Avia Collinder, Business Reporter
With a freshly minted masters degree in accounting from the University of the West Indies, at age 23, Andrea Coy thought she was ready to conquer the world.
However, 20 years later, she reflects: "What did I know? The real world starts after university."
That's not to say she has not racked up a number of achievements.
Coy is one of a few known females who are scaling the corporate ladder inside the powerful GraceKennedy conglomerate. But she believes she has many more hills to climb.
Coy is now 18 months into her latest assignment as CEO of GK's retail subsidiary Hardware and Lumber Limited (H&L).
Within the GraceKennedy Group, she has become known as something of a change-management specialist, called in to shake things up and get results for brands and divisions which have become moribund.
Coy first joined the group in April 2005 as financial controller for supermarket chain Hi-Lo Food Stores.
Her background to that point was in audit and finance. Prior to joining the GraceKennedy group, she worked as group financial controller for Shirlhome Chemical Corporation, from 2001 to 2004, where she was instrumental in the restructuring of the company's debt, she said.
"Audit and accounting provided insight on various industries and, as it was my first job after UWI, I got an opportunity to apply the things I learnt. Audit firms do provide good training," said Coy.
Became business manager
At GraceKennedy, however, the conservative financial specialist eventually gave way to the business manager, when she was named general manager of Hi-Lo Food Stores in October 2006. It was Coy's first entry into retail operations.
The supermarket chain then numbered 14 outlets nationwide. The new GM was tasked with changing a widespread perception, she said, that the store was high-priced and sold mainly GraceKennedy products.
She was expected to turn things around.
"We engaged suppliers to widen the products on offer and it paid off," Coy said. The other thing was improving the customer experience. "We put a lot of effort into training the staff. We also introduced a customer-loyalty programme to improve the customer experience. Customer accounts grew and we also saw improved profits."
After four years, Coy was reassigned to World Brands, a distribution subsidiary which focuses on non-Grace brands, such as Frito-Lay, Dial and Snicker. The company sells over 1,000 products to supermarkets and gas stations .
Meeting key targets
She joined World Brands as general manager in October 2010, and held the post for one year and five months until key targets were met.
Those included a restructure of the product mix to fit with what consumers could afford, and growing distribution channels.
"It was smaller in terms of revenue than Hi-Lo, but highly profitable," Coy said.
"The challenge was around the economy and what was happening. People were trading down. We did have products which were not necessities. The challenge was how to remain relevant within a tight economy," she told the Financial Gleaner.
"There were some gaps. Even though some consumers were changing their preferences, there were opportunities. We got suppliers to the table to partner with us through marketing, and also reduced product size to make it more affordable. Because we were dealing with large international companies, there was a lot of leeway in how they operated, including their go-to market strategies."
Her boss, GK group CEO Don Wehby said it's group policy for incumbent CEOs of each business to name two to three potential successors.
The candidates are informed and a development plan devised for their training.
"Andrea joined us as CFO and she did an excellent job, so she was immediately put on succession path as GM," Wehby told the Financial Gleaner.
"We recognised that she was excellent in terms of team leadership and she is very good at change management, so when an opportunity came up for one of our distribution companies - World Brands - which was going through a number of challenges at the time, we decided that she would be appointed."
Lessons learnt at World Brand have served her well since, she said. And working on the operational side of business - as opposed to finance - has allowed her to absorb lessons in management strategy, which she applies to each assignment.
That includes her current job as CEO of H&L, she said.
Wehby said Coy was tapped when the vacancycame up at H&L last year "for her change management skills."
"So far she is doing a fantastic job," he said.
Hardware & Lumber was created from several companies merged in 2004 - Grace Kennedy's Rapid Sheffield and Agro Grace operations, and Pan Jamaican's H&L True Value and H&L Agri and Marine.
Pan-Jamaican Investment Trust owns a fifth of Hardware & Lumber.
The hardware company today includes three separate divisions: Rapid TrueValue - a supplier of hardware and home improvement products; Agro Grace - a wholesaler and retailer of agricultural products; and H&L Wholesale - a source of hardware and building materials, with a target market of resellers, contractors and developers.
The company fell into a rocky patch in the last decade. It made combined losses of J$486 million in 2008 and 2009, but began clawing its way back in 2010, when it made J$19 million in profit.
It regressed to annual profit of J$6.3 million in 2011, but quadrupled that performance last year, to J$27 million, in the wake of a transformation of its stores to be more reflective of the look of Tru Value operations in the United States.
Coy, in the meantime, has delivered half-year profit of J$53.2 million for the period ending June 2013 off sales of J$3.3 billion.
Coy said the primary challenge at H&L when she became the boss in April 2012 was to improve return to shareholders.
"Internally, we have addressed cultural issues, placed the right people in the right jobs and people are highly motivated around the goal, which is to be market leaders," said Coy.
"Our working capital position has improved significantly. We are also again top of the mind among clients, both in agriculture and hardware."
Last year, the company launched 'Project New Day'. The idea behind it, said the CEO, was to start with a blank sheet and to refocus on building up the company up through revenue-enhancement initiatives.
"We have also cut the fat," she said.
"We implemented cross-functional teams, one focusing on revenue enhancement and the other on efficiencies, and then implemented the findings."
H&L revenues have surpassed $6 billion annually in the past two periods.
Coy said that growth for the company will mean taking market share away from others in a sector which is fairly mature.
"It's pretty competitive. We just have to stay focused on executing if we want to stay ahead," she said.
GraceKennedy has two primary divisions - GK Finance and GK Food - and Coy says she has her eyes set on a senior position in GK Foods. The conglomerate earns revenue of J$61 billion across its global operations, with food sales contributing two-thirds of revenue. Retail accounts for 10 per cent.
"I have a passion for change management and have had to use these skills in all my jobs. Operations, compared to finance, is much more exciting. Seeing the change as it happens makes it even more so," she said.