Turner duo aiming for the stock market

BY DENNISE WILLIAMS
Contributor

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

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The average person who has tried and failed at a number of business ventures would probably give up after a while. However, 'average' is not how you would describe the husband-and-wife team of Oral and Allison Turner. Instead you would use the following adjectives: determined; driven, creative, selfless. This duo from St Elizabeth invented a machine that has modernised the global sorrel industry. They have won several awards in the process, and are currently being mentored by the Joseph Matalon-led team of First Angels Jamaica.

But when you sit down for a talk with Allison and Oral, you realise that their success was inevitable, simply because they never stopped looking for opportunities.

Joining us at the Branson Centre, Allison shares that “sorrel found us”. Indeed! As she tells it, one day a customer of Oral's farm store in St Elizabeth (which is still in operation) came in to announce his decision to abandon his sorrel farm. There was nothing wrong with the acres of sorrel, he said. The problem facing the frustrated farmer was the high cost of harvesting. It had to be done by hand, and so the labour costs were practically wiping out the profits.

“My husband decided to tackle the problem, so you see, sorrel came to us.”

Having made this momentous decision, Oral sought Allison's help. Her research showed that sorrel was harvested by hand in the 22 countries where sorrel was produced.

“To separate the sorrel flower from the seed is highly labour-intensive. The average person can strip only 50 pounds of sorrel per day, and that is a very long day of work.”

After a few months of trial and error, Oral finally figured it out. He created an amazing prototype — a machine that would efficiently allow the labour output to grow exponentially.

Now they needed to finance it. They approached the then Minister of Agriculture Roger Clarke (now deceased) who, according to Allison, was so impressed by the machine's capabilities that he told Oral that his next project would be to invent Jamaica's first rocket ship. Minister Clarke was instrumental in ensuring some government assistance for the project.

Fast-forward to 2018, and we sit down with the Turners to understand where their company is going and how the vision has unfolded. The Turner Innovation story has been recognised as the 2017 Observer winner for best new product in Jamaica. The couple experienced numerous failures before they became recognised, and they now share with us their journey of dogged determination.

Dennise Williams (DW): Tell us about the relationship with First Angels Jamaica. How did you get the attention of Joseph Matalon and JJ Geewax from Google?

Allison Turner (AT): We built a viable business plan while doing a three-month business course with Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in Montego Bay. I struggle with dyslexia, and Lisandra Rickards (now CEO of Branson Centre) went the extra mile to help me study and train for pitch readiness. I remember the first practice pitch I did for her. I forgot to breathe, and I talked until I ran out of breath! I thought I would not be able to learn and pass the course, but when I realised how important my success would be to Jamaica and how many lives I would be changing for the better, I realised I had a social responsibility to do this right, so I worked even harder to learn.

At the time there were two new angel investment groups in Jamaica. The first was more tech/hotel industry-focused; the other, First Angels, was a group of high net worth business people based mainly in the Kingston area who focused on creative home-grown businesses. I pitched to both.

One of the founders for First Angels, JJ Geewax, was a co-guest motivational speaker at an annual company meeting. He was inspired by my speech and said that he wanted to invest in people like me. After that opportunity I made sure I got his email address. I then spoke with First Angels founder Sandra Glasgow, who guided me about the pitch procedure and walked me through the process. I officially met Joseph Matalon for the first time at the pitch.

DW: You are also in the Branson Centre scale-up programme -- no longer a start-up -- which means you are ready for investors. How soon will you be on the Jamaica Stock Exchange?

AT: First Angels has already invested two rounds of funds since 2016. In order to scale up, understanding the business and implementing proven business practices is vital for growth. In January 2018, First Angels Jamaica sponsored ActionCOACH Jamaica to coach its investees how to make our business a success. With this golden opportunity, I see where we could realistically be on the stock exchange in two to three years.

DW: When businesses are seeking financing, they go to banks, credit unions, the Development Bank [of Jamaica], etc. What advice would you give to companies seeking expansion capital? What is the right way to approach financiers?

AT: First, you must acknowledge that your business plan is your passport to finance and prepare it properly. Once completed, it will tell you exactly how you will make money and grow. If your business plan makes sense, investors will look at it.

In our personal experience as inventors, banks and credit unions were not the right choice for financing; they lacked the vision, experience and tools to support start-ups. angel investment groups andDevelopment Bank of Jamaica are the best available organisations for start-up financing right now in Jamaica.

My advice to people seeking finance is try to be realistic in projections — pie-in-the-sky figures are a big turn-off to investors! Also, understand that if you have submitted a business plan and get invited to a pitch, the investors have already decided they'd like to possibly invest, so don't waste time trying to convince them to invest, instead give a concise elevation pitch of the business, followed by your vision and projections, because at this point they are trying to find out who you are and your ability to communicate and reason, and most importantly, see your passion and drive to build that business.

DW: Working with your spouse can be challenging. Yet, you make it work. Talk to us about the best way to have a working marriage.

AT: I could write a book on this one! We argue about everything! It never used to work and it was frustrating, but we both want success, so we always come together in the end. Coming from very different cultures, most of the time we are actually saying the same things, just in different ways. We love each other, which results in patience and understanding.

Of course, that testosterone gets in the way sometimes, and my being a woman in power is hard for him to swallow sometimes too. It's important for a man to feel like a leader in a good relationship, so as a woman I make sure he thinks he's the one making all the decisions! I've recently learned a new word I'm exercising —instead of arguing my point I now say 'interesting!' It really helps.

DW: Agriculture and the creative industries are, by many accounts, what will help Jamaica grow the economy. What would you say to the policymakers in terms of how to support these industries from start-up to scale-up?

AT: Talk to us, work with us. Hear our concerns and struggles and support us. Put us on pedestals like you do our athletes and music artistes. Make us attractive to the public. Give us rewards in medals and prize money. If Vybz Kartel can influence people to bleach their skin, maybe with the right publicity we can convince people to be creative and help themselves out of poverty.

DW: What is your vision for your brand in terms of its various products – from the machine to the sorrel snacks?

Our vision is to become world leaders and improve the complete value chain of the sorrel industry… from the seeds planted in the ground to quality products on the shelf. Reduce labour costs, increase production and provide a better hygienic solution for harvesting; educate the world with sorrel's potent health and medicinal benefits; and also, present new creative products and styles for sorrel in cooking, baking and decorating.

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