National Baking Company: Changing lives via infant education

Business Leader Corporate Philanthropy

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The National Baking Company Foundation, the vehicle through which Gary ‘Butch’ Hendrickson channels hundreds of millions of dollars to charity was launched on August 26, 2015.


But the bakery empire that stands behind the foundation which now bears its name has had its roots firmly planted in philanthropy for many years.


Hendrickson is the principal and executive chairman of National — arguably Jamaica’s foremost producer of baking products. Over the past several years, he has developed the reputation as an entrepreneur with a penchant for diving into the deep end for his favourite causes.


In fact, since 2011 National has spent $800 million to uplift thousands of Jamaicans, the vast majority of whom its principal is unlikely to ever meet in his lifetime.


Not a penny was given away in the abstract pursuit of philanthropy; there are specific social and developmental issues that the 64-year-old businessman cares passionately about and it is these priority areas that have been the beneficiaries of his unerring generosity.


A quick review of the activity spreadsheet of the foundation leaves little doubt as to what these priorities are, and by any objective measure, early childhood education tops the list.


"My first priority is early childhood education," Hendrickson declares unabashedly. "This is something that I want to do. This is what I want to be my legacy."


For many years National Baking Company, without public fanfare, provided scholarships directly to individuals, donated cash and kind to charities, and would routinely respond to numerous requests from schools and other institutions for financial assistance.


But in 2011 the company’s charitable pursuits made a quantum leap. That year, Deika Morrison, an economist and former advisor in the Ministry of Finance, founded a programme called Crayons Count that was aimed at supplying schools that catered to three- to six-year-olds with learning tools that engender early childhood development.


Armed with a battery of research data touting the positive long-term economic impact of early childhood stimulation, Morrison made a funding pitch to local companies to seed her project.


She found in Hendrickson, not just a pair of sympathetic ears, but a potential private sector partner who harboured similar ambition, had the depth of pocket to back it up, but who hitherto lacked a viable road map to achieve their shared goal.


When presented with the idea, Hendrickson found it irresistible. "It was a no-brainer," he beams, as he recounts the early beginning of the project. "I was sitting in my office and took a call from Deika. She said ‘kids don’t have crayons so they can’t develop reading skills....we can’t keep losing generations of Jamaican kids’."


Without hesitation, the businessman committed his company to becoming the primary financial backer for Crayons Count and thereafter went full throttle into moving the project beyond the broad sketches outlined to him by its visionary founder. Over the next 12 months National spent $30 million on the enterprise.


At the heart of Crayons Count are 120,000 children aged three to six at 2,500 registered infant schools spread across the island. The immediate plan was to place into their hands some potentially life-changing learning kits, and to provide training for their teachers.


There are 13 different learning tools inside each kit — a prosaic list that includes scissors, paint brushes, crayons, puzzles and so on. Educators swear that they help infants develop good motor skills, adroit eye-hand co-ordination, stimulate their imagination and even nudge their young minds towards critical decision-making.


On paper, National’s role in this partnership is to import, store and package the kits, and then use its large fleet of trucks to distribute them to the schools.


But this company has emerged from beyond the shadows of an anonymous supporter of good deeds to publicly, if proudly, play the role of the peripatetic champion of the benefits of early childhood education.


It has branded several of its delivery vehicles with the Crayons Count eye-catching livery, logo, and message, thus helping to build broad public awareness for its mission. Indeed, as Jamaicans watch these trucks criss-crossing major townships and venturing deep into the heart of rural Jamaica there can be no mistaking as to which company is throwing its resources behind the noble cause of early childhood education.


Yet National has continued to expand its footprint in this endeavour — upping its sponsorship to $50 million in 2013, and, in more recent times, adding a touch of pizzazz to the project with the introduction of a fully-equipped Learning Lorry to its mobile fleet — giving it the ability to take seminars to the doorsteps of teachers all over the island.


In August this year, the company launched the Little Leaders Programme — a spin-off initiative of the Crayons Count project but one that will focus on improving mathematics and science performance among the same age cohort. A mobile classroom, named ‘Training Wheels’ will have a full-time education consultant on board to host workshops across the island.


"If we can make the difference in the life of a child, if we can save a couple lives that might have gone the wrong way because of education they didn’t receive...," noted Hendrickson at the launch of the project. "There are so many things negative in the world, so many things that work against us, and all we are trying to do is to make a positive difference."


All told, National has already thrown $250 million behind its gargantuan mission of transforming Jamaica through intervention at the earliest possible stage of academic life.


Still, one of the projects that animates the businessman is the building last year of Union Gardens Infant School off Spanish Town Road in Kingston.


A recent visit to the 8,000-square-foot building brings to mind that this remarkable facility in what is unmistakably inner-city Kingston, has to be a reflection of the collective vision of a highly committed and deep-pocketed philanthropic group of Jamaicans.


Six classrooms accommodate 105 children, and the facility boasts washrooms outfitted with miniaturised flush toilets and right-sized face basins, generous water storage tanks and spacious dining facilities. The $173-million price tag was shared by several government and private sector institutions,


National teamed up with two of businessman Glen Christian’s companies — Cari-Med Limited and Kirk Distributors Limited — as the chief private sector supporters. The CHASE Fund, and Jamaica Social Investment Fund (JSIF) provided State support for the project.


"We see eye to eye on early childhood education and there’s no backing out on this one," Hendrickson said of his partnership with Christian, himself a past winner of the Business Leader Award. "It’s a commitment," he added. "We intend to do more whenever we get the opportunity to do more. This is a part of my dream, this is a part of what we at National try to give back with and it’s something we are committed to."


Another important leg on which the philanthropic endeavours of National Baking Company stands is its role as a facilitator and promoter of small and medium enterprises — through an initiative called The Bold Ones. This programme has also dovetailed into another more recent initiative called "Made in Jamaica" that is similarly aimed at small and medium-sized businesses.


The Bold Ones was introduced in 2010, when National identified about a dozen local companies to sponsor at the biennial Jamaica Exporters’ Association Expo held at the National Arena in Kingston.


To qualify for participation, companies are required to use indigenous material in their manufacturing, have to be under seven years in operation, and employ at least five individuals. In addition to the exposure at the trade expo, National invested in a year-long promotion of the firms via a wide range of media and provided them with advice as well as business opportunities and contacts to help expand their market.


Hendrickson says the impact on the companies that have participated in The Bold Ones programme has been impressive.


"The Bold Ones has created 600 jobs so far based on our survey," he says. "I am extremely proud of that, and this is an example of the impact of our charity."


Among the participants: Bartley’s All in Wood – a manufacturer of jewellery, hair ornaments and household items whose products have now found a place at Sandals hotel chain gift shops. Indigenous brands like Chocolate Dreams, Home Choice Enterprises, AMG Packaging, Irie Rock, and Patwa Apparel are among the many companies that have participated in the programme.


Made in Jamaica, the spin-off initiative, had its debut at the end of November last year with spectacular results. For two days, 50 local companies had their products on display in the ballroom of the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel. Hendrickson says that so well received were the brands that many were sold out within the first day.


"We wanted to introduce Jamaicans to Jamaican products," he says. "We recognise that until we have faith and confidence in ourselves and our own products nobody will have confidence in us."


This year, the products of 60 companies will be promoted.


National is also a big supporter of poverty alleviation and skills training — the third leg of its role as an exemplar of corporate social responsibility. Here millions of dollars are funnelled through 25 charitable organisations that impact the lives of countless individuals. Household-name charities like the Mustard Seed, Laws Street Training Centre, Food For the Poor, and St Patrick’s Foundation are among the charities.


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 moseshbsjackson@yahoo.com