Monday, July 1, 2013

Getting it done Owen James’ way

Observer column for MON 1 July 2013
By Jean Lowrie-Chin
JAMES... maintaining true journalistic tenets while building a business to deliver services and make a profit can be challenging

To understand how seriously Owen James takes every task he is faced with, let us go back to the mid-eighties, when he was given permission by JBC General Manager Ulric Simmonds to build a news team.  Owen devised his own aptitude test and asked the famous Carl Stone to tweak it. 
 Owen's 'Magnificent Seven'
He then proceeded to interview 77 candidates and from them selected the following persons: Yvette Rowe (now lecturing at Carimac), Mark Thomas (Comms Manager at Jampro), Mary Bailey (teacher in Canada), Joylene Griffiths (Comms Manager at Scotiabank), Carole Beckford (international publicist) Michael Gonzales (Communications specialist and business owner), and Sandrea Falconer (State Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister with responsibility for Information). He also designed a Code of Practice for journalists at JBC in the early  nineties – something he had promised Director/General Manager Claude Robinson, a professional he describes as having "strong levels of emotional intelligence".
Owen James is a laser-eyed media man whose talent was spotted early after her joined the Star desk at the Gleaner Company in 1973.  He remembers Star editor Jack Anderson, counselling him to tone down his carefree life as he saw his potential – within two years, he was promoted to Star Editor.
On the Gleaner's recommendation, he received the prestigious Harry Brittain Fellowship, and studied in London, where he was mentored by the legendary Sunday Times editor Harold Evans.  It was from Evans that he learned streetwise techniques - he counselled him that if he were not in touch with folks like taxi drivers, bartenders and bellhops, he would be out of the loop with tabloid news.
Owen's studies and wide reading equipped him to relate to persons of every walk of life.  Long before the word 'networking' was fashionable, Owen had built himself a network which would make him one of Jamaica's most successful news directors and enable him to establish his own business, All Media Services Limited in 1998.
Owen took to technology like the proverbial duck to water, and this enabled him to work smart, though still very hard.  All Media turns out two broadcast business news programmes daily, two weekly television programmes including the full-length 'On A Personal Note', maintains a business news website (now under re-construction) and provides video and editing services.  Besides that, Owen is one of the best media coaches ("for decision-makers only," he says) in the business – do a few mock interviews with him and you can face the music!
The Kingston-born St Mary-raised Owen James is passionate about Jamaica and his fellow Jamaicans.  He will hunt down new business talents and expose their accomplishments, as he believes this will help to motivate others to step up.  He says his devout mother impressed upon him the importance of looking out for others at an early age, in spite of their limited means.
To understand the speed at which Owen James moves, he sent me the following thoughts within a few hours of my request.  They are so rich that I am sharing them verbatim:
Owen James: "Since the creation of my company All Media Services Limited 15 years ago, I have learnt several lessons which have ensured its longevity in an environment which really does little to encourage entrepreneurship and legitimate business activity."


Lesson 1: Plough back the earnings into the business and take a small salary. This strategy has yielded tangible results.
From a business which started in an unused bedroom with one computer; the business now has several high-end editing suites; high-end and low-end video cameras and an archival system superior to what exists in the newsrooms of the free-to-air television stations. For example our benchmark for locating and physically holding material taped twelve years ago is four minutes.
Lesson 2: Efficiency. When you hire and train personnel to multi-task, your cost-efficiency ratios improve. A perfect example is my personal financial programme 'On A Personal Note': look at the number of credits on that programme and measure that against typical half-hour local TV programmes.
Lesson 3: Take the emotion out of business. If a program can't pay its way, no matter how emotional I feel about it, I jettison it. View failure as a learning tool!
Lesson 4: Honesty and integrity: Maintaining true journalistic tenets while building a business to deliver services and make a profit can be challenging. We have restricted our paid services to those which do not impact on the journalistic integrity of the programmes we own.
At the height of the economic drought over the past two years when the advertising dollar began getting scarce a business colleague suggested that like the TV stations do in the mornings  we should charge for some interviews. We refused to go that route as it would impact on the credibility we have built up over the years.
Lesson 5: Accuracy: I have been a stickler for accuracy ever since my early journalistic years at the Gleaner Company Limited and Later the JBC. I have honed it to the point that I can boast that anything I disseminate, however controversial, can withstand any court action.
I do my own stress test on all controversial information I receive from all sources – no matter how credible.
Lesson 6: Learning from successful entrepreneurs and managers I have interviewed. I learnt from Douglas Orane – one of Jamaica's best ever managers and visionaries that bigger isn't necessarily better. We could barely fit our camera into his office at the turn of the century when we were doing our interview on the Unilever crisis and the strategies he utilized to successfully maneuvre GraceKennedy through that crisis. So when we began earning enough to have an office we decided on a small 700-square foot space in a good location.

I also asked Owen to give me some of his thoughts on the current state of Jamaica's economy.  "I am no economist," he insisted. "I am a purveyor of information. However, historically the Jamaican economy appears skewed towards owners of huge sums of capital as well as traders and not entrepreneurship."
He continued: "It also appears more skewed towards creating more poor people and 'hustlers' and an informal tax-evading culture than encouraging legitimate tax-paying businesses and entrepreneurship. One only has to look at various World Bank reports on the ease of doing business in Jamaica and the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor's (GEM's) numbers on the rate of business failures in Jamaica."
A dedicated father himself and a quiet philanthropist in his own right, Owen is disgusted at "the irresponsible siring of children by those who cannot afford to rear children."  He believes that this is a major cause of crime and poverty in the island, and a situation largely ignored by politicians and civil society leaders.
"Apparently programmes to provide disincentives for this trend don't result in votes so this source problem has been largely ignored by both major political parties," he opined. "So we have huge problems with an over-burdened health care system that we cannot afford; problems with housing and squatting and the resultant efforts to create a welfare-type state without the resources to do so!"
When we consider the effort and perseverance of this young journalist from rural Jamaica who has built a successful business and lifted so many others, we see myriad possibilities for our young people and the importance of mentorship. Let Owen James' example inspire us to show some faith in our youngsters and be the mentors they need.

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