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A Canadian who simply adores Jamaica

Jan Pisko goes with the ‘Flow’ at end of glittering career

BY HG HELPS Editor-at-Large helpsh@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, April 27, 2014    

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(This is another in a series of articles on people who were born outside of Jamaica and who have not only made this land their home, but have succeeded in their personal pursuits and also helped to make the nation better)

A pesky, red-headed woodpecker tapped away on the outside of Janice Pisko's New Kingston office window. It seemingly wanted to show its appreciation, like the workers at Columbus Communications, for her sterling performance at the climax of an energetic 40-year career in the telecommunications industry.

And although bird and human were on opposite sides of the window, the animal insisted, with its consistent, overtime engagement of its beak, that it too like her colleagues, wanted to say thanks for a job creatively done.

The Montreal, Canada-born Pisko has already packed her bags and will go into the sunset on May 31, fully cognizant that she had given her all in helping to grow Columbus Communications, better known locally by its Flow and Columbus Business Solutions brands.

But after spending the last six of her 60 years in Jamaica, a place that she had never even visited before 2008, Jan has fallen so much in love with the land and its people that she intends to file for local citizenship, use some of her remaining time on earth helping to build the north Caribbean island, while continuing to support the land of her birth with regular visits.

The retiring vice president for operations at Columbus Communications Jamaica, who spent her early years in Calgary, Alberta, just outside the Rocky Mountains, even planned her exit from the organisation. She identified her replacement, groomed him and has fitted him into a succession package that most organisations do not even contemplate assembling. That beneficiary of Jan's wisdom and judgement is Wolmerian Soyika Small, who will slip into the regular but humongously important chair on June 1.

"You can't get ahead unless you have somebody behind you who can fill your gap, which is counter to what some people think," she told the Jamaica Observer last week.

"Some would say, 'I don't want someone to know, or I'm going to protect my job'. I say if you get called to go and do something, you can say 'hey no problem, John can take care of it'. I have six directors reporting to me and an individual just clearly rose head and shoulders above the rest, so he will take over as vice president," Jan said of Small.

"He is a young, bright, capable individual and its a great opportunity for him from a career standpoint. It's nice to allow someone to take over the chair. He probably will do it 10 times better than I have, because the younger people bring new ideas and he is even more technical than I am, so that strength will add to it. I am kinda excited about that," she went on.

The mother of three sons and a daughter came to Jamaica four years after she retired as vice president of operations at Monarch Cable Systems based in Alberta and British Columbia in 2004, arising from a challenge to raise the bar as far as her personal achievements were concerned.

"I came to Jamaica directly to work with Flow. I retired the first time and decided after a few months maybe that was a little early, and so I set up a consultancy company. For four years I consulted for small and medium cable companies in Canada, because I had met so many throughout the years. I helped them with network communications, I also worked for a software company that was selling their software systems to small and medium-sized enterprises and I was part of a team to do installation, training, and orientation.

"I was fortunate throughout those four years to travel. I went to Romania, Bogota (Colombia), Ireland and a lot of start-up companies in the USA, because at the time there were a lot of big consolidated companies that started to realise that they had too many operations scattered everywhere, so they were peeling off and selling regional entities. So some young entrepreneurs got together and started buying up these little companies to try and create mass and create their own little business operations and I would go in as part of a team and put in these cable billing software systems, workforce management and I would not only train all the staff, but then I would spend an extra week training the management how to use the system to their advantage," she said.

But after four years of that, Brendan Paddick, the major shareholder in Columbus Communications, and Michele English, who will soon demit office as head of Flow's operations in Jamaica, appealed to her, as the company was seeking someone to be on island and help build a team to establish an operations entity here.

The two excited her into taking up the new challenge.

"It was the right time. I said 'what a great opportunity to really just go somewhere'. It was an adventure, but also an opportunity, to start from the ground up with a new company, help hire staff, train staff, put in best practices, new systems, and new procedures.

"I tell the staff that when I got here it was at a time the company was really transitioning from being a construction company to being an all-out, full-blown operating business, because those first few years we were building, building our fibre optic network, getting all the requirements. We did acquire a few small individual businesses to get started and we then realised that that was not where we wanted to go, because we had to go in there and rebuild anyway, so you might as well just build it brand new from the ground up. We did an overbuild," stated Pisko.

