Monday, April 6, 2009

Lester Spaulding's legacy


SPAULDING... don't give in to indiscipline

JEAN LOWRIE-CHIN | Jamaica Observer | Monday, April 06, 2009


When Lester Spaulding presented the Schools' Challenge Quiz Trophy to the victorious Kingston College team last week, I wondered if the young men realised that they were being congratulated by one of Jamaica's most excellent role models. JA Lester Spaulding CD, JP, chairman of the most powerful media group in the English-speaking Caribbean, is the scion of working-class Jamaicans, a visionary whose early decisions have ensured an enduring future for the RJR Group.

Lester admits to "enjoying myself a little too much" at his alma mater Kingston College, but was soon set straight by his mother who insisted that her children should become professionals. With his knack for figures, Lester started his accounting career at Price Waterhouse and looks back at those demanding seven years with appreciation for the uncompromising standards of the firm's Bob Humphries, Jim Lord and the late Keith Handy. He describes it as an environment of "real discipline - you never had the luxury of doing as you please. We had fun off the job but were never allowed to compromise our standards and therefore those of the organisation".

Lester believes that it is only this kind of discipline that will help our young people to succeed in an even more difficult job market. His advice is, "Concentrate on self-development, nowadays you have to be at 125 per cent, making your contribution indispensible." This has been his own approach to life. At his retirement party last year, Spaulding is quoted by Jamaica Observer reporter Tyrone Reid: "I feel very fortunate to have spent 43 years doing what I love." He personifies the German proverb, "There is no one luckier than he who thinks himself so."

The man who presided over the phenomenal growth of the RJR Group, from a single radio station to an entity with one free-to-air television channel, three cable channels and three radio stations, says it is important to operate free from partisan political bias and with no hidden agenda.

"The RJR legacy is one of openness," he says. "We are the only electronic media house that is required to report quarterly by showing our accounts. This encourages discipline as we must be accountable to our shareholders and publics."

The company was once owned by the British company Rediffusion and continued with their private-sector orientation, always aiming for profitability. Let's acknowledge that it is only a profitable company that can assure workers of ongoing employment, organisational growth, independence and improvement of shareholders' value.

RJR's unique ownership structure comprises members of the public, employees and mass-based organisations. In the 80s, when the government put up their shares for sale, 9,000 shareholders came on board, a huge vote of confidence. To this day, no single shareholder can own more than 10 per cent of the group's shares.

The forward-thinking Spaulding had applied for a television licence from the 70s, buying land next to 32 Lyndhurst Road in anticipation. It was a long wait. In 1996, the only mature television station in Jamaica, the government-owned JBC, was deep in debt and undercapitalised. Lester Spaulding and team sharpened their pencils to acquire the assets of the television station with the consent of the then prime minister and on the recommendation of the chairman of the board of the corporation, Errol Miller. Spaulding presided over a US$7-million outlay for First-World style studios and production equipment.

While he is not for stifling the enthusiasm for more media houses, Spaulding believes the policy of successive governments for awarding commercial licences is flawed. "They need to examine and take into account the absorptive capacity of the country.

Licences are generally awarded amidst publication of well-thought out principles, but enforcement rules under which they are given is in the exception rather than the rule," he says. "If the application is for a regional licence, it should not somehow become, in short order, national with retroactive approval. I don't believe the advertising pie and lack of growth in the economy can support them."

In relation to the ending of the Nationwide contract, Spaulding says that contrary to the belief that the plug was pulled suddenly, mid-programme, "There had been talks over several weeks and the understanding was that we would have to close transmission at 4.30 pm last Monday if last-minute negotiations were not resolved. At the appointed time, the engineer switched off, but discovered that multiple feeds made the exercise more complex, hence the delay."

Spaulding becomes serious as he speaks about the challenges to all businesses at this time. "RJR had to contract - this crisis is not going away any time soon. But at the same time we have to try to stimulate the market. I am happy to see companies like GraceKennedy still going for growth. One of the best ways to show growth is through advertising - as they say, 'winking at a girl in the dark gets you nowhere'."

Lester is pleased that TVJ has continued and improved the JBC-founded Schools' Challenge Quiz to see its 40th year and has also introduced other winners in local programming. They have been able to marry successfully these programmes to the sponsorship market.

Spaulding says that his successor, Group Managing Director Gary Allen, understands that productivity and proper management of output have to be the focus now more than ever. "One has to insist that all departments perform," he says. "Don't give in to indiscipline and bamboozling so pervasive in the market today." He says companies must now "take the fat out of the system, stay on message and ready themselves so they can go on the economic uptick".

Even as he blazed the technology trail in media, Lester believes in the old-fashioned values of honour and integrity. "Your word should be your bond," he maintains. "I have unfortunately had exposure to people who shake hands on a decision in a meeting and then go out and do the opposite, undermining that agreement for perceived short-term gain. We have to do better than that. Fortunately, without calling names, those have been in the minority."




PS - we added info on Lester's alma mater after receiving the following letter:

Reference to your article on Mr. Lester Spaulding in the Observer newspaper of April 6, 2009..

The content was excellent , however what was missing was the fact that Mr. Spaulding is himself a Kingston College old boy.

Walter T Bygrave
KC 1965 to 1972

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