A JC man at Flow's control
Sean Latty clears James Hill and Spanish Town rush to land prime telecoms job
IT was the inspiration of former Jamaica premier, Norman Manley, and his son, Michael, the island's fourth prime minister, that propelled an aspiring young man to want to attend one of this country's leading institutions of secondary learning, Jamaica College (JC).
The rugged terrain of James Hill in North West Clarendon where Sean Moses Latty laid his foundation for life, Point Hill in West Central St Catherine and Spanish Town, the parish capital where moral construction continued, added the fillip that has seen this corporate leader rise to the top of one of Jamaica's leading telecommunications companies.
When Latty, 41, strode into the headquarters of Columbus Communications on June 11, 2014 to take over as its managing director, a local wind of pride swept through the entrance. It marked the first time in the company's eight-year history that a Jamaican was wearing the crown as the person with whom the buck stopped, and he was more than ready for the challenge.
"On the first day, the staff made me feel that they were just there waiting for me. In terms of the challenge, I have done 13 years in telecommunications. I have done start-ups, green fields, mergers, acquisitions, turned around several different businesses, all of them doing very well now, so I am eagerly looking for the challenge," Latty told the Jamaica Observer in an interview at his New Kingston offices last week.
"Every challenge for me is an opportunity, so I am not intimidated in the least. I have a great set of people at Flow and Michele has done a fabulous job in terms of laying a foundation," he went on.
The Michele to whom he referred is the former head of Columbus Communications, Michele English, who was reassigned to a more senior position recently.
Latty snapped his 13-year association with another telecommunications company, Digicel earlier this year to take up the powerful private sector assignment. Those 13 years were spent mainly in other Caribbean islands and they were, according to the management specialist by training, invaluable to him, which will redound to the benefit of his latest stop on the corporate train route.
Yet, his early upbringing is what he believes has properly prepared him for what he now embraces as work.
"I was born in Kingston, but moved to James Hill where I attended basic school, and then Point Hill in St Catherine for all-age school.
"When it was time for me to sit the Common Entrance Exam, at the time JC and Wolmer's were doing well in Schools' Challenge Quiz and after doing some research, I found that a few leaders, including Norman Manley and Michael Manley, went to JC and Edward Seaga to Wolmer's. I therefore had JC as my first choice and Wolmer's my second.
"It was not the norm to choose two schools from outside the area, because coming from so far up in Point Hill you would choose the school in close proximity, which would be St Catherine High or St Jago High. So I remember when the results came out, everybody was looking in the papers to see my name and couldn't find it. They were looking under St Catherine High and I didn't tell my grandmother, who was the teacher at the time, that when I wrote up the form I put JC and Wolmer's on it. Then somebody came and said 'oh we found his name under JC'. It was only two of us — a guy named Tulloch and I — who chose two non-traditional schools from that area," Latty said.
The journey to JC meant that he had to get out of bed quite early, take a taxi from Angels in Spanish Town where he later lived, get another in Spanish Town, yet another to either Half-Way-Tree or Cross Roads, and then a bus headed to Papine. That routine prepared him to wear the tag of early riser and even these days he would get to work by 7 o'clock.
Sports at Jamaica College, at a time when sprinter Rudolph Mighty and cricketer James Adams were dominating their peers, was not on Latty's agenda.
His grandmother and mother were teachers, and he came from a parenting background where academic work, and not sports, was the focus: although, unknown to them, he played corner league football.
So after doing well in his examinations and leaving JC, it was on to the world of work for the youngster, who held on to a job at Air Jamaica in order to earn money to further studies, which his parents could not afford.
Five years in the cargo section of the then national airline while he worked and studied in the 1990s, and a short stint at the Jamaica Tourist Board at a time when now prime minister Portia Simpson Miller was in charge of tourism, lifted the quality of his resume, something which caught the eye of Digicel when the company was starting out.
"Things were happening fast. Digicel started a call centre in Westmoreland and I went there to manage it. From there, I was sent to Aruba at short notice, although I spoke not a word in Dutch. A stay that was meant for four weeks turned into a year," he revealed.
That assignment presented its challenges mainly with interviewing applicants for work, due to his ignorance of the language, but he prevailed.
Returning to Jamaica as call centre technical manager at Digicel, Latty conquered that mission until an operations role became available in the Cayman Islands, where he was next ushered to for four years. Rising to the positions of products pricing manager, then operations director for the north-eastern Caribbean, Latty spent his time travelling the markets of Turks and Caicos, Bermuda, and Cayman for a year-and-a-half.
True to his ability, Latty was seen as the man who would take on rugged assignments and turn companies around that had otherwise been tottering. Soon, a role came up in St Kitts for general manager, and five years of his life went into that, to be followed by another in St Vincent & the Grenadines, when a message from Flow landed in his lap.
