Columns

Wonder — is it a word only for margarine?

James Moss-Solomon

Sunday, November 25, 2012    

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THERE are so many reasons why we consider certain situations and try to assign meanings that may have no basis in fact but which we make believable by repetition until it takes on a life of its own. One of the things that we do not understand fully is the many dynamics associated with operating a successful family-owned business over a long period.

Congratulations to Mrs Lorna Myers, PSOJ awardee for her superb skills in keeping a family business growing, especially after the sudden and unexpected death of her husband and partner. This family has been resilient in the face of adversity, but has never lost the common touch and Jamaican identity of all of us with rural roots. So hats off to a lovely and gracious Jamaican woman.

This company has now reached the second generation and has the maturity and family love that seems to create no jealousies. The second generation has adopted the philosophy of service to country through strong leadership in business and philanthropy. The transition to the third generation is yet to come, and I hope it will be seamless and uneventful as we really love our chicken.

Congratulations to the Ramson family of Chas E Ramson Ltd on the completion of 90 years in business. They have prevailed to grow and prosper, are now in the fourth generation and show no signs of weakening. They have made Foska oats into almost a generic description (like Vaseline) that surpasses a simple brand and represents a common usage for oats in Jamaica.

I have been fortunate to know three of those generations, and I can say that their history has been marked by leadership of the business community and a quiet philanthropy, both corporate and private. A quiet yet decisive group of business persons who wish no one ill and co-exist happily with their competitors is their hallmark.

SuperClubs, the early originators of the massive change in the tourism offering through the innovation of the all-inclusive concept, seems to be going another way. The Issa family came to the tourism industry mainly through Hon Abe Issa while his brother Joe stuck to the original family business of retail fabrics and clothing. There can be no issue with saying that Abe Issa was the father of the modern tourism industry, and his commitment to service remains legendary. What cannot be denied is that both brothers were tremendously successful businessmen and both were solidly committed Roman Catholics and pillars of that denomination.

Hereafter, we can discern a somewhat different path, if only temporarily. John Issa (son of Joe) was an early adopter of his uncle's path in tourism, while Lee Issa (Abe's son) took retailing to new heights through the popular Lee's Fifth Avenue. The daughters of the Issa family continued their interest in tourism through the Tower Isle hotel.

To cut a long story short, all did not seem to be well and the family businesses seemed to fragment to different factions. John went to form SuperClubs, the family retained Tower Isle (now Couples), the vehicle businesses went another way as did the agencies, and Wendy's was also an offshoot. Lee went on to found Swept Away hotels, and after that the story becomes unclear, except that Chris Issa has now founded Spanish Court Hotel.

While these actions have all been successful and seemingly beneficial to individuals, I cannot help but wonder if they would have been more successful as a unit rather than separately. SuperClubs seems to be selling its Jamaican holdings to third parties and I don't know how many hotels they still operate here in Jamaica.

Now, the Issa family has continued to be strong in leadership and generosity to many causes in Jamaica, and has built a legendary image in Jamaica and other countries, yet the profile seems to diminish almost in proportion to the splitting up of what was and should still be a single business empire.

Please note that despite their current social status, these people were the children of a hard-working immigrant who came here without money, but who succeeded through hard work and the support of his customers. The Issa family has a legacy to be so proud of, but I wonder if the memory of that founding father still resonates in their soul as the generations progress?

The three families described here have common roots insofar as hard work, good customer service and generosity are concerned. So if some make it together to the fourth generation, then I wonder what common threads have been broken which may result in different outcomes. These are questions that should intrigue researchers who are interested in family businesses and their evolution, and I commend these three to their attention.

Jamaica has exhibited a marked preference for sole proprietorship and narrow family businesses. History shows that the longevity of those businesses has not been sustainable over long periods. So if that is true, then a careful study is needed in order to either change the conditions that cause failure, or change mindsets towards other models of business development.

I wonder if we will be bold enough and whether families will be brave enough to participate in sharing the secrets of success and failure that have challenged them over these years. I wish them all success as they go forward, but ask them to be generous in sharing their stories so that others may learn.

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