Cedric Blair: Diageo's new man for Red Stripe
Barbara Ellington, Public Affairs Editor
To say that Red Stripe's Managing Director Cedric Blair has had a steady climb to the top job is to state the unvarnished truth. But the somewhat shy yet unassuming leader of some 550 employees will hasten to reiterate that he could not have done it alone. He credits a great set of bosses, as well as parent company Diageo's exposure, both in Jamaica and overseas, for allowing him to gain experience for the role he plays today.
Just under two months into the job, Blair spoke with The Gleaner about the journey and how he plans to chart his course forward. He describes his climb as a vertical learning curve well supported by former General Manager John Irving and Maurice Berry, among his mentors.
"The support of my staff has always been absolutely overwhelming, plus I have had such a connection with them at all levels that when my promotion to the top job was announced, they were happy for me," Blair said, when asked how his new position impacted the rest of the Spanish Town Road team.
Blair revealed that he had actually been tipped for the job by his predecessor Renato Gonzales some time before and that he also secretly harboured ambitions for it, but had a time frame of some five years hence. He realises now that others have been seeing the qualities for leadership in him, plus he has even acted in the top job before taking the reins. "That gave me exposure to what's to come, so the transition was fantastic," Blair admitted.
But he comes well prepared. The Holmwood Technical High School graduate holds a BSc in chemical and process engineering, a diploma in chemical technology, as well as certificates in many related fields. He has also completed several leadership courses and been recognised for outstanding work over the years.
There is no fixed term for the job but before his stint ends, he wants to turn around the domestic business and return it to its growth position. "My goal is to double the domestic business in the next four years." An ambitious target, but Red Stripe has been very aggressive in its innovation agenda in recent times.
This will continue under Blair's watch. So how is the company's recently launched rum doing, and is there room for more 'whites' in the market? Blair is positive that there is because initial figures show that D&G Rum is holding its own in the market. It was actually around a long time ago, but it was only being released to add to the company's spirits portfolio.
To the uninitiated, the company distributes five locally bottled spirits products plus several other premium and flavoured beverages.
"Having surpassed expectations in the first weeks of its sales, and considering it's mainly retailed in community bars and has a competitive price, there is good reason for Diageo to celebrate its rum."
Blair's goals include growing the business by 30 per cent this year over last year. "I have set some audacious goals but they motivate me and I am always pushing to find solutions, you have to have a resolve in this tough economy," he said. But he knows that people are still consuming because the company reaped benefits from the Jamaica 50 and Olympics celebrations.
The top five priorities for Blair are first to make Red Stripe more sustainable for the long haul, by operating in a cost-effective way. The use of energy is important so a co-generation plant is in the works. "We are looking to be more efficient in our use of electricity, so we are exploring LNG/LPG options for their positive effect on the environment. We have worked the numbers and the cost savings will be realised in two-three years."
With a project manager already in place, work has already started on this project to see how best to arrive at a combined heat-and-power solution for the plant. Red Stripe uses a combination of hot water, steam and electricity. Both local and overseas suppliers are now being engaged as far as equipment is concerned.
The present brewery was built in 1958, so today its technology is inefficient. Some $50 million will be spent to refurbish it to make it more energy- and water-efficient.
The third item on Blair's list is to improve the route to market by putting in place a better distribution and logistics operation, thereby improving efficiency.
And, perhaps most importantly, is a move to replace 20 per cent of the imported raw material with locally grown items like sorghum and cassava. This will see them producing the starch they use in the brewing process. "We have already done the initial research, so we know the current cassava yields are not adequate, we need at least three major farmers producing what we require," Blair said. All of these initiatives will be part of Diageo's contribution to turning the country around.
The continued development of people is Blair's fifth goal. In recognition of the immense talent pool at Red Stripe and the tremendous exposure he received, the new managing director affirms the benefits he has gained from being moved into roles of increasing responsibility over the years, and wants his legacy to be that others take over the reins and expand it.
"Exposures of your capabilities and to colleagues in Diageo markets outside of Jamaica is good. Changes are always happening, training in ongoing and we are learning for life; my company is a place where you can grow." he affirms.
His personal career moves for the long term include the desire to run multiple Diageo markets. "I would love to do that after turning this one around and setting it on a stable and steady footing."
It's not all work for Blair though; he's married with three children and spends his downtime with them, as well as plays golf on the weekends. He also loves tennis, football and cricket.