Don Wehby: groomed for corporate leadership

Business Leader: Executive Steward NOMINEE #11

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Today the Jamaica Observer publishes the 11th of 12 stories on the nominees for this year's Business Leader Award being held under the theme “Business Leader: Executive Steward”. The nominees are among the top CEOs in Jamaica.

 

 

When Don Wehby joined GraceKennedy Ltd in 1995 his avowed mission was to become its group financial officer.

It's not that the 32-year-old chartered accountant lacked high-level ambition or a transcendent sense of destiny; indeed, given the size and complexity of the organisation, chief financial officer was a prestigious title that came with weighty accountability.

“I was very grateful for the opportunity to work with such a reputable company,” declares Wehby. “My goal was to become group financial officer and I was very fulfilled in that role.”

That may very well be the case. But somewhere in the recesses of his mind this executive must have cast his eyes on loftier perch within the establishment. The blistering speed with which he scaled the corporate ladder and his strategic positioning on his way up belie any assertion to the contrary.

Sixteen years hence, the board of directors would undoubtedly have known who and what they were getting when they appointed the now seasoned executive to replace their chief executive officer, Douglas Orane, whom they lost to retirement.

Wehby's curricula vitae at Grace read like that of a man in a hurry to get somewhere; he acknowledges as much in recounting his journey through the echelons of the corporate giant.

“I quickly rose through the ranks to the post of group chief financial officer and in 1999 the role of chief operating officer (COO) for the Financial Services Division was added to my portfolio,” he tells me.

The upshot is that Wehby's imprints that are now etched into some of the transformative decisions at Grace pre-date his 2011 appointment as the CEO of the conglomerate.

1997 is a convenient point of departure for a trace of his ascendancy at the company; this was the year he got a coveted seat on Grace's main board and with it came the title of deputy finance director.

Subsequent promotions were in rapid succession. Group chief financial officer twinned with chief operating officer in charge of the Financial Services Division placed the upwardly mobile Wehby in charge of a portfolio that was of increasing strategic value to the company — banking, insurance and investment services.

In this role, the executive had direct oversight responsibility of Grace's listing on the stock exchanges in Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean. He also led the acquisition of the remaining minority interests in First Global Bank, a move that made this institution a wholly owned subsidiary of the parent firm.

This job also gave Wehby an important platform to demonstrate his managerial efficacy, and the result-oriented executive did so with aplomb. Over five years, he drove pre-tax profit at the Financial Services Division by more than 400 per cent — from $280 million in 2000 to $1.417 billion in 2005.

Wehby confesses that the focus and single-mindedness of purpose that produced these impressive results were not personal features that he brought with him to Grace. His transformation followed a series of discussions with the company's executive chairman.

“Douglas Orane challenged me to think ahead of where I had initially seen myself,” he lets on. “I was subsequently placed on the succession plan role and I used every opportunity to learn from those who were around me, and settled within myself that I was ready to take on the mantle of leading this outstanding organisation.”

For those watching the boardroom intrigues and corporate movements at Grace — some of which spilled over into the public arena — it became clear by the mid-2000s that Wehby had been placed on an inside track that had a single irreversible destination.

His 2005 promotion as the group financial officer and critically, the head of the newly created strategic planning unit, was followed within a year by yet another big move. This time he was given the dual role of deputy CEO of GraceKennedy and the chief executive officer of a subsidiary, GK Investments.

Wehby initially sent shock waves throughout corporate Jamaica with his 2007 announcement that he was resigning from Grace to join the Bruce Golding Administration as Government senator and minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service.

But analysts and market watchers quickly settled around a narrative that this was not just an act of selfless patriotism because, whether intended or not, the tactical move would have the effect of burnishing his credentials for an eventual return for the top job at GraceKennedy when the then holder reached the mandatory retirement age.

