciated and the police are our protectors. They get a bad rap but don't always deserve it, so they are demotivated and frustrated. Some were skeptical at first, but they now love it. We spend millions on awards, but I enjoy it and I love people and feel happy to see them doing well.

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BE: What has been your biggest surprise?

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LC: LASCO food drink. We wanted a drink that was different from the rest and it has taken off and become one of our biggest products that continues to increase in sales years later. We became the first company in the Caribbean to receive an award from the United States Soy Bean Association for it. But the furniture company and the data processing company were the disappointing ones.

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BE: If you could change anything about the company, what would it be?

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LS: I am a practical person and I've learnt to adapt to situations, cut my losses and move on, but there is not much I would change. Failure in business is an opportunity to learn.

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BE: How did you weather the turbulent '90s financial sector meltdown?

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LC: We did not have a problem because we did not have to borrow much money; we do not waste money but kept them in the company. In fact, we had surplus funds that we managed prudently.

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BE: Is there anything else you would like to achieve, and is retirement on the cards?

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LC: I would like LASCO to keep on the growth path and double our size in five years. I don't plan to retire; I will die on the job. The mind deteriorates if you don't use it. I will continue to do some gardening in my spare time. I plan to continue with my early-morning routine and work till I'm tired.

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BE: If you were to give advice to an aspiring entrepreneur or business student, what would that be?

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LC: First, improve your overall knowledge base; ambition and enthusiasm are not enough. Learn about what you intend to do because the more you know, the less your chances of failure.

Second, never spend more than what you can earn from the business in the first six months.

Then, work hard and realise that sacrifices are a must; the hours are long but worth it. Statistics show that 80 per cent of new businesses fail. Don't spend other people's money like it's yours and keep your overheads low. Competition is rife but small entrepreneurs are the ones who drive the economy. Start small - that is why higglers are to be admired for pursuing this model.

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BE: What is your wish for Jamaica?

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LC: I wish to see crime decrease drastically and people have more choices for jobs. The more businesses we have, the more jobs will be created. I want to see Jamaica as a happy place.

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