Kevin O'Brien Chang: the businessman who writes
Barbara Ellington, Lifestyle Editor
Kevin O'Brien Chang, a Kingstonian by birth, grew up in the cool climes of Christiana, Manchester. He attended Campion College and DeCarteret College before migrating with his family to Canada in 1974.
In preparation for his future in business, Chang received a bachelor of science degree in statistics and an MBA in finance and marketing from the University of Toronto. But a permanent life in Canada was not for him as he returned home in 1989 to become managing director of Fontana Pharmacy, the family-owned business founded by his parents, Bobby and Angela Chang, in 1968.
Today, there are branches of Fontana Pharmacy in Montego Bay and Savanna-la-Mar managed by his sister, Anne Chang, and her husband, Ray Therrien. But the writing bug bit Chang, and in 1998 he completed Reggae Routes: the Story of Jamaican Music, with Wayne Chen. Next came Jamaica Fi Real: Beauty, Vibes, and Culture, by the same publisher. Chang also writes a column for this newspaper.
This affable Mandeville businessman credits his mother, who made sure his early childhood was filled with books, for his love for writing. The first book was the result of a look at an American book about rock and soul music, and it was done to fill the gap for such a volume in Jamaica written by Jamaicans.
"There was a vacuum for such a book in the market, so we decided to fill it. We wrote to Ian Randle Publishers and he agreed to publish it. It took us five years because of our business commitments, and it has done well," Chang told Outlook in a recent interview.
So what about a second volume of Reggae Routes? Chang revealed that he is currently working on such a book but job obligations have to be met. The first book took events up to 1998 and the second volume would chronicle what has transpired in the industry up to 2011. "I would look at people like Vybes Kartel, Mavado and Beenie Man. Jamaican music is always evolving by picking up the earliest themes in Jamaica. Dancehall has been the music of the rebel/cowboy/gun man but it is suddenly evolving with Beenie Man, who is still the biggest star now portraying himself as a family man ... the Davis family."
Chang further said performers like Mavado and Bounty Killer are now performing as under their birth names, almost like they are leaving the 'bad man' persona behind. Our dark side has always been the vibe in the music, but globalisation of Jamaica is forcing the shift. We have a wonderful country, but the violence is like a dark shadow hanging over us that we haven't escaped. Chang, therefore, thinks the shift in theme is positive and worth preserving.
His second book explains 21st-century Jamaica, its contradictions, unusual people and culture, the proliferation of churches, bars, juxtaposed with our high murder rate; our violent nature and stable democracy, hardships and happiness, and more. Chang said there was no other book that explained Jamaica and Jamaicans and although his may not be the answer, it's a start.
Chang is proud of the emergence of his parish as a university town and his family business Fontana Pharmacy that has a large branch there. He thinks the capital has a lot going for it in spite of its reputation as the place for the newly-wed and the nearly dead.
His family is large and with six sisters, he said his mother decided that it was best to temporarily migrate to Canada in the '70s to make it easier to afford them tertiary education. "Education was first for her," he asserted. Two of his siblings and his parents are back.
Fontana Pharmacy started in 1968 and Chang considers them very fortunate to have had the most competent and excellent staff to run things during their years overseas.
He has seen the business landscape in Mandeville change over the years, but with the downturn in bauxite and other industries, schools have been affected, as well as other sectors of the economy. Chang said Fontana has managed to expand inventory and stay afloat, in spite of the national gloomy outlook, because of the excellent management capability of the staff. They try not to lay off personnel, so when one branch is closed, they retained all the longest-serving staff. If the bauxite industry still remains doubtful, he thinks the obvious next prosperous alternative for the town in to set its sights on being the 'Oxford of Jamaica'.
"We have many returned residents with huge houses with empty rooms, we have many tertiary institutions, it's a growing college/university town, so why not link them together? Mandeville is not only a great place to retire, it's also a great place to study," he opined. But the bigger picture is that an economic recovery for Jamaica is largely dependent on what happens in the United States of America. "We depend on them for tourists, for our exports and remittances. The three pillars of our economy: bauxite, tourism and remittances are very dependent on America for survival and when all three go down, a government can do so much and no more."
However, it's not all gloomy as he has seen a better quality of applicants for jobs as far as qualifications go. Whereas over 20 years ago when one or two CXCs was what the female applicants presented, now they have five or more. He sees Jamaica having not just an overall education but a male education problem. The girls are getting ahead and leaving the boys behind. He also sees us having a language problem where people are handicapped by their inability to speak and express themselves properly.
That is why if Chang were prime minister, he would insist on elocution lessons to make everyone better able to express themselves and for more active fathers. He wholeheartedly endorses the recent move to have fathers' names on birth certificates. "If boys could speak more confidently and have active fathers in their lives, it would give them a big boost in their self-esteem." He uses the confidence of sports stars Jerome Taylor, Asafa Powell and Usain Bolt who all have active fathers in their lives, as reasons for supporting the move to have fathers' names on the birth certificates of their children.
He is, however, disappointed that in spite of writing about it there has been no response of support from women in the society for the move.
Future of Fontana
If the circumstances are right and opportunities present themselves, Fontana will expand. He is used to the reality of a being part of a family-run business; he thinks it's a good idea to sustain such businesses as they provide stability. But Chang does not see himself as a born businessman, and he says he'd be writing full time or working as a university professor if he were not in this position.
The biggest challenge to business in Jamaica is getting good reliable staff, particularly for a business that's built around service. He considers himself blessed to be in such a pleasant environment where he can both work and enjoy the luxury of an excellent team around him.
So, does anything annoy this seemingly cool businessman turned author? He revealed that the one thing he hates the most is to be referred to as a 'minority', because his mother taught him no one was better than the other and in his eyes, he is just a Jamaican. To that end, he wishes for a Jamaica where everyone can grow safely, get a decent education, and parents do not have to feel they have to ship their children abroad. "The rest will fall into place; Jamaica is small but a wonderful country, famous for its culture and the pride we have in being Jamaicans, but we have a far way to go. Why is it that we are so small, but everyone wants to be like us, copy us and even be us?"
Mandeville's biggest and immediate need is a public park for the entire family's enjoyment said Chang, who would like to be remembered as someone who tried to tell the truth as he saw it.