NCB Group: Education is the key

Business Leader: Corporate Philanthropy: Nominee No 6

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From the vantage point of his younger brother Wayne Chen, Michael Lee Chin is the personification of kindness.

Lee Chin left Jamaica in his mid-teens for Canada where he spent most of his adult life and made his fortune. He returned to the island in 2002 as a gritty, deep-pocketed investor on the prowl for business deals.

He announced his entrepreneurial foray in the Jamaican market with public fanfare, snatching the Government’s controlling interest in one of the island’s most iconic institutions – National Commercial Bank (NCB).

The 2002 transaction was an economic game-changer. It set in motion a series of acquisitions, mega deals and business alignments that permanently reshaped the country’s corporate landscape.

As the acquisitive streak in this billionaire went into overdrive, no company or industry seemed beyond his reach.

He became the ubiquitous investor – grabbing media assets, expanding his holdings in the insurance industry, making plays in tourism, agro-processing, and hospital services. His dramatic portfolio acquisitions reverberated throughout the stock market, triggering tectonic shifts in boardrooms at companies listed on the Jamaica Stock Exchange and engendering renewed vibrancy in equities.

Lee Chin’s financial prowess earned him, among other accolades, nomination for the Jamaica Observer Business Leader Award in 2010 – the year in which foreign investors were the focus of the award programme.

That year, to help shed light on the forces which were fuelling his brother’s indomitable entrepreneurism, Wayne Chen, in an
Observer interview, summoned this heartfelt acclaim: "He is the most generous person you will ever meet, sometimes to his own detriment, both in small things and big things."

So when Lee Chin showed up at Norman Manley International Airport in his private jet, he was no stranger to philanthropy. The personal quality vouchsafed by his brother had been playing out on a very grand scale in Canada for many years.

He brought back with him to Jamaica his infectious trademark smile, a few well-rehearsed homilies and an inalterable sense of corporate social responsibility, and he wasted no time in letting loose that latter quality on the public.

Indeed, the fact that the NCB Foundation was established even before the ink on the purchase deal could fully dry, speaks volumes about the place that charity occupied in the priority scale of the bank’s new chairman and majority shareholder.

"As businesses, we must practise the double bottom line of doing well and doing good," Lee Chin declares unabashedly, emphasising that "this is a philosophy practised in all my endeavours as we seek to improve the social well-being of the communities in which we operate. ‘Those who can should’, this is a simple notion for a civil society."

This aphorism is more succinctly captured in its Latin version
prosperitas cum caritate that the businessman displays in his office, and NCB Foundation in all its manifestations – its body of work, priorities and the values they reflect – is in perpetual harmony with this important mantra.

The foundation has a 14-member board, a CEO and three senior executives, and the centrality of education in its charitable pursuits is seen in its public pronouncements as well as the institution’s budgetary allocations.

Over the decade – 2006 to 2015 – NCB Group spent more than $1.3 billion on corporate social responsibility, and budgeted $107 million for the current (2016) accounting year. Of this expenditure, 40 per cent, or $576 million, went towards supporting education causes – a combination of scholarships, institutional strengthening, and payment of exam fees for thousands of students sitting specific disciplines at the CXC level.

"The bank understands the role [that] technology and a comfortable environment play in the learning process," declares the foundation in responding to queries about its operation by the Business Leader Award programme. It continues: "As such, computers, printers and other technological learning aids have been donated to schools across the island."

Lee Chin reinforces this urgent mission to help transform Jamaica through education, in his response to questions posed by the

"A skilled population is a productive population," he argues, "therefore, building a better Jamaica requires a commitment to education."

The chairman’s appreciation of education’s transformative power – to unlock individual and social potential – is not unconnected to his own experience in Canada where his degree in engineering and the personal discipline it induced became the cornerstone for his success in the seemingly unrelated world of funds management.

"It is also my dream," he avers, "that one day every Jamaican child will have the opportunity to complete tertiary education – it is my commitment to do all I can to realise that dream."

Back in 2003, Lee Chin endeared himself to high school students, their financially distressed parents and anxious school administrators across Jamaica with his bold announcement that his bank, through its foundation, would pay the exam fees for those who planned to sit principles of business and principles of accounts in the CXC and who were able to attain a 70 per cent average in their school exams.

Over 10 years, this virtuous commitment has cost the bank $115 million – to pay for 92,000 entries in both subjects.

The money to cover the cost of this initiative is generated each time a customer holding NCB’s proprietary Keycard swipes it at a cash register. That results in 0.5 per cent of the purchase value – revenue that would normally flow to the bank’s bottom line – being diverted to the ledger of the foundation.

