Monday, March 19, 2012

GraceKennedy – a fine 90-year history

James Moss-Solomon delivering the GraceKennedy Foundation 2012 Lecture

Jean Lowrie-Chin | Observer column | 19 March 2012

His Observer column has established James Moss-Solomon as an insightful patriot, and he was true to form at the Annual GraceKennedy (GK) Foundation Lecture last Tuesday. He gave us a fascinating history lesson as he traced Jamaica’s and GK’s history from the end of World War I to this, the company’s 90th year in business.

Namesake of his father James Moss-Solomon, who became a shareholder in the company in 1927, James walked us through the signposts facing GK and Jamaica as they came to various crossroads. Every company should take note of the options they faced:

- Invoke self-determination OR Cling to dependency
- Pursue private initiative OR Demand public underwriting
- Prioritise human capital development OR Condemn labour to low-skilled tasks
- Engage the small man OR Indulge the privileged
- Grasp opportunities quickly and decisively OR React sluggishly and half-heartedly to crises
- Diversify into new positions OR Over-invest in old positions
- Use geography strategically OR Disregard geography
- Require accurate information OR Be guided by sentiment
- Defend integrity OR Bow to corruption
- Vigilantly protect long-term interests OR Always gratify short-term wants.

Considering Jamaica’s checkered history, the topic of the Lecture is apt: ‘Jamaica and GraceKennedy – dreams converging, roads diverging’. On February 14, 1922, Dr John Grace, brother of the late head of W.R Grace Limited, joined forces with Fred William Kennedy to found Grace, Kennedy and Co Ltd. Both men had wide experience in management and accounting and brought this to bear on the fledgling company, producing its first audited statement of accounts – without fancy software – one year after its founding.

Moss-Solomon, the first of our columnists to note that 2012 would mark the 125th birthday of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, noted a Gleaner report published in 1921 on the formation of Garvey’s Black Star Line Shipping Company. Moss-Solomon said it was “consistent with the magnitude of world trading that Jamaica found itself in the midst of, by dint of its location.”

“Fabricated charges laid against Garvey would be the undoing of the Black Star Line but not of the validity of the model,” stated James, which was later made a reality by a joint effort of Grace, Kennedy & Co and Jamaica Producers who “saw the opportunities in shipping and moved accordingly.”

The company took training seriously, and from their workforce emerged long serving employees, ‘a buildup of … an experience bank.’ The company’s focused apprenticeship programme which saw ambitious workers moving up through the ranks, was in contrast to the attitude of then Governor Lord Denham. James quoted a Gleaner report of March 19, 1938 in which Denham said it was “useless to give a sick and uneducated man ... a road for the transport of produce which he has neither the money nor the strength to cultivate.” Why, asked Moss-Solomon did the Governor not make health and education a priority?

Moss-Solomon spoke of the friendship between Luis Fred Kennedy and Alexander Bustamante. An incident underlines the business leader’s integrity: “In 1954 two Cabinet members approached L.F. Kennedy and offered to sell him information on Cabinet discussions. He immediately went to Alexander Bustamante, who dismissed both persons and instituted legal proceedings against them.”

During the so-called “communist threat of the 70s”, there were closures and flight of capital. However, James explained that with high quality management, “the company was in a good position to buck the trend of capital flight and to attract capital without sacrificing its interest in Jamaica.” L.F. Kennedy made preparations to enter the London Stock Exchange and though the company did not eventually do so, they were in good form to list when the Jamaica Stock Exchange opened in the 1980s.

The Group has two foundations which has empowered thousands. At the Lecture, a young woman who had been counseled and supported by the compassionate Frances Madden of the GraceKennedy Foundation gave her personal tribute: “You are the best set of people,” she said tearfully.

We left the lecture heartened that despite the current cynicism around corruption in the country, we had a robust 90-year-old GraceKennedy telling us that one can be honest and be successful. They have proved that integrity guarantees prosperity in the long term for self, company and country. Leaders, take note.

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