Tuesday, May 13, 2008

David Hall's Ja experience

Observer column by Jean Lowrie-Chin

Monday, April 28, 2008

"Jamaicans are persuasive, creative and innovative - challenge them with a situation and they will solve any problem," said outgoing Digicel Jamaica CEO David Hall as he offered advice to prospective investors. "Don't be stuck on negative statistics. An economic and social system as dynamic and multilayered as Jamaica, demands that you seek information from various sources, and not just rely on official records." He urges those interested in Jamaica to visit the country and "feel the pulse of the nation".

David Hall did that long before he joined Digicel. As a young accountant with the Kirk Connell-owned business in Cayman in the 80s, he was a frequent visitor to neighbouring Jamaica and fell in love with our people, culture and landscape. It was a love inherited from his father Kevin Hall who had been visiting the country every year for 30 years as a representative of Waterford Crystal.

"My Dad developed a great friendship with Pokar Chandiram as well as George Fatta, and now Pokar's son, Anup is a good friend," smiles David. He recently disclosed that he will be making Jamaica his home base - he and his wife Liz had already bought a house here.

The warm-hearted, hard-driving Irishman developed his practical approach to life growing up in Ireland. "My parents insisted that we all go to university, studying whatever we wanted, as they considered the university experience as the important stepping stone more so than the course itself." His parents also insisted that they take summer jobs, so they would learn to put better value on money: "At 12 you got your first summer job and at 16 you worked abroad staying with family friends or relatives."

When he finally graduated from university in Ireland, David thought he had arrived. Not so. He was feeling quite spiffy in his new suit when he showed up for an accounting post at a Kerry group facility in Durham, England. The managing director invited David into his office, demanded his jacket and told him to return for it in six months. The bright graduate was unceremoniously dispatched to the fast-moving factory floor, decked out in a fluffy blue cap, white coat and rubber boots.
In the following months he operated machines, packed meats and learned the tough basics of the business.

"It was probably the greatest lesson I ever had," he says. "How can you manage someone if you don't understand their job? That's how you appreciate whether they are being efficient or not."

This was the beginning that made David Hall a quiet giant in corporate leadership. As a mentor, David has encouraged the 1,000-strong Digicel team to be determined in the face of obstacles: "Go over, under or around obstructions. Expect challenges, but meet them head-on. Have the confidence and be determined to overcome."

David takes no complaint lightly. "Have a passion for your customers and Jamaica," he advises, "both are your life bond and if treated right, will not let you down."
There are countless stories of David, hearing a complaint on the road, arriving at the office with his notes, making breathless calls and insisting that the sun must not set on the issue. Then David gives all the kudos to his team, reserving none for himself, so that many are not aware of his hands-on leadership.

"We have the hardest working staff in Jamaica," he says. "They have the world record for the pace at which they have rolled out networks, creating the biggest brand in the Caribbean." David says Digicel works as a "flat" organisation, allowing team members a measure of autonomy. "For fast progress, you have to trust people to take quick decisions. You may get some things wrong, but that's how you learn."

He mentioned individuals like Rohan Pottinger and Lesline Chisholm who have come up through the ranks. "Thanks to individuals like these pillars, the Jamaican operation is the most efficient of all 23 countries," he says.

But it's not easy getting cellphones into 1.9 million Jamaican pockets: "Like Seamus Lynch before me, I was married to the job," says David. "We average about 20 social functions per week plus long days at the office."

Monsignor Richard Albert,who got to know David when he attended Stella Maris, says, "David really took Digicel to new heights - I don't think a lot of people know how hard he has worked, how many people he won over to Digicel by sheer determination, and what a genuinely kind person he is."

In spite of the accolades, David, who will be moving up to the post of Digicel's North Caribbean ceo, says there is "nothing amazing" about the way he works. "Listen to your customers," he says. "We are customer-driven and David Hunter, my successor in Jamaica, thinks in the same vein."

Observing the achievements of the Jamaican team, deployed all over the world to spread "the Jamaican DNA" in all the company's networks, David has become even more passionate about better educational opportunities for young Jamaicans. He spearheaded a joint venture with HEART and the National Youth Service to train call-centre personnel and has been an enthusiastic supporter of the company's EMBA programme.

He is particulrly pleased with the educational projects supported by the Digicel Foundation. "Success is cyclical - the more you pass it on, the more it comes back to you," he says.

Buoyed by his positive Jamaican experience, David hopes that business interests "will keep on believing in Jamaica, and press forward with innovation and entrepreneurship". He has been deeply impressed by the Observer's Business Leader of the Year awards. "Bureaucracy and excessive administration are frustrating entrepreneurs where conditions in Jamaica make it very difficult to succeed. Therefore, when business people actually do make it, it really is an achievement. I salute Butch Stewart for these awards that celebrate their success."

Recalling the sea change in Irish business in the 80s, David said it taught him that "you can actually change a country's dynamics forever". He is convinced that no other Caribbean country is as endowed as Jamaica is. "You have attractions on your north coast and south coast, a strong culture, wonderful people and a superb climate. Jamaica is at a crossroads. It is important that the right decisions are made now as they will impact generations to come."

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