Gordon Robinson, Contributor
During our 50 years of Independence, one man eclipsed all others in business and national development. His name was Mayer Michael Matalon.
It might shock readers to know that Mayer Matalon had neither silver nor gold spoon thrust into his mouth at birth. One of 11 children born to Joseph Isaac Matalon and wife Florizel, Mayer grew up in a very modest home in Rae Town.
Joseph worked hard but wasn't a huge business success. Early in life, his children learned to work for whatever they needed. School was a luxury. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise and helped shape Mayer's lifetime philosophy. Adopting the simple principle that no amount of paperwork could improve upon an unpretentious handshake and a gentleman's clear-cut word of honour, Mayer rose from humble businessman to colossus.
"And now, the end is here
and so I face the final curtain.
My friend, I'll say it clear
I'll state my case, of which I'm
I've lived a life that's full
I travelled each and ev'ry
And more, much more than this, I
did it my way."
The Matalons contributed more than their fair share to the Allied effort in World War II. Isaac Matalon served in the British Army in North Africa, rising to major. Moses served on PT boats in the channel. Eli, subsequently a national security minister in Michael Manley's 1970s government, was a pilot in the Canadian Air Force and flew a number of bombing missions over Germany. Mayer served as civilian supply officer in Panama's canal zone. Upon returning home, they joined sister Pauline to form the first family business, Commodity Services Limited (CSL). Soon, their brother, Aaron, who had been running their late father's business, came on board.
And so it was that the Matalon dynasty had its unassuming origin in family togetherness.
It's an unfortunate fact that, in Jamaica, success often encourages envy. The Matalon family wasn't immune, and over the years suffered some of the most vicious abuse, especially from the lunatic Left during the same 1970s while the family served Jamaica in many ways. The Matalons weren't the only Jamaican family targeted, but they seemed to be the bullseye at which most of the invective was aimed based on a widespread but uninformed belief that their success was, somehow, an unfair gift. As is the case with most successful businesses, this was, and is, hogwash.
"Regrets, I've had a few
but then again, too few to
I did what I had to do
and saw it through without
I planned each charted course,
each careful step along the
And more, much more than this, I
did it my way."
CSL began from the very bottom as a distributor of products for local and overseas companies. In the early 1950s, the company moved into the pharmaceutical and construction industries from which it further expanded into importation of electronics and food supplies. From CSL's modest beginnings came forth iconic names like Homelectrix; West Indies Home Contractors; and ICD (born, like Jamaica, in 1962).
The Matalons conceptualised the building of community that was so breathtaking in scope; so attuned to Jamaicans' needs; so incredibly brilliant; that its like hasn't been seen since. That first reality from that concept was a housing development named Mona Heights. It was a 'first' in every conceivable way and created real, affordable opportunities for civil servants, teachers, nurses, et al to own their own home.
But it was so much more than just a housing development. Mona Heights was a self-contained town with its own road network (each road named for flowers); its own cinema; three separate, spacious parks and recreational areas; a community centre with outdoor and indoor facilities for community meetings, sports and games; its own churches; its own gas station; and its own bus route (#22). With Papine market just up the road and grocery shops at Liguanea, no resident needed a car. This was a place where children could grow up; make age-appropriate friends; play in the streets and the spacious yards with fruit trees aplenty; where neighbours knew and cared for each other. Like Cheers, in Mona, "everybody knows your name".
Mona Heights was followed by Hope Pastures, Harbour View, Duhaney Park and Hughenden, ensuring the Matalons' legacy of community is forever etched on Jamaica's landscape. Also, there was a slight overreach, location-wise, named Caribbean Terrace.
"Yes, there were times, I'm sure
when I bit off more than I could
But through it all, when there
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall and
did it my way."
Mayer cast his influence far and wide, making his wise counsel available in several areas of national life. He was an unpaid consultant to many prime ministers; a major force in the 1970s bauxite negotiations which resulted in the priceless bauxite levy; and a giant of the early telecommunications industry. He joined the Jamaica Telephone Company board in 1961; was appointed chairman in 1972; and thereafter continued as chairman of the new merged entity Telecommunications of Jamaica Ltd, and then of Cable and Wireless until his 1998 retirement.