"I thought about it, got up one morning and said, 'I actually want to come home', last December. I explored it, got the offer and looking at where I was professionally and personally, coming home to join a company like Flow was the right thing to do.
"The decision was hard and easy at the same time, because I was leaving an organisation that I had seen grow for almost 14 years, but then it was easy because I was coming into an organisation that has done great things in Jamaica in eight years," said Latty. "The culture fits with me in terms of continuing to grow, wanting to achieve certain things professionally and being in a dynamic organisation. I knew some of the people who work here and they are people who you would want to associate with, plus the brand is very large, not only in Jamaica, but regionally."
Managing a staff complement of over 600 marks the biggest job that he would have taken on, in terms of head count. The fact that Flow's staff turnover is a miserly two per cent makes the working environment, to him, pleasing.
"I plan to be here for long enough to make my mark and see it grow. This one is for keeps," he said of his new association, the main challenge of which, he thinks, will be to manage relationships internally and externally.
"There is a great foundation that was put down by Michele English and the team that is here now. I am just building on the foundation. In terms of specific targets I can't speak to that now, as I have not even had my first management meeting yet.
"My objective is to ensure that what I have seen in terms of the culture, objectives, standards, precedent set are maintained and enhanced by me. I remember when I left Jamaica you only knew of cable companies. Now it's Columbus Communications," Latty said.
His focus, too, apart from growing the business and pressing the profit button further, is on reaching out to the wider community, assisting as best as possible.
"I am passionate about corporate social responsibility projects. I have done that in markets outside of Jamaica and have achieved a lot. This is something I got engaged in very hands-on. There is no shortage of projects we can take on in Jamaica, forming partnerships with different entities to ensure that as a corporate entity ... we actually build and impact on people's lives and communities. I will ensure that that is a part of my objectives going forward. We have to ensure that positive messages are put out there," he outlined, stressing that Flow was big on education and sport in particular, what with the company's Internet In Schools project whereby 170 schools benefit from free Internet service; sponsorship of the Prep Schools Championship, and the Flow Champions Cup, a knockout football competition that involves Jamaica's leading club teams across all parishes.
Of the fact that he is the first local, as well as black man to head the organisation, Latty is not too taken up with the issue of pigmentation.
"The thing I look on is I am a Jamaican. Instead of saying I am a black man in this role, I would say more of a Jamaican achieving it. Jamaicans do stand out, they do well in track and field, and in academic work, so as a Jamaican I am happy that I have made this achievement and, personally, I am happy that I am back home to lead an organisation of this nature," he said, while also pledging to use his platform to inspire youngsters in some of the communities that he visited as a boy.
"When I was away and would turn on the news or open the papers, the first thing you would see is all the negative stuff that would happen. You see the CEOs, the managing directors like myself always speaking about the economy, the challenges we have in our businesses, but when you go to the Standpipes (Liguanea), the James Hills, all those areas, the stuff that made us successful — our parents, our mothers, some of whom are single parents, saying to us some very basic things: Did you get to school on time? When you get to school your shirt should always be tucked in, your shoes cleaned; when you are doing something pay attention to small details, say 'Good Morning', 'Good Afternoon' ... very basic things that all of us do.
"Not many of us are reaching out to some of these guys, mentoring youngsters, especially the young males, to ensure that the bases are covered. We can say to them, 'if you are going somewhere get there on time, when you get there make sure your shoes are clean, or your shirt is tucked in'. When I was going to school I had three white shirts and two pants and I wore them for a year and washed them every weekend, sometimes every day and put them behind the fridge to dry ... and everybody has a fridge now, notwithstanding how some get their light.
"If you turn up somewhere, push your shirt in your pants, keep your shoes clean, and once guys get those little messages things will be better. We always think that the problem is huge and we try to find a huge solution, when we really just need a simple one.
"Look at the World Cup, when they were looking at how to set up the wall when they have free kicks, I am sure that they paid millions of dollars to come up with that solution — just take a can of foam and spray and it's done. That's how we have to get down to it. We have to get off the high-level thinking and get back to basics.
"If we could just turn up one day and tell the guys, 'let's have a frank conversation'. When I was younger we used to have prison ministry, where we went into the prisons on a Saturday to have service with the prisoners, pray with them, and we just got up one day and said let us have a football match with these guys. Everybody was scared of playing with them... and that was one of the best things that we could have done. When we were finished we decided on certain guidelines before and socialising after the match, and we got guys who came out, converted, got into church and got involved in different programmes," he said.
The churchgoer is still close to his mother, grandmother and three brothers. But the focus now is on building his Flow family and ensuring that the healthy relationship is preserved, so that a lot more can be achieved.