Brand Jamaica reigns supreme at Business Leader Awards

Brand Jamaica reigns supreme at Business Leader Awards

BY PAUL RODGERS Business Editor rodgersp@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, December 04, 2011

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HE may not have won the 2010 Jamaica Observer Business Leader Award, but nominee George Yap was the clear audience choice for Mr Congeniality. Every time his name was read out at the presentation banquet in the Pegasus Hotel, New Kingston, on Wednesday, he jumped from his chair, punched the air, and led a round of raucous cheering, invariably followed by a wave of laughter.


Despite Yap's attempts to cut the tension at the black-tie event — the ballroom filled to capacity with the country's leading business people — excitement rose as Vernon Davidson, the paper's executive editor publications, prepared to announce the winner's name. In a tight race between top entrepreneurs from Jamaica's far-flung diaspora, the award went to nominee number eight, Lowell Hawthorne, executive chairman of the Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery & Grill in America.


Hawthorne joins an illustrious list of Business Leader Award winners over the past 15 years, from Joseph A Matalon and Joseph M Matalon of Mechala Group in 1996 to Denis O'Brien, chairman of Digicel in 2009.


"This is an extraordinary evening in which we bask in the successes of our Jamaicans who have made an indelible mark on business development in the diaspora," said Jamaica Observer CEO Ed Khoury. "Focusing the spotlight on the exemplary performance of the nominees is a powerful force in transforming the minds and lives of Jamaicans."


The decision to concentrate on entrepreneurs from the diaspora was an audacious one, as many of the nominees previously had fairly low profiles here. But the event was well supported by its sponsors, Jampro, Digicel and Appleton Estate, and by the country's business community. Jampro said this year's programme fitted with its priority of seeking foreign investment. "The diaspora has contributed significantly to the development of Jamaica mainly through remittances," he said. "The World Bank estimates that in 2009 and 2010, Jamaica received approximately US$2 billion ($170 billion) in remittance flows; this makes the country the third largest recipient of remittances in the Caribbean and the 14th globally."


Also presented on Wednesday were two Lifetime Achievement awards. The Appleton Estate Award went to Michael Gibran Ammar, founder of retailer Ammar and Azar, who introduced many innovations from the first air-conditioned store on King Street to a no-hassles return policy. In the early days, "we were driven by desperation and inspired by a lack of funds," he says.


The Digicel Lifetime Achievement Award was given to Robert Levy, chairman of Jamaica Broilers (JB). The self-described black sheep of the family, went through a religious epiphany on the day he left his father's employment that shaped his future life, saving his marriage and leading, on his return to JB, to the transformation of the company into one of the Caribbean's leading agro-industrial enterprises.


Hawthorne's story was somewhat different. In 1981, after a youth spent raising livestock and operating a minibus, he left for New York intent on working for a year to raise the $250,000 needed to buy a "quarter million" bus — a Coaster. Instead, he struggled to find work, eventually ending up as a stock handler with the New York City Police. His original plan for business in ruins, he went on to study accounting at City University instead.


But the entrepreneurial bug was only sleeping. A decade after he arrived, it awoke again, pushing him to start Golden Krust. The crucial decision was the choice of location, across from a subway station on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, a station used by many members of the Jamaican diaspora. "We had a success story," says Hawthorne. "The model going forward was to put the stores beside subways and in large Caribbean communities and near hospitals where lots of West Indians worked."


The company now has 122 restaurants and 1,800 employees in nine states, and has annual sales of more than US$100 million. Most of the outlets are franchises, supplied from a central bakery in the Bronx that produces 24,000 patties an hour, 16 hours a day, plus many other pastries. Jamaica has been an important beneficiary of his success. "We buy from a company in St Elizabeth which gets all the farmers to pool their resources and then ship it to us in the US," says Hawthorne.


The winner was gracious and humble as he accepted the award from Jamaica Observer chairman Gordon "Butch" Stewart. In his response, Hawthorne thanked God for his success and revealed that he had awarded 50 scholarships so far this year to Jamaican students.


Philanthropy was a sub-theme of this year's awards. Many of the nominees had "given something back", either directly to Jamaica, to the Jamaican diaspora, or to their adopted communities. And all of them have built enterprises that have brought "Brand Jamaica" to the attention of the world. They are:


* Vincent and Lorain Lai, owners of Nicey's Food Mart in Scarborough, Ontario, which sells everything West Indian from ackee to yams. "Anything you can get in Jamaica to buy, you can get here," says Vincent, without a trace of self-doubt.


* Verona Greenland, founder of the Morris Heights Health Centre, which has 18 branches providing medicine to some 60,000 mostly underprivileged Americans a year. Although it does not seek to make a profit, it's still a legitimate enterprise. "We are a US$68 million net worth organisation," says Greenland.


* Marcus and Monique Hamaty-Simmonds, founders of the Cayman's Tortuga Rum Corporation, a US$10-million per year business with 18 branded shops and in-bond stores and customers in 70 countries around the world. "We always take the approach that customers equate quality with Tortuga," says Marcus.


* Beverly Nichols, founder of Beverley's Home Health Care Inc, a US$5-million company with 200 employees in New York, mostly Jamaicans who moved to New York for a better life. It has 180 long-term patients, from children with special needs to geriatric shut-ins. "Good patient care is the lifeline of our business," she says.


* George Yap, chairman LEASA Industries Ltd, a US$9-million company that produces 15,000 pounds of bean sprouts a day and 5,000 pounds of tofu. Perhaps more significant are his 80 employees. "These are rehabilitating drug addicts, ex-convicts and welfare mothers, who nobody wanted to employ," he says. "I say to them: 'I am giving you a second chance because everybody deserves one.' "


* Vincent and Jeanette HoSang, owners of Royal Caribbean Bakery and Caribbean Food Delights, which employ 120 people and supply frozen patties to 1,300 WalMart stores, 100 BJ's Wholesale shops and over 90 Costcos. The couple have also paid for US$180,000 of free dental care on the island. "There is a pie out there and if everybody gets a slice they will be happy," says Vincent.


* Richard M Powell has in a decade built up his Florida-based private equity fund, AP, into a company with a US$300-million capital base. The company, through its investments, has helped create 7,000 jobs around the world. "I always wanted to start a private equity firm that would create wealth, that would help businesses grow," Powell says.


 


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