Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Audrey Marks's amazing story
Audrey Marks - no shrinking violet!
JEAN LOWRIE-CHIN | Jamaica Observer column | 15 June 2009
Monday, June 15, 2009
One can never tire of telling Audrey Marks's story. Hers is that of a young Jamaican whose entrepreneurial spirit would not flag, even when challenged by the establishment. Marks is in fact the creator of the bill payment industry in Jamaica and the first online payment system of its kind in the world, founding the ubiquitous Paymaster in 1994, now emulated by several larger and older businesses.
Her early career saw her facing off with an establishment that may have been surprised at the fight in this rather dainty young woman. She worked at Air Jamaica for several years during which she gained a UWI degree in Management and later a Master's in Business Administration. With the tumultuous atmosphere at the airline in the early 90s, she decided it was time to move on. However, she felt the terms of separation were stacked against her. This was when Marks proved that she was no shrinking violet. In her 20s, she hired her first attorney and negotiated an amicable separation.
The Marymount High School graduate joined the former TOJ (Telecomunications of Jamaica). "At the time, there was a special share offer for employees. I examined the PE ratio and decided that this was a huge opportunity. I took out a loan and purchased a sizeable number of shares." In her calm, even voice, Audrey described a bull run on the market which more than tripled her investment value in a very short time. "I decided to cash out," she said, but was told she could not do so.
Audrey was determined and she recalls a senior manager asking her, "Why are you pursuing this? Don't you value your job security?" She was not in the least bit intimidated: "If I got the $4 million, I knew I could create my own security." She won the settlement, resigned and formed her own holding company, AP Marks & Associates, which invested in farming, transportation, real estate among other ventures, and Paymaster.
Marks's visit to a bill-payment facility in Florida in the early 90s led her to map out a template for Paymaster. Her analytical mind harked back to the planning meetings at TOJ when there were detailed 10-year business plans with huge capital outlay, but no thought given to better facilities for bill payment.
It took three years to develop and test the system, till finally the St Mary-born whiz had her big breakthrough, a contract with the JPS in 1997, heralding a burgeoning clientele. Paymaster now collects for 52 entities, serving 1.482 million Jamaicans and providing employment for over 400 people. "My business concept has been proved: it is best to outsource and concentrate on your core business."
Audrey believes that she is just one of many creative and talented Jamaicans, "but we have not created a framework in which our most valuable asset - our people - can thrive". The happily married mother of two has recently completed three busy years as president of Amcham, the American Chamber of Commerce of Jamaica. She embraces public service "because of Jamaica's tremendous potential". The respect she has gained over the years is reflected in the wide range of boards which she has served or currently serves, including TPDCo, which she chaired, PCJ, UWI, JTI, NHF and UDC.
Audrey says that with members in 166 countries, Amcham is the largest federated business organisation in the world. They have lobbied successfully in several areas, and assist in ensuring the smooth processing and conveyance of their members and visiting investors. "These things don't happen by chance," she comments. She gives kudos to executive director Becky Stockhausen and her successor Diana Stewart who worked tirelessly on outreach programmes, including the Amcham Peace Centre in Grants Pen.
In January this year, Audrey Marks, who dislikes travelling north in winter, went to witness with her daughter Morgan the inauguration of Barack Obama as the first bi-racial president of the USA. "I have never felt so cold, but so good," she recalls. "In our lifetime, we are seeing the barriers being slowly removed. It is a great thing for our children." For her, the presence of a stable black family in the White House "presents to the world the antithesis of how a black family had been viewed. The fact is, they are not unique."
Audrey is not deterred by the business climate. "The world goes through fat and lack and as long as you plant well, you can survive. In the past, Jamaica has not planted well, so we did not benefit in the time of fat and without the fundamentals in place, we cannot benefit from the opportunities that actually result from crises. This is the time to implement a fundamental policy shift - from holding to growing."
"There are two things holding us back," says the perceptive pioneer, "lack of education and lack of support for entrepreneurs. We cannot have businesses competing with government for capital. Between the cost of capital, the security both of ideas and people, we will become stuck in a rut if we do not have a long-term framework that supports both." She refers to our education system as "educational apartheid in which 80 per cent of our children who sit GSAT have no proper school to go into. Now, we are seeing the result in our crime rate, corruption and immorality. Our children are not understanding the importance of values and seeing opportunities for advancement."
Marks sees indications of a pro-business philosophy from the current administration and is calling for them to "put the philosophy into action, though I know they are fighting a lot of fires". She would like to see clear communication around the Young Entrepreneurs Programme (YEP) so that our school leavers can fully understand the process. This should involve mentoring by more experienced business people.
Audrey Marks believes that the meltdown of the 90s in which so many black entrepreneurs were labelled as failures, regrettably has intimidated our young business hopefuls. "We know there is nowhere in the world like Jamaica," says the patriotic innovator. "It is worth the sacrifice to mentor, support and celebrate each other."