‘I wanted to become a dread’ - Bald head Hugh Graham talks rags, riches, and mama’s tough love
Much like the rough road leading to 51 Whitehall Avenue where Hugh Graham spent his earlier years, life for the business mogul and politician was far from smooth.
The tenement yard he called home hosted at least 28 others, but in the zinc and wooden structure he shared with his mother, sister, and two other boarders, there was plenty of love and an abundance of prayers from his mother, Libnah Graham.
Miss Lyn, as the petite devout Christian is affectionately called, said she worked tirelessly as a domestic helper and dressmaker to provide for her two children. She often relied on Hugh to wrap the buttons on the dresses she sewed. Although she could not read, Miss Lyn said she believed that education and salvation would be key to her children’s success.
“The two children them that mi have, mi say, ‘Lord, don’t make none of them dunce like me,’” the now 89-year-old matriarch told The Gleaner on Saturday.
But Hugh Graham didn’t seem poised, at first, for academic success.
He failed his Common Entrance Examination while attending Swallowfield Primary and Junior High School and didn’t matriculate to high school until the ninth grade. At Calabar High, he was just an average child.
GLIMPSE OF NEW WORLD
Attending the Red Hills Road school showed him a different side of life as he interacted with others from affluent upbringing. Through their eyes, Graham said he got a glimpse of a world he was never acquainted with.
His life had been rather nomadic, with the family moving from 100 Lane off Red Hills Road to Whitehall Avenue then to Ward Lane and Grants Pen.
Graham started hustling from early to make a quick buck.
“I used to sell the parts off of the bicycle, so if somebody wanted parts, I would sell it,” he chuckled.
Casually dressed and seated on his porch, in front of his flaming orange Lamborghini during a Gleaner interview on Saturday, he recalled several fond memories growing up.
“In the ‘70s, believe it or not, Rastafarian was the thing, so I wanted to become a dread, so everything then was Jah Rastafari and the red, green, and gold,” he recounted.
But his mother, he said, put a stop to those leanings. Miss Lyn ruled her house with a heavy hand. With no father figure in the household, she was the disciplinarian.
“When mi talk one time and them get mi head hot, mi use the mad hand and them never rude to me,” said the octogenarian, who described her son as “honest, obedient, and don’t backchat”.
His paternal aunt, Phyllis Graham, with whom he spent time in Grants Pen, saw from early that he was good at managing money, so she always assigned him to handle consignments at her bar.
After high school, Graham applied for an accounts clerk position he had seen advertised in The Sunday Gleaner. Dressed in a starched shirt, seamed dress pants, and his high-school tie, he went for the interview. While waiting his turn, he was told by an assistant that the position had been filled by the applicant before him, but desperate for a job, he took the only position available: warehouse attendant.
For the next two years, Graham packed boxes, linen, and towels until he left and dabbled in different jobs, including freelance salesman peddling keyrings and as a driver.
He was eventually inducted into the industrial chemical business, working for others until he started Paramount Industry in 1991. One of his friends convinced his father-in-law to allow him to use his library as an office for the fledging business. While they covered administrative costs, the budding entrepreneur provided the sweat equity.
Today, Graham laughs at the fact that although he had an office line, even after a year after securing the space, he only had one caller - a personal friend.
“The first year of business, looking back now, I would say it was rough, “ he said. “I had no choice, really.”
FILLING THE GAP
Graham would sell caustic soda and other chemicals from his vehicle on behalf of large international companies and collect a commission. By the time the international companies packed up and left, he went into distribution, filling a retail void for local buyers.
Paramount Trading is today the leading distributor of chemical solutions and lubricants. In 2012, it became a publicly traded company, boasting a diverse clientele from major sectors in Jamaica.
Graham ventured into politics as a councillor for the Lluidas Vale division in 2007, and in his freshman run for member of parliament retained St Catherine North West for the People’s National Party amid a wave of green in the landslide win for the Jamaica Labour Party in 2020.
“I still wasn’t interested in politics, and I don’t know if I still am interested in politics, to be honest with you. I am interested in helping people,” said the first-term MP, who consulted his mother before putting his name in the ring.
“In terms of helping people, she said what God give you, He doesn’t give you for yourself. Him give you to give to others,” he said.
There are aspects of politics Graham says he detests, like the rank partisanship. When asked if he harbours prime ministerial ambitions, the 60-year-old businessman had this to say: “If being a prime minister, or being a vice-president, or being a whatever is in my way, I believe it will be mine.”
While Graham has no issues with sharing the recipe for his success, which he does frequently in his constituency, at schools, and elsewhere, one secret he keeps close is the actual number of cars he owns.
The Gleaner team saw six at his upscale Graham Heights home, including his Lamborghini, a Mercedes-Benz, and a Prado. His closest confidante, his mother, also refused to say how many ‘toys’ he owns.
“You know they talk about people who have addictions. My addiction is bad,” he admitted.
The flamboyant businessman also has the fashion to go with the cars, with eye-catching outfits generally turning heads.
“I like the expression of self, and I believe people should express themselves as long as you are not troubling anybody,” he said.
Miss Lyn would love for her son to be a pastor, but Graham often tempers her expectation by reminding her that he is doing God’s work.
“I believe He put me where I am to reach people that [are] not coming to church, so I need to reach them in the way that He wants me to reach them,” Graham said.