Earl Jarrett: JN's big-picture boss

Business Leader: Executive Steward NOMINEE #12

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Today the Jamaica Observer publishes the 12th and final story 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.

In mid-November 2016, a group of high-powered corporate executives gathered inside the Jamaica Observer's swanky boardroom exchanging notes on their company's philanthropic engagements.

Earl Jarrett was at the luncheon representing Jamaica National, one of seven institutions that had been nominated that year for the Business Leader Award held under the theme 'Corporate Philanthropy'.

The JN boss was delayed in his arrival and once seated remained uncharacteristically reserved. He listened intently as the discussion meandered into the minutiae of how individual firms were coping with the increasing demands on their treasury for charity contributions.

Jarrett leaned back in his seat, took a furtive mental scope of the boardroom and its occupants, leaned forward again and broke his silence.

“It would be good to figure out how much is on the ground,” he offered, reaching for a sweeping conceptual framework.

He followed up with an elaboration that reset the trajectory of the afternoon's discourse.

“Once you begin to see that number it's going to get the attention of Government,” Jarrett assured his colleagues. “If we count the numbers and we find that it is in the billions that we are spending in charities, then it might well be worth your while for those persons who are spending this money to be able to come together and leverage that strength of investment to shape the direction (of Government policy).”

It happened that the corporations represented at the table together spent nearly $7 billion on good causes over the course of the preceding 10 years. This revelation gave credence to Jarrett's bold, big-picture idea and won the commitment of his colleagues to further explore the possibility for closer public/private sector collaboration in the delivery of charity services.

Jarrett's interjection was revelatory; it opened a transparent window into the big-vision corporate mindset.

This was a man — a chartered accountant by training but an entrepreneurial executive by instinct — who took over a stodgy century-and-a-quarter-year-old building society in 1999 and oversaw its complete makeover in less than two decades.

For the past few weeks Jarrett has been abroad recuperating from an acute illness, so was unavailable for the Business Leader interview. But his indelible footprints at the institution that he leads have been dimmed neither by his recent illness nor his physical absence. Seen through the prism of colleagues and the mountain of documented evidence there can be little doubt as to the quality of the achievements that led to his nomination for the award.

An appreciation of just how far up Jarrett sits in the JN family tree must begin with an understanding of the current operating structure that came into being on January 17 this year.

That day marked the end of a 13-year journey towards the most fundamental transformation that the building society-led conglomerate ever undertook in its 142-year history.

Its various businesses are now organised under a formal group structure — the Jamaica National Group of companies.

The JN Group stands atop two very broad pedestals: there is the JN Financial Group under which all the financial institutions, including JN Bank, fall. The other is the MCS Group, where the non-financial companies congregate.

Jarrett is the chief executive officer of the Jamaica National Group of companies.

Among the big-ticket line items on the firm's ledger that reflect the transformation that happened under this CEO's leadership is the exponential increase in group assets — from $17 billion in 1999 to $200 billion today. To manage this fast-paced growth the company tripled its workforce from 500 to 1,600, and now has branches in all parishes throughout the island. Its banking subsidiary alone has a branch network of 34.

There are 600,000 members.

Roughly 20 companies make up the JN Group — the commercial bank being the obvious flagship and the third largest in the industry. The group has a presence through partnerships in places as far flung as Ghana and The Philippines. It has direct operation in USA, Canada, the UK and throughout the Caribbean. It is an important link between Jamaica and members of the Diaspora community.

The services provided by the many subsidiaries range from general and life insurance, brokerage, bill payments, remittance and money management, property management, debt management, transportation, road assistance and technology.

In its 2016/17 financial year the organisation posted pre-tax profit of $2.1 billion. It had $78 billion in loans, $114 billion in savings, and $33 billion in equity.

In short, JN is one of the largest institutions in Jamaica.

Jarrett's stewardship at the organisation is marked by an endless series of development milestones — from breakthrough into new lines of business, forays in foreign jurisdictions, expansion through acquisitions and mergers to organic growth stemming from management's aggressive push for a greater share of existing markets.

It's not that the company did not make strides in the decades preceding the CEO's stewardship; indeed it had already begun to test the overseas market with the opening of its representative office in the UK, and had floated its securities dealer and money management unit — JN Fund Managers.

But the institution instantly shifted gear once Jarrett moved into the general manager's office in 1999. For those on the outside looking on, it was clear that an energised, ambitious management team was at the helm as the group began to make its presence felt across the broad financial industry.

Jarrett first signalled that JN intended to compete in the entire financial space when he acquired a small micro-credit portfolio from FINSAC in 2000. Thus began JN's entry into the hitherto underdeveloped but very fast-growing market segment.

JN Small Business Loans Ltd had the market advantage of a deep-pocketed and highly-committed parent company, and it did not take long to establish itself as one of the primary players in that market — catering to thousands of individuals once considered unbankable.

Last year this subsidiary made over 26,500 loans worth $4 billion.

The foray into the small business market was followed in 2001 by the merger with the smaller Jamaica Savings and Loans Building Society; then the acquisition of Cayman Building Society.

JN's 2005 entry into the very lucrative remittance business with JN Money Transfer held the promise of a financial game-changer for the organisation because of its ability to leverage its fairly extensive yet growing network to become a major player in this business.

The decade of the 2000s was the most fruitful for JN as Jarrett was on a constant prowl of the marketplace for expansion opportunities.

Here are some of the transactions that helped shape the group during this period:

• The acquisition of majority shares in Jamaica General Insurance Company (formerly NEM) in April 2000.

