Businesswoman shows grit and determination
Between operating Quality Grains, an import and distribution business at 99 Newport Boulevard, St Andrew, and managing a 305-acre farm in Claremont, St Ann, Sylvia Tomlinson-Hird still finds time to enjoy the company of husband Locksley, their children and three grandchildren, and she admits to being contented. It has, however, taken a lot of hard work and knowledge honed through trial and error over the past 10 years for the Kingston native to get the point where she is comfortable with the way things are going.
When The Gleaner caught up with the businesswoman at Quality Grains on Thursday, she was in a relaxed mood as she recounted her journey of determination, hard work and resilience, fuelled by her passion for business from an early age. Tomlinson-Hird also shared some of the negative experiences which had spurred her to take charge of her destiny.
The businesswoman recounted how she entered into informal contracts with farmers whom she supplied with potato seeds, chemicals and fertiliser, with the understanding that in return, she would be given first preference to buy the crop. Things, however, didn’t always go according to plan as some of the contractors would withhold a portion of the anticipated harvest, pushing her into dire straits.
After being burnt a couple times, Tomlinson-Hird switched strategies and opted instead to buy the crops from the farmers, without offering to supply any inputs and over time, went on to acquire a property at Mammee Ridge in Claremont.
“When I saw that wasn’t working for me, I just started buying from them. Let them plant for themselves and I buy from them. So I just start going around Manchester, Guy’s Hill, St Ann and even St Thomas and my name really spread all about because everyone knows I am from Quality Grains and I am buying potatoes and when they have a lot on the market.”
The businesswoman gave credit to the cadre of reliable and trustworthy workers, including family members, for the success she now enjoys, with the operations poised for expansion even with the severe economic contractions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Her brother Michael Tomlinson and his spouse manage the day-to-day operations of the farm on which carrots, Irish potato, pumpkin and yams are being cultivated. This is in addition to the livestock being raised there, namely pigs, goat and sheep.
Still, Tomlinson-Hird is not taking it easy as with three cold storage facilities already in place, she is looking to open a mega facility in St Ann soon. The 84 ft by 80 ft concrete structure, which stands 24 ft tall, is already completed and is now only awaiting finishing touches, she explained, while pointing to the enormity of its capacity. By her estimation, the full-storage capacity is about 1.8 million to two million pounds of potato.
Having long registered with the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA), the Government’s extension service, its officers keep track of her harvests in keeping with their mandate to map crop production across the island.
With more than 20 workers employed from Monday to Friday at Quality Grains and another 40 at the farm, the number sometimes goes up to between 80 and 100 during harvest time, things are definitely looking up for Tomlinson-Hird, despite the crippling effects of the pandemic.
“I give God thanks to know that I can employ people right now during the COVID pandemic. This is a food business and people when they don’t need to buy clothes they definitely have to eat food. So I can’t complain because the bills are paid. Sometimes you don’t make a lot of profits but the bills are paid and the movement of the US dollar really affects us because when the US dollar raise, you can’t raise the price of the goods. You really have to keep things under control, that is the reason why we really pushing the local produce but we do have to have foreign stuff, too.
“The sky is the limit for me because you have to create work to employ people because is not everyone is a leader, so when you find yourself in the leadership position, you have to just try to lead the best you can.”