If Red Stripe Can Do It, Why Can’t Digicel?


At this time in our 50th year of political Independence when the
buzzwords “nationalism” and “patriotism” are being liberally sprinkled
over almost all aspects of social and political discussion, it is useful
to examine, if not in totality, just a few of the instances in which
globalisation had made its unstoppable intrusion in our polity.

When Air Jamaica (Air J) was finally sold to Caribbean Airlines (CAL) a
few years ago, the majority of Jamaicans were hopping mad. It didn’t
matter that the airline had long been a losing proposition, bleeding
taxpayers about US$200 million annually.

The nationalism in us blinded us to the twin realities of an entity
heading for the fiscal cliff, and the ability we had to seek a buyer for
Air J from any place on the planet. In the end, we sold Air J to CAL
and, although the fuming has not died down locally, it hardly changes
the tough rules inherent in the globalised village that Planet Earth has

Similarly, before that when Desnoes and Geddes, brewers of world-famous
Red Stripe beer, sold the company to foreign interests, the late Paul
Geddes was a pariah in private conversation. How could he do such a
thing? many asked. Why would a Jamaican do that “to us”? others
We had been so attached to Red Stripe beer and D&G soft drinks that
we had taken them not only into our houses but our lives. They were
family. How could D&G “sell us out”, we said, while really not
thinking too clearly about Planet Earth as one big trading/commercial

The present owners of Red Stripe are the British-based giant, Diageo.
They own just about all of the international spirit brands that are
worth anything, like Johnnie Walker and Smirnoff, Guinness and now Red
Stripe. In hindsight, for D&G to have taken Red Stripe to front row
on the world stage, it would have had to do basically one of two things:
attempt to go head-to-head with the big multinationals, an almost
impossible mission, or sell out majority shareholding to one of them.

So, the Diageo partnership became a reality, even as oldsters like
myself still reminisced about the “glory days” of a cold Red Stripe beer
being owned by D&G.

In terms of local management of these foreign-based firms, some may
believe that I am exuding too much nationalism in congratulating Cedric
Blair as head of Red Stripe.

According to a Business Observer article of August 10, 2012 headlined
‘Red Stripe boss to run Brazilian acquisition – First local at helm of
brewer in 3 years’: “The board and executive team of Red Stripe welcome
Mr Blair to his new role and wish him every success,” said the company
in a statement to the Jamaica Stock Exchange.

“Blair will be Red Stripe’s first Jamaican boss since Mark McKenzie, who
stepped down in 2009 to make way for Alan Barnes. Barnes, who was
subsequently replaced in 2011 by Gonzalez, has been credited with
turning around the brewery’s performance in his only full financial year
at the helm. The company’s net profit for the nine months to March 31,
2012 was $757 million, up 70 per cent over the same period last year.”

For long it has been no secret that Jamaica can produce as good as the
rest of the developed world. We have produced scientists, researchers in
many fields, top managers, et al, but unfortunately the country’s
economic base does not allow for many of them to develop fully here,
take good jobs and make a financial success of themselves as they would
do in a European city, Canada or the USA.

For this reason I am always pleased to see a son of the soil stepping up
as Cedric Blair has. As the Observer article also stated, “A
long-serving employee of Red Stripe, Blair has held roles mostly in
engineering and operations at the company since 1995. He was seconded in
2005 to Diageo North America, where he worked in the US spirits
industry before returning to Red Stripe as supply director in 2010.”

The board, led by Richard Byles and Diageo, majority shareholders, must
be commended for this move. I am certain that Blair will take Red Stripe
to bigger places than the person he replaced.

Digicel, Jamaica’s leading mobile provider, has been the epitome of what
a success story can be. Since it was set up in Jamaica in 2001, it has
lived a dream — and that dream has been provided by Jamaicans.

In its early years, it took a Jamaican marketing manager from D&G —
of all places — to be its marketing manager from day one. That was Harry
Smith and he turned out to be Digicel’s godsend. He worked wonders. Now
he serves as a respected member of the Digicel Jamaica board.

There is, however, a gaping hole to be filled.

When Digicel’s main competitor LIME is factored in, we see Jamaicans at the helm like Chris Dehring and Garry Sinclair.
Digicel is at the heart of almost every Jamaican, and although it calls
itself a Jamaican company, I have yet to see a Jamaican CEO in the
forefront of things. Why is this so?
Surely, it cannot be that there is a shortage of highly qualified
Jamaicans. Let us get cocky here. This is our 50th year of political
Independence and we have just creamed off at the Olympics!

Some say that the main reason that Jamaica has not achieved economic
“independence” is that our politics has created an economic environment
that drives the best minds and the most trained and creative and
innovative of us towards other shores like the USA, Canada, and Britain.
The Irish Digicel bosses always like to repeat what may, or may not be, a fallacy — that the Irish are like Jamaicans.

Well, the Jamaicans like the Irish, it seems, and we have cottoned on to
Digicel. But is Digicel saying to us that since 2001, not one single
Jamaican has been found fit enough to be considered CEO?

That, I do not believe. Not in year 50 of Jamaica.
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