• The 2000 restructuring of JN Fund Managers Limited, a securities dealer, pension fund and asset management outfit with an urgent new mandate to provide a wider suite of investment products and services to meet the growing needs of a diversified securities market.

• The formation of JN Life Insurance Company Limited (JN Life) in April 2008 with an initial mandate to develop life insurance products and services to meet the needs of members, and also fellow subsidiaries within the JN Group. This outfit now offers coverage for the mortgage loans of its parent; group life, and what it calls Single Premium Creditor Life and Credit Card Creditor Life. These products are sold to entities in the JN Group, including JN Bank.

• JN Money Services Limited (JNMS), which was incorporated in December 2005 to manage the remittance operations of the group, and to provide a suite of services that include money transfers and bill payments in Antigua, Barbados, Canada, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Ghana, Guyana and the UK.

• The MCS Group Limited serves as the non-financial holding company and parent of the unregulated entities within the Jamaica National Group. Services include property management, transportation and accident assistance, technology support, and debt management

Jarrett's creation is a synergistic and holistic collection of companies under a single group. His bold moves coupled with the manner in which he engages with his management team for these accomplishments have won him their admiration.

“He has an eye for opportunity and takes advantage where he can,” says Shereen Jones, assistant general manager and group chief information officer. “Under his leadership the JN Group has done some significant things and won a few awards for innovation — we were the first remittance organisation to use the Internet to send funds, for example.”

His approach to the roll-out of the far-reaching restructure of Jamaica National provides another glimpse into his ability and successes over the years to seamlessly shepherd both big and small changes through the organisation.

Dr Dana-Marie Morris Dixon, the chief research officer at JN Group, was directly in charge of the conversion process from Jamaica National Building Society to Jamaica National Bank. She says Jarrett's management philosophy was on full display during this transition, and that it was critical to its success.

“What has struck me through it all has been his emphasis on people,” she stresses. “When we were doing this transformation, he said, 'you have to engage the people who are going to be affected'.”

This was more than pep talk. Here, in Dixon's own words, is vintage Jarrett in motion:

“So all 1,600 members of staff were invited to the MoBay Conference Centre and he explained to each of them what was going to happen. Everybody in the organisation heard it at the same time. We also had smaller meetings in all 34 branches. He went around, many times late at night after the branch was closed, sometimes coming back at 2:00 am.

“He went to every location and every department, so everyone felt they were part of the transformation and could ask questions. The success of the conversion is inextricably linked to his engagement of the staff and their understanding their role in the entire process.”

The same passion was at work when Jarrett took on the herculean task of transforming the money transfer business from a paper-laden, six-week turnaround transaction to the instantaneous process that is today taken for granted.

Leon Mitchell, assistant general manager and group chief marketing and sales officer, remembers too well those days and Jarrett's role in modernising that process.

“It can't be logical that it takes six weeks to send money back home, especially when you have people who need it urgently,” Mitchell recalls Jarrett saying to him.

“First of all, we began with a basic system of scanning, packaging and putting a value proposition of two weeks,” says Mitchell. “Well, we moved from the manual system to three weeks' time. That was good but not good enough for him (Jarrett). He felt we still needed to make it better.

“That's when we took on the technology arm of the group and we were able to move the product from daily delivery to minutes, where if you walked into a branch in the UK and wanted to transfer money, and if the person was in Jamaica and the person was in the branch, they would receive the money in Jamaica by the time you walked out of the branch in the UK.”

If there is one common motif in Jarrett's management style it is his penchant for consultation.

“The beauty of Mr Jarrett is his ability to consult, take advice, debate with you and take your opinion on board,” declares Mitchell. “You always felt you could put your opinion in. When the group came up with restructuring as a way forward, it was important that all of us at the senior level had an input. We were moving from one holistic entity to holding companies and separating out the group of companies. It was extremely complex and needed to be done in a systematic and thoughtful way, but we always kept members in mind, that is why the holding companies are at the group level.”

Curtis Martin, the group chief financial officer and assistant general manager for treasury and investments, says the latitude that Jarrett affords his senior management team redounds to the benefit of the entire organisation.

“Mr Jarrett gives his management team the latitude to run their sphere of operations as if they are the CEO,” Martin notes. “Periodically he will check in to make sure we are performing and staying faithful to the JN culture, ie putting the members first. He is very collaborative, always looking to build consensus among all employees. He's a people person; he tries to guide and mentor rather than criticise.”

Martin points out that Jarrett's affinity for technology has also been positive for the group, and that he maintains a keen eye on cost management.

“He is keen on technology as an enabler, so MC Systems plays an important role in our development,” he explains. “My role is the optimisation of resources, to ensure that any projects, acquisitions or mergers provide value to the members and ensure that companies are properly funded, that funds are not wasted, and that we maximise members' value.”

Throughout his tenure at Jamaica National, Jarrett has been among the busiest of all executives in Jamaica.

Apart from chairing several of his subsidiaries, he sits on all their boards. This does not take into account his multiple external engagements. Among them: deputy chairman of the Jamaica Tourist Board, chairman of the Jamaica Cancer Society, honorary secretary of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, and a member of the executive board of the Caribbean Association of Housing Finance Institutions.

In 2015 Jarrett was inducted into the PSOJ Hall of Fame.

Three years earlier he was conferred with two major awards: the Order of Distinction in the rank of Commander (CD) for service in the financial sector; and the Pelican Award from The University of the West Indies Alumni Florida Chapter for outstanding work in business development among the Jamaican Diaspora in the USA.

 

— 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.