The executives of the foundation acknowledge that this project is an example of the kind of self-enlightened outreach that helps the bank build brand loyalty.

"The organisation benefits from being recognised as a leading corporate citizen," they say, adding that "in the last brand and image survey NCB was recognised in the top five companies that give back; this goodwill augurs well for the organisation’s image and reputation."

During the same decade and on parallel tracks, the foundation pursued an aggressive scholarship programme that directly benefited 3,000 individuals, including scores of teachers who had their pedagogical skills sharpened through training. The price tag of this undertaking was $245 million.

Yet, building institutional capacity in education is another strategy that the bank has used to reach thousands more Jamaicans and to make good on the urging of its chairman that "establishing a framework for educational success is a responsibility we must all share and an opportunity we must all embrace and through NCB, this is being actively pursued and executed".

So scores of schools have been outfitted with computers, printers and other technological learning aids. Their libraries have been expanded and modernised to create an environment that is more conducive to learning. All told, $216 million has been pumped into this project; 10,000 students have been impacted.

The revenue generated from the Keycard initiative is not the only source of funding for the foundation’s charitable commitments. NCB sets aside half of one per cent of each year’s net profit to underwrite the work of the foundation. Sports development and community projects are the primary targets – $320 million over 10 years with more than 9,000 individual beneficiaries.

Institutions like the Jamaica Olympic Association, Tennis Jamaica, Jamaica Netball Association and MVP Track Club have had help from NCB in nurturing the professional development of athletes, many of whom have gone on to bring glory to Jamaica on the global athletics stage.

At the community level, the foundation leverages the bank’s branch network to "build the communities it serves by supporting projects that play integral roles in the daily development and grooming of our youths".

One of the more memorable early moments that helped to cement NCB’s illustrious history as an organisation with a charitable spirit was the manner in which it responded to the Government’s appeal for private sector help in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

Not only did the bank immediately commit $120 million of its own money to the cause, it issued an open challenge to members of the private sector to collectively match its contribution. A total of $212 million was raised to help schools, farms, hospitals, churches, businesses, and some individuals across the island get back on their feet – altogether some 50,000 cases.

NCB calculates that each year its foundation touches the lives of 60,000 Jamaicans and 50 organisations, including 420 scholarship recipients and the 4,500 CXC students whose exam fees are taken care of (the vast majority of whom sit both accounts and business).

The foundation explains that its allocations "are based on annual business plans and budgets" and that "support is project-driven and based on demands."

Two years ago, the banking group went well beyond its normal budgetary allocation to the foundation to directly support several of what it calls "nation-building projects", many of them in partnerships or co-operation with other funding institutions.

Overall, $310 million was spent on these programmes. They include US$1 million in grant funding for a research project at the University of the West Indies; another that was aimed at building capacity among small and medium enterprises and which was promoted by the Inter-American Development Bank. NCB contributed US$1 million.

There were others: notably $13 million to support Women Business Owners, and a $5-million gift to the Start-Up Jamaica programme spearheaded by the Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining.

The list of institutions and causes that the foundation is supporting this year is exhaustive. Commitments to charities in the fields of education and health will claim the lion’s share, as seen from some of the examples below:

• University of Technology, Jamaica

• Caribbean Maritime Institute

• Mico Teachers’ College

• Shortwood Teachers’ College

• Overseas Examinations Commission

• Kingston Public & Victoria Jubilee hospitals

• Spanish Town Hospital

• Port Maria Hospital

• Princess Margaret Hospital

• Hargreaves Hospital

• University Hospital of the West Indies

• Lupus Foundation of Jamaica

• Jamaica Society for the Blind

• Mustard Seed Communities

• Heart Foundation

• Jamaica Cancer Society

• Jamaica Environment Trust

• Food For the Poor

• Wortley Home for Girls

• Glenhope Nursery

• Walker’s Place of Safety

• Missionaries of the Poor

At the time of his interview with the
Jamaica Observer back in 2010, Chen pointed to the unprecedented Can$30 million endowment that his brother had made to the Royal Canadian Museum in 2004, and the subsequent J$200 million donation through his Canadian company AIC, to Northern Caribbean University in Mandeville.

"He is an old-time philanthropist," Chen said of Lee Chin. "He has a strong sense of commitment and duty to the people and communities that made him who is."

That declaration rings truer today than it did six years ago.

– Moses Jackson is the founder of the Jamaica Observer Business Leader Award programme and the chairman of the Award Selection Committee. He may be reached at