Ronald Thwaites | Can good come from this Nazareth?
A single theme coursing through the narrative of GraceKennedy’s centenary lecture, recounting their 100 -year history, was that of trust. It is the scarcest, but most necessary of personal and civic virtues; the building block of all social...
A single theme coursing through the narrative of GraceKennedy’s centenary lecture, recounting their 100 -year history, was that of trust. It is the scarcest, but most necessary of personal and civic virtues; the building block of all social relations. GK’s motto is, ‘We care’. Trust, the assurance that any relationship is based on truth and principle rather than opportunism and self-interest, is the foundation of caring.
Grace’s much-anticipated annual lecture last week took the form of narrative reflection on the company’s century- long praxis, shared by Fred Kennedy, Douglas Orane and Don Webhy.
I attended with some scepticism, wondering how this company celebration would measure up to the high standards of their previous very topical lectures and fearing the tedious hagiography and boasting that often attends corporate promotions. But not so. The event opened my eyes to the possibility of what should be the story of the whole nation.
It is a fair generalisation that the private sector in Jamaica’s history has not distinguished itself in the cause of nation building. Their legitimate business of investing for profit has mostly been detached from urgent national priorities. Personal fortunes have been made, more profit exported than the value of the whole nation’s merchandise exports; little reinvestment, ‘pity-mi-likkle’ tax compliance and a largely cynical relationship with successive governments. The labour of our black working class continues to contribute mightily to metropolitan prosperity.
UNIQUE ETHICAL FOUNDATION
GraceKennedy cannot and does not claim perfection, but has a history representing a unique ethical foundation. Fred Kennedy spoke of the racial discrimination which confronted his brown-man, native-born, nationalist-leaning, aspiring-businessman grandfather in the 1920s and how a trusting relationship with the wealthy foreign Grace family and later with the equally committed Moss Solomons, morphed into a Jamaican-owned family enterprise and later into a public company.
Trust is the spiritual nourishment which strengthens all relationships, commercial, political, as well as familial and personal. Jamaica is a low-trust society. Mistrust invades the bedroom and the boardroom alike. The presumption of untrustworthiness becomes a self-fulfilling prediction. We create stifling layers of psychological and bureaucratic defence. Try starting a business or joining a political movement. Some of us even practise mistrust in the name of Jesus!
Not so GraceKennedy, as their prodigious 100 year survival attests. At every juncture of the company’s history recounted last Thursday, the virtues of trust and its fair daughter, mutual respect, more important than brains and money-power, emerged as the cement upon which people overcame adversity and failure and found the humility and energy to reinvent their enterprise several times.
But why and how? These guys are tough businessmen. Shockingly, they align their competitiveness to be winners in their trades with an ethic of service to their community of employees, shareholders, customers and country. Not a force-up, “make sure my picture gets into the newspaper as I give a little charity” pretence of corporate responsibility. Rather, a recognition that commerce has a loftier purpose, that the most worthy pursuit of human activity is the common good.
Ayn Rand is wrong. The Jesuit education of Luis Fred Kennedy and Webhy, the sturdy humanistic and socio-religious background of the Jamaica College schooling of Carlton Alexander and the Wolmer’s of Douglas Orane; these underlie the core values of GraceKennedy.
Who knew that 30 years before Michael Manley’s legislative initiatives, Luis Fred Kennedy was offering shares in the company to employees, insisting that they had a life insurance policy and later providing health coverage? With that kind of care of the person embedded in its culture, staff engagement is palpably high. So it is not surprising that 91 per cent of GraceKennedy staff responded to the company’s call to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Compare that with the national average and ask why the difference.
I was critical of Grace a generation ago when they exited their investment in agriculture. It is a reproach that so much of the raw material contained in their products is grown abroad. Large-scale, profitable agriculture for tourism linkage, local food sufficiency and diaspora penetration will never strive without big company investment.
Apparently they have had a change of heart and are now profiting by supporting primary producers, processing and exporting genuine, branded Jamaican products. Just suppose all major importers and distributors did more of this. Then we wouldn’t be wasting close to a half of all we grow due to poor connectivity between farm and market.
Douglas Orane told the story of doubling the productivity of all staff over a four year period. What is the lesson to be learned by government and people in a nation where the graph of total factor productivity has been decreasing almost every year since Independence?
All of the presenters spoke of the high standards of corporate governance observed by GraceKennedy. Don Wehby declared a straight correlation between employee engagement and profitability.
So if Carlton Alexander’s aphorism that what is good for Jamaica is good for Grace, shouldn’t we turn that around and conclude that what has worked for Grace, a quintessential Jamaican company, could be scaled up to work for the benefit of the nation as a whole?
Why can’t we achieve similar productivity at the local and central government levels where corruption and inefficiency are rampant and where the money lost is not the voluntary investment of shareholders, but the forced contribution from us all?
How come these people can prosper by honest endeavour through the COVID years and the 80 per cent devaluation of our currency over the past half century, while two-thirds of us see our fortunes going south?
A national government is very different from a private sector corporation, but it is profoundly embarrassing that GraceKennedy’s optimistic 2030 targets are likely to be realized while the national 2030 vision is not. Why is there no similar balm in the wider Gilead?
The CEO of this company declares that good-quality education for all Jamaicans should be a right, not a privilege. He said his legacy centres on Grace supporting more than 1,000, soon to be 2,000 students, to attain that goal. Why shouldn’t that be a measured task for everyone in the nation?
Grace motivates their staff, (they use words like “team” and “family” frequently) trusts them and holds them accountable.
Are our national leaders and institutions worthy of trust? Do we cultivate trustworthiness as a supreme civic virtue so that good can come forth from this Nazareth?
Rev Ronald G. Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.