Telecoms' solid foundation in Jamaica was achieved thanks to Mayer's invaluable guidance. He sat on the Bank of Nova Scotia (Jamaica) Board since 1966, serving as deputy chairman for many years until shortly before his death.
Mayer was definitely multidimensional. The creation of a family business empire was his life's work, but his work wasn't his life, nor was his life his work. Mayer was married to Sarita for 60 years and his devotion to her was total and complete. He was a friend and mentor to his son and four daughters and adored his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Family aside, his abiding love was horse racing, where his influence was also pervasive. He invested his energies, spare time and gazillions of his personal dollars in this industry as a leading breeder (with his friend and trainer, Paul Newman, under the name Turnbull Farm) and owner (by himself; as Turnbull Farms; and latterly with Pat Rousseau) and as chairman of the racing promoter.
"I've loved, I've laughed and
I've had my fill, my share of
And now, as tears subside,
I find it all so amusing
To think I did all that
and may I say, not in a shy way,
Oh, no, oh, no, not me, I did it
Turnbull Farms owned thoroughbred superstars Kandahar (by Mountain Music - Ski Run), Nicois (by British stallion, Nice Guy, out of the French mare, Rosie V) and the exciting 2000 Guineas winner Harlequin [by Mr FJC out of top-class imported mare Queen Bee, who also threw St Leger winner My Apology (by At The Front) and Oaks winner She's A Clown (Harlequin's full sister), who was subsequently disqualified after an appeal]. Queen Bee had Whistler, from Britain and Whirlaway, from the USA, in her dam's pedigree; Worden from France and Solario from Ireland on her sire's side.
Harlequin was one of the best local-bred horses ever to race in Jamaica and unparalleled at up to a mile. Gifted with natural speed, he was unbeaten in seven races as a two-year-old (1976), including the one-mile Jamaica Two Year Old Stakes. As a three-year-old, he towered over his age group and made a mockery of the 2000 Guineas, but met his Waterloo in the Derby because of his inability to stay extended trips. He started odds-on favourite for that blue-riband event; led the 15-strong field comfortably for a long way, but was headed over two furlongs out first by Arizona and then by the eventual winner Legal Light. Harlequin finished fourth but, as it turned out, he lost no caste in defeat as the winner became another all-time great. Arizona, second, also proved a top-class performer.
Jamaican turfites' 'glad bag bus' when, in 1977's Caribbean Classic, Harlequin produced a magnificent performance, despite finishing only eighth. The sight of Harlequin in full flight leading that field of international champions past the stands for the first time with young Charlie Hussey, both feet on the dashboard, trying in vain to restrain him, will stay with me forever. He'd certainly have finished much closer with a more experienced jockey aboard. Harlequin was voted 1977 Horse of The Year.
In those days, Jamaican breeding was among the world's most sought after. We imported the best bloodlines from Europe and bred the best to the best, resulting in a racing product second to none. Mayer Matalon was a leader in that effort.
less focus on quality
Today, expediency trumps quality, so we import moderate American bloodstock who've lived their lives on lasix (furosemide; a powerful diuretic and masking drug on most athletic prohibitive substances lists) and bute (phenylbutazone, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug), thus hiding genetic or conformation-related flaws which we blithely pass along to our current crop of racing horses. Then we're shocked when our racers turn out to be inveterate bleeders or chronic arthritics. Our neglect of proper watering and regular grading of our racetrack just compounds the problem, as respiratory and ligament injuries appear welcome. That loud grunt you hear is Mayer turning in his grave.
It's a reflection of racing's current disconnect that, when Mayer died, no flag was lowered at Caymanas Park. No public tribute was offered. That's racing in the new millennium for you. Meanwhile, Jamaica lost a founding father and a man among men.
"For what is a man, what has he
if not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
and not the words of one who
The record shows I took the
blows and did it my way!"
There's no more fitting tribute to this Independence icon than the final verse of My Way, whose poignant lyrics, written by Jacques Revaux, Claude François, Gilles Thibaut and Paul Anka, say it all. Mayer Michael Matalon was an original and Jamaica's chairman of the board. His American doppelgänger, Francis Albert Sinatra, recorded the locus classicus. Like Mayer, neither it nor Frank has been equalled.
Peace and love.
Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.