Gary Spaulding, Senior Gleaner Writer
GraceKennedy Limited quietly slipped into the lives of thousands of Jamaicans 90 years ago and by all accounts, its founders demonstrated a unique brand of tenacity to etch the company as a huge household name in Jamaica.
In doing so, GraceKennedy firmly staked its claim in the annals of great local companies, becoming the commercial giant that it is today.
Chairman of GraceKennedy, Douglas Orane told The Sunday Gleaner that the company has become an icon of change over nine decades, in conformity to shifting tastes and desires of selective Jamaicans.
Orane shared an anecdote when he was asked what made the company the fixture that it is. "As a young man in the company in the 1980s, Carlton Alexander impressed upon us that "whatever is good for Jamaica, we need to find a way to make it good for GraceKennedy as well. In other words whatever benefits Jamaica, we need to find a way to align this benefit in the interest of the company."
Added Orane: "It is what we had to do over the years and that is what we have done over the decades, and I believe that is what has kept us relevant. This philosophy has alerted us to what consumers want and to find a way to serve them, because we had to be keen listeners to what consumers and customers want and find a way to address these needs."
The downtown-based company with an unmistakable Jamaican flavour has remained profitable in the face of increasing competition over the years as Jamaica's commercial environment was transformed into a more open market.
Orane stressed that while GraceKennedy has been forced to change in innovative ways to meet consumers' demands, its philosophy remains intact.
GraceKennedy's longevity may be attributed to the fact that it was founded in 'love' for the Jamaican people - having been established on Valentine's Day in 1922 by Dr John Grace and Fred Kennedy. The original name Grace Kennedy was a combination of surnames of the founders.
"They were active in the business when it was first founded on February 14, 1922," disclosed Orane. "Fred W. Kennedy was really the moving force in it, for the first decade was succeeded by his son Louis, who served in the company as an active executive up to the 1970s."
As time passed, the company stayed put at Harbour Street but grew by leaps and bounds. It was Carlton Alexander who succeeded Louis Fred Kennedy. Alexander was succeeded by Rafael Diaz. Then came Douglas Orane.
Another well-known name that featured prominently in the shaping of GraceKennedy is James Moss Solomon Senior, who was the first accountant at the fledgling company. "They had an egalitarian view of people, they thought that all persons were created equal and that has pervaded the company on a continuous basis," explained Orane.
He cited an example in which he said a messenger who started to work at GraceKennedy at the same time he did, the same time he did, was a part of pension and health schemes that he is on. "We share the same restroom; we have an open-office environment; we don't have private offices. All of us, including myself and the group CEO Don Wehby, do not have offices, that is the way we have functioned for decades," said Orane.
According to him, the founders created a meritocracy at GraceKennedy in the early days. "It meant that anyone who joined the company could work their way up to where their energies and focus could carry us - Carlton Alexander, Raf Dias and myself are examples - we joined the company as regular employees."
Orane said Alexander joined GraceKennedy fresh out of Jamaica College, the only company in which he has ever worked. "This principle has created the ethos of GraceKennedy, extended to individuals in nearby communities to help them to have a higher quality of life through public service."
In so doing, Orane said, "GraceKennedy has always been able to reinvent itself. It is so very different from 90 years ago, but the principle remains."
He told The Sunday Gleaner that GraceKennedy continues to perform superbly on the balance sheets. "The company is doing exceedingly well. Our revenues and profit for the nine-month period, up to the end of September 2011, are way above the previous years, so the company is doing well in the businesses that it is engaged in."
Orane pointed to a range of new businesses that GraceKennedy has attracted and retained. This, he said is complemented by the cadre of young persons whom the company is grooming in a formalised succession system.
He noted that Wehby succeeding him as chief executive officer of GraceKennedy is just one in a range of ongoing transition processes.
Orane said the founding fathers had laid down a set of principles that the company had to abide by and the products and services as well as industries associated with the company may have changed, but GraceKennedy's values have remained the same - honesty, integrity and trust.
He noted that Jamaica has changed considerably over the years, as a result of which GraceKennedy had to find ways to change its product offerings. "Those unmet needs have changed over the years, as a result of which we have changed, offering the services that GraceKennedy offered.
"When the company started, it was a small company with about 15 employees. It was a manufacturers' representative so it imported food products, it owned half of a wharf that projected around the back of the premises at 64 Harbour Street and Port Royal Street where ships would come in and we had an insurance agency as well."
Noting that GraceKennedy had over the years expanded into new businesses that met the needs of finicky and exacting consumers, Orane asserted that one of the most significant GraceKennedy initiatives in the 1960s and '70s was expanding into manufacturing.
"We manufactured a range of products here in Jamaica. We owned four factories that belonged to us," he recalled. "We have always been innovative in finding ways to make our products locally."
He said another unmet need that was provided was the establishment in 1990 of GraceKennedy Money Services which met the needs of millions of our people abroad. "GraceKennedy's response in the late 1960s and the early 1970s as it embarked and became the leaders in manufacturing has worked well for us - in the use of applied science and technology," Orane said.
The GraceKennedy chairman seemed particularly pleased with the Tastee Cheese and yoghurt that the company manufactures on Washington Boulevard in Kingston which are immense favourites in Jamaica.
Orane also noted that the start-up of a Jamaican international insurance company in the early 1980s, as well as First Global Bank, designed a decade ago for customers who wanted personalised service, are examples of Grace's presence in the financial marketplace.