Business

Ralph Chen remembered as a hero to shareholders

BY JULIAN RICHARDSON Assistant Business Co-ordinator richardsonj@jamaicaobserver.com

Friday, February 01, 2013    

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IN life, Ralph Chen was known around corporate Jamaica as the probing minority investor at shareholder meetings, unafraid to challenge company directors on issues ranging from typos in annual reports to corporate social responsibility.

In the small society of Jamaican investors, Chen, who died at the age of 67 in December, has been hailed for his big voice.

He cut his teeth in shareholder activism during the Finsac era of the 1990s and continued to be an active shareholder up until his death, taking on the likes of National Commercial Bank (NCB), Sagicor, GraceKennedy, etc on business practices.

"Ralph spent a lot of time attending seminars and was a voracious and seemingly insatiable reader. He had a library of hundreds of books, primarily on business and management, but with a significant content of books on religion, philosophy and positive thinking," said Jeffrey Cobham, former managing director of NCB, at a thanksgiving service for Chen's life at the St Andrew's Scots Kirk United Church in downtown Kingston on Wednesday.

Despite his own financial challenges, Chen was always giving to the less fortunate, said Cobham. It's in line with his advocacy for women in the boardroom and for corporations to follow socially conscious policies.

Dennise Williams, creative director at CreativeWurxMedia, and a former financial journalist with both the Jamaica Observer and the Gleaner, said Chen was "in his prime" as a shareholder activist after the 1990s financial meltdown.

"He would get up and hijack the microphone for half-an-hour; he would talk about how much he lost personally during Finsac and take the various board members to task," said Williams, who shared many audiences with Chen at press conferences and investor forums over the last decade.

Jamaica Stock Exchange (JSE) general manager Marlene Street-Forrest said the JSE is saddened at Chen's passing and the void he has left as the voice of investors at shareholders' meeting.

"We have been calling on shareholders to make their voices heard at annual general meetings (AGM) and Mr Chen did not miss one if he could go," said Street-Forrest.

"He advocated for many changes and I think many persons listened to him and many companies made changes just because of his persistence," she told Caribbean Business Report.

Chen helped to make companies better, said Gary Peart, CEO of Mayberry Investments Limited.

"Certainly, he raised points which companies would take action on," said Peart.

"AGMs are not as well attended as they should be, and you could always count on Ralph Chen to be there, to go through your annual report, to pick out whether there is a typo, something not being in the proper order, best practice etc ... you knew he was not somebody who had your worst interest at heart," he added.

Company directors and even audience members at times appeared annoyed at Chen's constant, long-winded questioning and observations. But his dedication was admired by arguably everyone.

"Ralph Chen was the person that a lot of people relied on to ask questions that they were afraid to ask — he wasn't looking for any friends," said Williams.

"Whether you liked him or not, he was consistent."

Wednesday's funeral provided a clear indication of that profound respect. Among the company executives in attendance with Cobham were Jamaica Livestock Association Managing Director Henry Rainford and well-known company secretary Gene Douglas. Many of the mourners did not know Chen personally, but felt it necessary to thank him for his contributions.

"I didn't even know he had died until I saw it in the newspaper (obituaries). I had to attend," said one lady from the The Office of Utilities Regulation.

Williams asked a question that some may have queried to themselves as Chen's body laid in the deep brown mahogany casket.

"In our very limited minority shareholder society, who is going to replace Ralph?"

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