Despite the global reputation of Jamaica being a breeding ground for criminal activities, Jan was not swayed and was finally convinced to relocate, after certain utterances from one of her sons.

"I had never been here before. I had been to Trinidad & Tobago, The Bahamas, but never Jamaica, so the natural thing is you go online and check and the first thing you are seeing is crime and murder and I'm saying 'wow'. So you start talking to people ... asking them what they thought.

"It was a lot of days of discussing it with my husband and then the family ... we didn't even tell friends at the time. We then told the four children that we were going to do this, and one son said to me 'mom, aren't you a little old to go down and do that'? I said what?

"He said, 'if you were in your 30s or 40s I could see that', and I went: 'that's it! I am going. I said 'I am going to show you kids that you are never too old to take on something new'. That kind of attitude will get you nowhere in life. To me that was a real motivator, as much as it was a job I knew I could do, and I would love, great opportunity, a great adventure, and I wanted to send a message to my kids," she told the Sunday Observer.

Her husband, Grant, didn't come to Jamaica until nine months later, as he was still working as vice president of Monarch Communications doing, among other things, investment portfolio and commercial land management.

So after working 16 to18-hour days during that early period, she told her husband then and there that Flow liked her, and he had better "wrap it up and get down here."

A compromise was ironed out, that the two would split their time between Jamaica and Canada, which resulted in them renting their house in Alberta to a South African doctor and his wife who wanted to emigrate to the cold North American country.

Now, what fascinates her is the change that has happened in her own thinking.

"I will admit when I came here it was sort of a job, 'oh I'll come down, do my thing and then leave'. Now look what's happened ... I think I have learned just as much from the people I have worked with, as I have taught them and it was with mixed emotions that you say, I'm going to retire, I'm going to leave, because you've built a home here and the country has come so far in six years.

"You hear a lot of people say 'oh its never going to change, or this isn't getting any better', but in six years a lot has changed. You can travel around every few months, and you can say this is changing, or that building is going up. You could go to businesses and the way staff interact with you is different from what it was six years ago.

"When I got here, probably one of the biggest shocks is how big of a gap there was between the understanding of what customer service should be and what it was. So I would go into grocery stores, or would go shopping and the way staff would react to you was, to me shocking ... you know, 'sorry to bother you but I would like to pay you for something that I bought from you' and I thought, wow, that's a big gap and it was reinforced when I started to meet staff and we would talk about what they thought customer service was and what was customers' expectations. So that was a big hill to climb and I think we have climbed it and we've really set the bar. It doesn't mean that it is over, because there is more that you can do, but I feel good about what's been achieved in the six years that have been here,"Jan revealed, as the woodpecker tapped away again.

Although she has never been to some of Jamaica's 'down to earth' spots like the Coronation Market, to which friends have promised to take her, Jan has visited more Jamaican communities than the average native.

"I have driven around almost everywhere in this country and gone to all kinds of areas and actually driven into areas that I probably shouldn't have driven in, but you don't find that out until you wish you could put the vehicle in reverse and back out very quickly.

"I got myself in downtown Spanish Town once - I took a wrong turn on a Saturday - market day and you know what its like. And all of a sudden I realise, wow, wow, am I ever not where I should be. But you know you very quickly learn where you can go and where you don't go and if it looks like its okay or not okay.

"Our company business used to have offices on Ashenheim Road, so I drove there two or three times a week going through the back way, and I remember a couple days I had to take some of the staff from HR down for some meetings, and they had no idea where I was going. They had never gone that route before and I'm saying 'are you kidding me'.

"If I am going over to Montego Bay, sometimes instead of going over Mount Rosser I would travel the Junction Road and pass by Annotto Bay, or going the other way, instead of heading down Fern Gully, I would go by Moneague, take the truck route and you can come down on different places. My husband and I drive around a lot.

"People don't often get out in their own backyard, because when I lived in Montreal, I didn't go to some of the sights that people who visit Montreal would go to, but I really do get around. I know the street names, not the landmarks. To a degree, I am familiar with the vernacular ... I can make my way around," she said.

