A man of his word: Mayer Matalon, 1922 - 2012

By Keith Collister

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

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Mayer Matalon was well known for his success as a private businessman. With his brothers, Zackie, Aaron, Moses, Eli, Owen, and Vernon, he changed the face of Jamaican business through a massive expansion of the ICD group and its housing company, WIHCON, inside and outside Jamaica, in the 1960s through to the 1990s. The mass production of housing units that the brothers pioneered helped thousands of Jamaicans to afford their own homes.

What is less well known, are his decades of public service, much of it behind the scenes, beginning as an adviser to prime minister Norman Manley in the 1950s, right up to the last decade with Omar Davies, the former minister of finance.

In his funeral tribute, Davies broke Matalon's public service down into four time periods, reflecting the personal experience he and his brother, Carlton Davies, had. Noting that Carlton was far better placed to talk about Matalon's public service contribution in the 1970s, Davies reminded his large audience that businessman had headed the team which negotiated to increase the country's take from the bauxite and alumina sector. In the foreword to his brother's book detailing the bauxite levy negotiations Jamaica in the World Aluminium Industry - Volume II - 1974 to 1988, Matalon is described as "the financial wizard handling numbers with an artistry that I had met in no one before or since".

This blow-by-blow account of the negotiations with the major bauxite companies is important not just as a historical record, but as an enormously detailed case study in public policy and business, in effect, it is a negotiating manual for a small developing country in its dealings with powerful multinationals and large states. In the latter case, history does not just rhyme but repeats. The issues facing Matalon as head of the negotiating team (and his partner Patrick Rousseau), namely the sanctity of contract (or how they can be changed), and particularly the ability to pay of an industry set against its need for competitiveness in an international marketplace, have echoes in the present day. Indeed, it could be argued that Jamaica now needs a similar high-level negotiating team, aided by real world private sector experience, to assist in at least six current or planned negotiations, starting with the issues facing Mining, Energy and ICT Minister Phillip Paulwell. Davies puts it best when he says: "The work of the team did much to increase national self-confidence, by demonstrating that a group of Jamaicans was capable of matching negotiating skills with high-priced financial and legal experts assembled by the companies".

Just as relevant, according to Davies, was Matalon's role in helping then PNP leader Michael Manley to reassess the policies and programmes of the 1970s after the party's massive defeat in 1980. Importantly, Manley sought Matalon's view, not just because they were personal friends, or because of his fine business mind, but "more so because he felt that he would present to him an honest appraisal free from the window dressing which often characterises views being presented by a political leader." As Davies notes, "rather than simply seeking to defend the PNP's record in the 1970s, Manley genuinely sought to identify what went wrong and thereby prepare the party to avoid repeating the same mistakes in its next turn at government."

In the period 1989 to 1992, Davies reveals, Manley announced the establishment of a Council of Economic Advisors, chaired by the late Honourable Arthur Brown, with the other members including Owen Jefferson, the late Barclay Ewart, and himself. The council had many discussions concerning the liberalisation of the foreign exchange system, which Davies correctly describes as "the most significant economic decision taken in Jamaica's 50-year history as an independent country".

Finally, Davies covers the period of his own 14-year period as minister of finance, starting in 1993, when he met with Matalon on a regular basis. While noting that he did not have time to discuss all the issues, where he sought and received advice from Matalon, Davies shares two very important and still very relevant examples with the mourners.

Matalon was one of the first people to point out to Davies the practice of "ever greening" of bad loans within some financial groups during Jamaica's financial crisis, where a bad loan was moved around within a group to evade the probing eyes of the Bank of Jamaica.

Davies then refers to a Tuesday afternoon in December 2003 when the Government's revenues for the fiscal year fell dramatically below projections, making it challenging for it to meet its pay obligations that Christmas. As he put it, domestic creditors, being aware of the crisis, "had shown no inclination to acquire new [Government] paper." Late that evening, his then financial secretary, Shirley Tyndall, suggested: "Why don't you call Mayer". After reviewing the situation next morning, Matalon arranged an appointment for him with the "chairman of a major North American bank" on Friday after he had been, in Matalon's own words, "softened up". The US$100 million loan from the Bank of Nova Scotia, authorised by the chairman against the advice of his own deputies, was a critical part of Jamaica's financial turnaround in 2004. Davies observes that he cannot think of any other person at that stage, with the international contacts and influence to facilitate a meeting with just one day's notice.

Finally, the words of his son, Joseph Matalon, describing his father as his closest friend with whom he worked for 25 years, are well worth noting. The two most important principles taught to him by his father were "a man's word is his bond", and the need to deal "firmly on principle no matter the consequences".

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