So by October 2009 when Wehby returned to Grace to the new and expanded role of group chief operating officer, it was just a matter of when. That date came in 2011 with Orane's retirement and no waves were created. Wehby remains the group chief executive officer of one of Jamaica's largest corporations.

From his office on Harbour Street, downtown Kingston, the CEO oversees a conglomerate that has undergone multiple makeovers during the past several decades both in response to market changes and in pursuit of decades-old vision that he himself had a hand in crafting.

The multi-faceted company has as a core mission, that of generating 50 per cent of its profit and 60 per cent of gross revenue from outside of Jamaica.

In its latest iteration, the firm is divided into two very broad areas, but as a practical matter there are four discreet operational divisions.

Food trading once dominated the company's balance sheet, but beginning about 30 years ago that business line started to take a backstage to financial services. However, in more recent times, the division has had some resurgence, but with an emphasis now on hard currency earnings.

With this new and urgent focus GraceKennedy has been taking its manufacturing plants and retail outlets directly into the overseas markets where the customers are and therefore where the hard currency can be mined.

AS CEO, Wehby has been a primary driver behind this aggressive thrust into foreign markets.

“I led the acquisition of LaFe in 2014, a Hispanic brand, and we are now an international player,” he notes, pointing out that the Hispanic market in the United States has an estimated annual value of US$5 billion.

“The increased presence of our Grace brands in major retailers such as Walmart and Publix, and our acquisition of LaFe in the USA (now GK Foods (USA) LLC), is a game-changer for the GraceKennedy Group,” he adds. “This will serve as a spring board for further growth of our business in North America through one of the fastest-growing segments in the US — the Hispanic food and beverage market. We now have offices in New Jersey, Florida and Atlanta.”

The takeover of WT Foods in the UK (now Grace Foods UK) is similarly aimed at hard currency earning, and this move has had the positive spill-over effect of boosting Grace's presence elsewhere in Europe and in Africa.

“I am extremely proud of our expansion into Africa where, I have been told, there is a similarity in the taste profiles (we both love spicy foods),” says Wehby. “Our beverages have been well received and today our Grace mackerel and Mighty Malt are very popular. Due to the popularity of the Grace brand in Africa we were also able to open our own company in Ghana in 2014. We are also as far away as Russia, in over 85 stores.”

In 2015, Grace struck a distribution deal with AriZona beverages, an arrangement that Wehby describes as “a major stepping stone in getting the Grace brand out there”.

As part of their new push into exports the directors committed the company's capital to enhancing value-added along the input chain all the way from the farm to the retail end of the business. So, for example, the firm has been partnering with Jamaican farmers to produce pepper mash, an important intermediary ingredient that it used to import.

Here is how Wehby explains this arrangement: “Up to a few years ago we were importing pepper mash from Costa Rica to keep up with the demand. We decided that we wanted to do this locally, so we contacted several local farmers and told them we would partner with them to supply us with products. We also assisted them with training and inputs such as fertiliser. This has worked very well and we are not only exporting to other Caribbean islands, but to our own factory in Wales and as far away as Sweden.”

Yet its recent acquisition of Consumer Brands has again deepened its footprint in distributorship. That deal landed it some of the most coveted line of products on the market — Proctor & Gamble.

“This is something that we are very excited about as we believe this is a natural fit for GraceKennedy,” beams Wehby. “Of course, there are other deals in the pipeline and we continue to look out for growth opportunities as we move towards achieving our vision of becoming a global consumer group.”

The conglomerate's banking arm, its general insurance services, and what it calls its money services division, together with trading collectively account for the $90-billion in sales and $4.5-billion net profit earned last year.

At the end of December, the group had assets of $126 billion and shareholder equity of $43.5 billion. It currently employs 3,500 individuals.

Wehby's impact at Grace has been seamless, even as he moved up the ranks over his 22 years with the organisation.

It was he who led the charge for the company to acquire Trafalgar Commercial Bank, launching it into the commercial banking space.