Jamaica's South Coast is also among her favourite areas.

"We go to Treasure Beach in St Elizabeth, and stay at local hotels where you sit around tables with families ... and we find that its a totally different experience than the formal hotel arrangement.

"For Negril, that's about partying and fun. I can take two days of that and its not my thing. Montego Bay is nice, but I would rather stay at a place like Coyaba than the more elaborate resorts. When you get up to Portland, that must be the neatest place ... Long Bay, Boston in the jerk area, and just in the last couple months we drove around Morant Bay, and it was totally different, the roads are horrible, but there is so much change in all these areas. "On the weekend you drive up to the Gap above Strawberry Hills. The Appleton Rum Tour in St Elizabeth is a fabulous facility ... they put on a great tour, and White Witch is a great tour too. Jamaica is really a great country," she said.

Despite her love for her adopted country, she remains concerned about the high crime rate and does not take chances with her safety.

"Probably one of the biggest surprises when I got here, outside of the customer service, was the impact that crime had on trying to run a business, not just the impact on an individual and safety ... all these grills and bars ... I never lived in a home in which I felt I was under house arrest because when I got home you locked up everything. But running this business, your day-to-day schedules would be impacted because there was volatility in a community. So I couldn't run my tests out there, you are calling customers and you have to reschedule, you have things that go on almost every other day that would impact your service. Now over six years that has changed significantly. We still have little flareups, but it was all a shock to me ... kind of a wake-up call, that the way you run your business is very different because of the crime element, that instability," Jan said.

Of her most satisfying moment, professionally, while in Jamaica, Jan related the reaction by Flow staff when it was revealed that she would be moving on.

"When I shared with the team that I had made a decision to step down and leave, the reaction, and how many came to me privately and said 'Jan you can't go yet, I have so much more I want to learn from you, or I have learnt so much from you, you can't go yet', it brought tears to my eyes, because that was to me the most sincere indicator that what I was doing was working - that they had truly embraced it and were absorbing it. That was really something for me. I just felt so good.

"Our processes and service is so important that when we get new staff, I do orientation with them and I insist that I spend at least an hour with them when they come in, not a little 15-20 minute visit, and I do a powerpoint about what our operations are, our customer service and so on.

"I come from a family of teachers - my grandmother, mother and two sisters were teachers. My role is similar to that of being a teacher, only that its about adult learning," she said, at the same time admitting her satisfaction with the progress with the 10-year-old company that she has served, has made.

"It (Columbus) is a great story. In any business, you maybe feel you haven't done as much as you wanted to or it's not happening as quickly as you'd like it, but when you look in the rear view mirror and see what we have accomplished, it's an incredible story and I was part of it. But at the same time there is a really fabulous story in front of us, there is still so much to do. It's as exciting going forward. The industry, because it's driven by technology and technology is changing so fast. I wish that I had been in Jamaica a bit longer," she stated.

Voluntary work and "a bit of consultancy" is Jan's objective going forward, joining her husband who is exerting similar energy. She, too, believes that as she turns 60 and enters her second phase of retirement, she will be able to say much more of what she thinks and also vowed not to eat anything that she does not like, every again.

For now, pressing ahead with the paperwork for the process of naturalisation, and planning where she will be at particular times of the year, will get priority treatment.

She has no idea where on the 'rock' she would want to call home away from home, but so far has an inclination toward rural Jamaica.

When asked about what Jamaica should focus on, Jan replied:

"From a country perspective, it's the crime area. The one thing that my husband and I see and we think is the right thing, is over the last couple of years the emphasis on increasing the police presence on the street, stopping for seat belt checks, stopping for the red plate etc ... they are chipping away at these little things - that we believe is ultimately what will make the difference.

"There are a lot of people saying don't worry about the chaff, you need to take care of the big stuff. Well, you need to take care of the big stuff too, but if there isn't a message sent out - a strong, consistent, ongoing message that we are here, and there are consequences, this has got to stop and we will stay the course. Eventually, it gains momentum. If that stuff isn't taken care of, it will never change ... the environment will never be stable enough for business or personal," she said.

At the end of it, even the persistent woodpecker appeared to agree, jumping in at the same time with another round of pecking.

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