COVID-19 resilience - Western businesses determined to stay strong in the grip of the pandemic
Despite the cloud of uncertainties created by the emergence of the dreaded coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), several business operators in western Jamaica are pumping capital into new ventures and employing innovative ways to stay afloat in a show of confidence in the local economy’s ability to rebound.
When the pandemic hit Jamaica in March, it resulted in a lockdown of air travel. This literally crippled the local tourism brand, and subsequently reduced commerce to a snail’s pace in the west, where the tourism and hospitality sector is the heartbeat of economic activities in the parishes of Trelawny, St James, Hanover and Westmoreland, which account for the majority of the approximately 300,000 workers, directly or indirectly employed to the industry.
“As you know, 90 per cent of our business is dependent on tourism,” said Sunil ‘Danny’ Vangani, who has been doing business in Jamaica for the past 25 years. “We supply hotels, craft vendors and craft markets, but since the 18th of March, business has been down, I would say, about 95 per cent.”
Vangani was forced to close down his in-bond store, Legend Gift Shop in Ocho Rios, St Ann, but has kept his Montego Bay, St James, offering, My Choice Jamaica Limited, opened, despite little or no business coming from tourism. Danny’s Bargain Centre, which is located along Barnett Street in downtown Montego Bay, continues to cater to the needs of locals, but employees were asked to work on a shift system to keep all of them on the job.
“There is an expectation that hotels will have an estimated occupancy rate of 40 per cent by December and I am hoping that between December and next March, we will be able to do some business that we can pay our bills and I am hoping that by November or December 2021, business will be booming again,” Vangani shared.
EXPANSION PAYING OFF
Veteran logistics expert Sonia Clarke Bowen had to face the onslaught of the pandemic, five months after launching RSD Shipping Agency Jamaica Limited that offers air, land, and sea freight to and from destinations across the world.
However, Clarke Bowen, who has more than three decades of experience in the logistics business, has not only expanded to Kingston, but has also increased her staff complement, despite a downturn in shipping activity.
“For our customers that service the tourist industry, most of them have not shipped from the onslaught of COVID,” Bowen Clarke told The Sunday Gleaner. “The hotels that we have as customers are not importing, tourism is at zero, others like the auto parts industry have also gone down but a few have started to ship again, but it is just about five per cent of what they normally import.”
On the other hand, the decision to expand into Kingston is paying off for the former Montego Bay Chamber of Commerce and Industry executive, and while there is a reduction in cargo from North America, RSD Shipping has been enjoying an increase in business from countries in South America, Asia and Europe.
“What has grown tremendously since COVID-19 is online shopping and that is what is sustaining us,” Bowen Clarke noted. “We are also so happy that we have not had to lay off our staff. In fact, we have since increased our numbers and we have maintained their salaries.”
For Neville Ricketts, CEO of Nacana Motors Limited in Savanna- la-Mar, Westmoreland, business was bad before COVID-19 hit, but the emergence of the pandemic also created a demand market for relief products to mitigate the spread of the disease.
“Prior to COVID-19, the used-car business was not performing to its full potential, it was more of a challenge to sell cars mainly because of the informal car dealers that have been allowed to operate. It was a challenge before and COVID came and put the nail in the coffin,” he said.
“Looking at the wider scope of things, we actually saw how COVID impacted other countries and the motor vehicle sector is the first to be affected when it comes to any form of pandemic, because in such a crisis the last thing on a person’s mind is buying a new car. So we took the initiative after looking at what was happening and decided to venture in the supply business to keep our business afloat and to help our fellow Jamaicans fight the pandemic.”
Nacana Solutions, which was established in March, operates out of the Westmoreland parish capital and Montego Bay, importing sanitation supplies, including masks, fogging machines and sanitisers wherever the demand is found. The company also sells office and home supplies.
“We did not only look at sanitising products but also products that can help the work-from-home situation,” Ricketts added. “Because we realised that most companies have been putting in different measures in order to maintain and sustain their operation, and one of those measures was to have their staff work from home, so Nacana Solutions took the decision to import some items to respond to the demand.”
GROWING WHEN THINGS ARE DOWN
National Supply, one of the largest industrial hardware operations in Jamaica, seems to know how to make the best of the worst of times, as it was during the global recession in 2008 that they opened their Montego Bay branch to the public. Twelve years later, the Chen-See family owned business operation was opening a permanent home in the Second City in the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new location is constructed on one acre of land in Catherine Hall and consists of the National Supply three-storey flagship facility occupying 24,000 sq. ft. of space, and six additional units of 2,500 sq. ft. rental space. Companies that are already part of the National Supply one-stop shop concept include Campbell’s Office Supplies; tile and home finishing merchants Bahama Traders Limited; and electrical suppliers LS Duhaney and Company/AAA Electrical Supplies.
According to Donovan Chen-See, the firm’s director of sales and marketing, the company is being strategic in the selection of the businesses to whom units will be rented, as each offering must complement the other.
“We are not competing, we all have relevance to each other and we have agreement in principle with other businesses that will fit into our concept, but the COVID pandemic has slowed it down,” he said.
“Some of the decisions are on hold, some are on the back burner and some we had to push through even faster than planned. What is on hold is the other tenants that are to complete our one-stop shop concept. I would rather wait on them, to get the right mix on the compound to serve our customers.”
Chen-See continued, “What is on the back burner is our marketing plan for the entire shopping centre, where we collaborate and give discounts. We are paying our bills but we are not making the progress that we know we can make.”
According to Chen-See, commerce on the north coast into the western region revolves around the hospitality industry and while the mega industrial projects have halted, there is a significant increase in the smaller construction projects.
“COVID has given us a big setback, business has dropped on the north coast substantially, but small projects are coming up gradually,” he said. “The bad part is that while there is a gradual improvement, the uncertainty still remains, so you still cannot predict anything, but if we can see some activity in the hospitality industry for the new winter tourist season, that will be an encouraging start.”
With a spanking new facility and more space to display its range of products, the company has been using the downturn in commercial activity to rationalise its stock and train its staff, with a strong focus on customer service.
“No matter how good we are, we are seeking to improve our customer service and this also includes our after-sales support, because we intend to come out even stronger in the post-COVOID era,” he said.
According to Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett, investors continue to show confidence in the Jamaican market, pointing out that 90 per cent of previously planned projects are still on target, despite the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Speaking at the reopening of the 49-suite Zoetry Hotel in Montego Bay, following a seven-month closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, the minister revealed that a 1,700-room hotel in St James, and a 2,000-room facility in Green Island, Hanover, are scheduled to start in the immediate future.