“I made a very bold decision which the board at the time approved, despite their reservations,” says the CEO.

Grace paid $8.5 million for 55 per cent of the bank which had a staff count at the time of 22. Today, most Jamaicans are probably unaware of its relatively humble beginnings or that it was Trafalgar Commercial that gave birth to First Global, which now boasts assets of over $52 billion, nearly $8 billion in shareholder equity, and has a workforce of 300.

Wehby points to the importance of teamwork to the success of the sprawling conglomerate that he leads.

“I am very proud of the team that we have built at GraceKennedy and the work we are doing together,” he says. “All of my successes throughout the years would not have been possible without my very dedicated and fantastic team who are located not only in Jamaica but worldwide (Caribbean, North America, Europe and Africa). Together we work as a team doing not only what is good for GraceKennedy but also what is good for Jamaica.”

Again, given its complexity, having clearly defined structures in place is critical to proper functioning of this organisation, and Grace has a multi-tiered management and decision-making arrangement with Wehby at the helm.

As CEO, he reports directly to the chairman — Professor Gordon Shirley — and the main board with whom he says he enjoys “an excellent relationship” — another essential feature for the effective management of the company.

“Our board consists of mostly external directors (both locally and overseas). I am in constant contact with our board chairman, Prof Shirley, our past chairman and CEO Douglas Orane and the other external directors who always make themselves available to provide guidance.”

For important decisions, discussions are held at the level of the business unit then at the executive committee which is chaired by the CEO. This committee is made up of CEOs for Grace Foods Domestic, GK Foods International, GK Financial Group and First Global Bank. The other participants are the CFO, general counsel, and chief HR officer.

“The committee conducts the necessary due diligence,” the CEO explains. “We also spend a lot of time on risk management as well. After the necessary reviews are completed, and depending on the authorised limits, proposals are taken to the subsidiary boards or the main board for approval. There is a well-defined, disciplined and structured approach to consensus building and decision-making. I take this process very seriously and lead two major retreats each year with our senior management teams to discuss and outline the strategic direction and plan for the coming year, within the framework of the 2020 vision.”

Driven by his passion for sports, coupled with his recognition of its developmental possibilities, Wehby moved Grace towards committing millions of dollars each year to sponsor the ISSA/GraceKennedy Boys' & Girls' Championships.

He says he sees the sponsorship not as an expense, but “as an investment in our young people, the future of Jamaica”. He adds: “When you see athletes like Usain Bolt, and GraceKennedy brand ambassadors Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Hansle Parchment, we are very proud to know that we have a hand in shaping their lives.”

The CEO has a similar perspective on the charity work to which the company commits millions of dollars each year, as well as the role it continues to play in the redevelopment of downtown Kingston.

Grace is now investing US$25 million in a new corporate headquarters in that section of the city, a signal of its continued role in urban renewal and, according to Wehby, “that we intend to be here for many more years”.

Looking back at his early journey from Desnoes and Geddes to Grace, Wehby singles out one corporate personality — OK Melhado — as a mentor who had a major positive impact on him.

“I look up to him for so many reasons, including the fact that he is one of the most ethical and savvy businessmen you will meet anywhere,” says Wehby. “He is very unassuming and taught me the virtues of humility in business.”

Wehby is currently a non-aligned senator, having been named to that position by Prime Minister Andrew Holness.

During his first round in Government he was instrumental in getting the Golding Administration to sign on to the tax incentives that were foundational to the establishment of the Junior Stock Exchange in 2010.

“I played an integral role in the establishment,” he says, pointing out that the junior exchange “is doing well today as an engine of growth, allowing companies to improve their performance and governance while creating another channel for investors to participate in the stock market”.

 

— Moses Jackson is the founder of the Business Leader Award programme and chairman of the Award Selection Committee. He may be reached at moseshbsjackson@yahoo.com

— Freelance journalist Nazma Muller contributed to this story.