Fri | Oct 30, 2020

Thalia Lyn ready to retire: Successor daughter-in-law and son to take Island Grill to the world

Published:Friday | November 8, 2019 | 12:00 AMHuntley Medley - Senior Business Writer
Chief Innovation Officer of Island Grill, Michael Lyn Jr.
Founder and CEO of Island Grill, Thalia Lyn.
Founder and CEO of Island Grill, Thalia Lyn.
Founder and CEO of Island Grill, Thalia Lyn.

Thalia Lyn is ready to step out of the top job as chief executive officer officer at Island Grill and devote more time to her charitable work, having more than accomplished the initial mission that led her in the late 1980s to give up her preferred job teaching at her alma mater, Immaculate Conception High School in Kingston, and start a business.

She wanted to earn more pocket money, recalls Lyn, who grew up in a family that owns Purity Bakery, and who sold mutual funds while living in Canada.

Four decades later, the entrepreneur and philanthropist, who last week became the second woman to be inducted into the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, PSOJ, Hall of Fame, says somewhat jokingly that her retirement timeline is “now”, as she can sleep well at nights knowing her succession planning is complete.

Her son, Michael, and his wife, Denise, are already on board the business as operational heads, and the Island Grill CEO is sanguine that they are more than up to the task of running the growing grilled and jerked chicken business.

The chain currently comprises 18 stores in Jamaica and one in Barbados that together does more than $2 billion a year in sales. But Island Grill plans to double the network to around “35 to 40” stores over the medium term.

Promising prospects

The three, who make up Island Grill’s top management, sat down with the Financial Gleaner for an interview at the Valentine Drive corporate offices in Kingston on Monday, November 4. The exchange revealed the Lyns’ easy-going, jovial, light-hearted business culture, and provided insights about the colourful business journey, detailed processes and promising prospects.

Denise Lyn, chief operating officer – said to be meticulous and focused on improving processes and people – and Michael, chief innovation officer – the creative force further building the Jamaican brand – are in fact busy planning the opening of two new stores.

The 19th home-based store, smack in the middle of downtown Kingston, will be located at South Parade inside the former Joseph’s Department Store. Construction is set to start there in January 2020. The 20th store will be located at the popular Boots service station and shopping complex at Drax Hall, outside of Ocho Rios in St Ann.

“I credit them with the quantum leaps in technology, environmentally friendly packaging and revolutionary beverage changes. You can see and feel the changes they have already made, especially in developing our leaders,” CEO Lyn said of her successors in the business. “I am at a grateful, happy moment in my life,” she said.

Michael has always been part of Island Grill, from helping to design the first grilled meats business place at Twin Gates Plaza in Kingston, the flagship and busiest store, to leading the iconic rebranding of Chicken Supreme to Island Grill in 1994 that literally transformed the business.

The former owner and operator of City Graphics has brought his creativity and modern-day business savvy to the family business that is a partnership involving Thalia, her husband Michael Lyn, a former captain pilot with Air Jamaica, and friend David McRae, also a former pilot.

The brand identification with good food and preponderance of inspirational messages, including stores and head office walls replete with images of lush Jamaican scenery and motivating words and phrases, are also the younger Michael’s doing. One year ago, he and Denise returned to the business, having previously managed Island Grill’s short-lived United States foray in South Florida.

“We should have gone mainstream with that business and not just catered to a niche market of Jamaicans,” Thalia said, reflecting on the Florida experience. However, it was not the marketing, but the business downturn after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, and the lack of deep pockets then to ride out the slump, that ultimately did in the US experiment.

Not a failure

For the Lyns, the retreat from that market is not considered a failure. They opened five stores in Jamaica in quick succession after the Florida scale back. At any rate, they live by the mantra written large on the walls of their head office that: “Success nuh final, failure nuh fata, it’s the courage to continue that counts”.

Thalia and Michael both share the dream of returning to major overseas markets – this time with a partner, or partners, who can help indelibly stamp Island Grill’s corporate mark and brand association with good food in major cities around the world. The entry into Barbados as a joint venture with Goddard Catering should have provided the platform for an expansion elsewhere in the Caribbean and Central America that has not happened.

“We are interested in a partnership that can give us the expertise and technical depth to grow the brand locally and internationally since we know that it is franchisable and uniquely Jamaica,” says Michael. The Island Grill CIO is of the view that the fast-food market is underserved, both locally and globally.

The Lyns are being careful who they partner with for the next global incursion. With a $2-billion turnover, the company pockets are now a little deeper. The business got caught up with the high interest rates of the 1990s, but has not run an overdraft since, and importantly, it never missed a payroll.

Island Grill has also come a long way since the days when banks shunned the venture and insisted on the elder Michael Lyn personally guaranteeing loans although, as he would point out, Thalia was the person running and heading the business.

Listing not top priority

Today, it is the banks that are chasing after the company’s business with offers of financing, some admittedly with generous terms, the Lyns say. With the Jamaican economic climate considered to be favourable to borrowing, the family is not ruling out loan financing for future expansion.

As for equity financing as an option, via an initial public offering, CEO Lyn said: “We have never discounted the stock market.” Still, listing the company does not appear to be a consideration at the top of the agenda.

For expansion and repayment of a small multilateral loans in the early days, Lyn recalls that she was forced to sequester the foreign exchange allowance of her pilot business partners. The principals recently celebrated a major milestone with the return of their house titles used to collaterise earlier loans.

Building out more eateries is capital-intensive. With the Island Grill model of leasehold tenancy, a store start-up could run beyond US$500,000, or $70 million in local currency. But it’s not capital costs that is the major factor in contemplating expansion. It is actually outfitting stores with staff that fit into the Island Grill culture of quality service, around which the company does training.

Having trained and deployed thousands of persons over the years, the business maintains a staff of nearly 900 and is celebrating a marked reduction in staff turnover by more than 40 per cent.

“We are really focused on our staff – developing our teams and departments and measuring their performance on balanced performance, not just financials. We are developing the leadership skills of our entry-level staff, supervisors and district managers,” said COO Denise Lyn.

Thalia Lyn says Island Grill has come a long way since she and her two foodie business partners, who loved to travel the world and seek out delightful eateries, set out to create their own delectable food business in Jamaica.

That was the genesis of the first venture, the 400 square feet Dairy Castle at Manor Park in Kingston that sold soft ice cream and hamburgers.

Then there was the fortuitous relocation of a KFC store from Twin Gates Plaza to the Springs Plaza in Half-Way Tree, and the decision by the Lyns’ friend, Tony Meyers of KFC Jamaica, to allow them to take over the lease for the Twin Gates location and set up the early grilled-meats experiment.

Guided by what was perceived to be the Jamaican consumers’ penchant for things foreign and the success in Jamaica of American fast-food franchises KFC and Burger King, Chicken Supreme was conceived to look and feel as foreign as possible. But that strategy didn’t work.

“Success came when we added jerk to the chicken, further Jamaicanised the menu and transformed into Island Grill,” says Thalia.

With the business in good hands, by her own account, Lyn looks forward to spending more time networking, serving as Thailand’s honorary consul general in Jamaica, providing business advice and giving service to the boards of companies such as NCB Financial Group, where she says she continues to advocate for funding and other support for micro, small and medium enterprises.