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How Don Wehby is positioning GraceKennedy for evolutionary change

BY AL EDWARDS
Observer writer

Sunday, February 03, 2019

CEO of the conglomerate GraceKennedy Group Don Wehby is setting the ground for the next stage in its evolution.

He is seeking to do so by organic growth, acquisitions and with a dynamic management team recruited and promoted from within Grace who are tried and tested.

He is also looking to synergies and a linear structure that sees him focusing on the big picture and not constrained by the minutiae of day-to-day operations.

Wehby is closing in on his often-declared target of GraceKennedy generating revenues of J$100 billion before 2020.

GraceKennedy celebrates its centenary in 2022 and he is committed to fundamentally transforming the group and seeing to it that it generates more profits and cash.

Many CEOs are content to plod along with no discernible goals. They are happy to be featured in the media and report creditable performances to shareholders. Not Wehby — he is seeking to make quantum leaps that will make GraceKennedy a Caribbean corporate titan with definable objectives.

Speaking with journalist Ralston Hyman recently on his radio show, Wehby pointed out that Grace's revenues have been growing over the last few years despite divestment of some of its subsidiaries like Hardware & Lumber.

According to its interim report for the nine months ended September 30, 2018, the GraceKennedy Group achieved revenues of $73.8 billion, a 6.5 per cent increase or $4.5 billion over the corresponding period of 2017. Total net profit for the period was $3.71 billion representing a decline of 1.1 per cent or $39.7 million compared with the same period in 2017.

In 2017 the group recorded non-recurring gains in the amount of $455 million as a result of the acquisition of a subsidiary and the liquidation of non-operating subsidiaries. Excluding these gains in 2017, net profit for the period would have been higher than the corresponding period by 12.6 per cent.

In an effort to reposition the group, Wehby took the decision to do some bench marking against some of its international peers looking at companies like General Electric (GE) and Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway.

The exercise took in examining efficiency ratios, head count and key performance indicators. So what did he discover?

”It was clear to me there was room for improvement in terms of efficiency and I shared this with the shareholders at our last AGM. We took a good look at all our central functions at Grace – accounting, legal, IT, etc, and discovered some duplication. Late last year we decided to make some changes which saw 70 people leaving the group,“ said Wehby .

Phase one of the master plan was to outline how to make GraceKennedy become more efficient in order to generate more profits for shareholders. Now in phase two with a focus on revenue growth, the plan is to put in place a dynamic management team.

“We are looking to organic growth by rolling out new products and services. We will also be more aggressive with acquisitions. We acquired a stake in Catherine's Peak and we merged with a company in the United States to produce Grace Patties there — which I might add is growing at over 200 per cent. Grace Patties can be found in Walmart and other outlets ,”explained the GraceKennedy boss.

Wehby has assiduously snapped up assets with the intention that they will inure to the profitability of GraceKennedy. In 2014, La Fe Foods in the US was acquired. It then had revenues of US$80 million. He took a stake in Gray's Pepper as well, and acquired 100 per cent of Consumer Brands Limited. He also acquired EC Global Insurance and merged Globe with Signia Financial Group in Barbados.

Always on the lookout for talented managers, Wehby is building a team around him to put his mission into action. Unlike many companies that have a presence in the Caribbean, he has looked to promote and recruit top Caribbean talent, more so those who have served and distinguished themselves at GraceKennedy.

He has not sought to import managers who have no connection or idea of how to operate in the region and more often than not return home after a brief adventure.

Wehby's predecessor Douglas Orane made a point of recruiting a top senior management team and singled out Wehby as his successor and had him work closely with him so that Wehby's accession would be seamless.

As CEO, Wehby is doing the same, giving opportunities to bright young managers who have exhibited talent and demonstrated success.

Frank James, who was group CFO, will now head up Domestic Foods and this gives him an opportunity to work in operations. Wehby cites James's abilities and sees him as a rising star that will go far in the group. Wehby was shifted to run the Financial Services division by Orane and he recalls that period taught him many things about leadership.

“Frank James will now run Domestic Foods and his portfolio will include our HI-Lo outlets and manufacturing. Some may see succession planning behind this move. I think this will be important for Frank's career development and I am sure he will do well.

“I am mandated to have a robust succession plan for my position as CEO. I need to present at least three senior executives that are able to succeed me. Douglas Orane took me under his wing and mentored me and I want to do the same. “

Frank James will be replaced by Andrew Messado as group CFO. Messado was recruited by Wehby some 20 years ago as a financial analyst .

“He is known in Jamaica as one of the best technical accountants. He is a man who keeps timely and accurate accounts. Andrew Messado is exceptional and will make a fantastic group CFO, “ said Wehby.

Michelle Allen, who is in charge of GK Money Services, which accounts for 50 per cent of Grace's profits, will retire. She will be replaced by Grace Burnett, who will retain her position as COO. Burnett will oversee GK Money Services' operations both in Jamaica and across the region on a day-to-day basis.

First Global Bank, of which Peter Moses is chairman, will report to Grace Burnett who in turn will report to Wehby.

Steven Whittingham has created a reputation as one of Jamaica's finest young financial professionals and Wehby credits him with doing a very good job with GK Capital, which continues to post consistent profits .

“I would like Steven to get more exposure and to run a bigger entity. He will now be in charge of all the insurance companies in the GraceKennedy Group while retaining his responsibility for GK Capital. He will also oversee mergers and acquisitions and be in charge of IT and infrastructure for the financial group.

“This will now make him in effect Grace's number two. I am giving the young executives an opportunity to show their worth to the Grace Kennedy Group,” said Grace's CEO.

Don Wehby has always been a keen student of corporate leadership and has often cited Jack Welch as an influence and has been thoroughly impressed with what he accomplished at General Electric.

Wehby long ago identified that Grace's future and prosperity lie in foreign markets, and has declared on a number of occasions that the majority of its profits must come from there.

“The exponential growth for Grace will come from international foods, and the potential is significant. We are focused on growing both our North American and UK businesses. I recently took a trip to Cuba and the opportunities there for Jamaican companies are unbelievable. However, I must say here that the EXIM Bank's line of credit is not sufficient and that must be addressed. The private sector must lobby the government in this regard. Cuba is a huge market. Grace is also looking to get into Haiti and the Dominican Republic,” said Wehby.

Having held the CEO position since 2011, Wehby is now looking to concentrate more on the big picture and focus less on operational concerns, choosing to delegate to a capable and competent management team who is all singing from the same hymnal.

Grace Kennedy is preparing to move into its brand-new constructed corporate headquarters located in downtown Kingston, which will also house, executive offices, a Hi-Lo Express, a bank, a Western Union outlet, a gym and a kids' day-care facility.

The new building stirred controversy with some holding the view the contract should have gone to a local contractor and developer. Wehby did not shy away from this, explaining that the tender went out to three Chinese companies and two Jamaican operators, with a Chinese company coming out on top.

“The building was completed on time and on budget and we are hoping to move in before the end of February. I told the Chinese firm that it would have to employ people from the community and they agreed to do so. Of the 180 people working on site, 150 were Jamaicans and they worked very diligently and were disciplined.

“I want HEART to certify them and ensure that the workers from the community that worked on the building all have a skill that they can use in the future,” said GraceKennedy's top executive.