|TALKING POULTRY (AND OTHER THINGS) WITH ROBERT LEVY|
July 11, 2005
Robert Levy ...of Jamaica Broilers during a Gleaner interview - IAN ALLEN/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
He is described as God-fearing and humble but Robert Levy, president and chief executive officer of Jamaica Broilers (JB), was the anti-thesis of those lofty accolades in his youth.
As he tells it, he dropped out of high school in fourth form and looking back, he is convinced he was dyslexic.
Always last in class, the young Levy held the record for most canings and jokes while his brother Phillip had all the brains.
After leaving school he continued this downward spiral, getting into trouble constantly and smashing several cars along the way.
His father, Sydney Levy, started Jamaica Broilers in 1957 with Andy Wildish as its first employee. Young Robert Levy went to work for Mr. Wildish and found him to be a great role model who made him convert a lot of his wasted energy into the job.
He has transformed the company from a small family business to a processing plant of first world standard, producing chicken, beef and fish products for Jamaica and the Caribbean.
With locations in St. Catherine, St. Ann and St. Elizabeth, the sky continues to be the limit for the company and its 'Best Dressed' products.
A member of the Swallowfield Chapel, Mr. Levy is a husband, father and grandfather.
We spoke with him recently at his McCook's Pen office that sits across from the pond.
He spoke candidly about the business, his faith and plans for the future.
BE: What were the early days at JB like?
RL: The early days were difficult. We had to pick up the baby chicks coming out of the (United) States, at the airport; drive them to the farm, process the incoming chickens twice weekly; I travelled 1000 miles weekly in those days. A lot of my energy went into that but I was still uncontrolled, and very troublesome.
I got married in 1964 at age 24 to Judy McDonald, a wonderful woman and we have been together for 41 years.
In 1970, and having everything a young man could want, I was still the most unhappy, arrogant and angry person and most of it was against my father and everything he stood for. Then one day I decided to leave JB even though I had dropped out of school and had no idea what else I was going to do. But many times when we face major issues in life, we must ask God for help and I needed that.
I gave my father three months' notice and during that period, I spent several hours in Half-Way Tree Parish Church praying for peace in my heart. Nothing happened. The day I was leaving the company, I locked my office and decided not to leave till I settled my troubled soul with the Lord. It was just like He spoke to me through the walls, asking me how He could have anything to do with me if my life did not belong to him?
I got on my knees and told the Lord I had no idea what the future held but I wanted to hand my life over to Him. I got up, and the first thing I realised was how wrong I was about my father. I asked his forgiveness and had a wonderful making-up with my dad. I left JB and from a total school drop-out and leaving JB, He carried my life to a level where I went to Harvard University, did an Owner President Management (OMP) course and did extremely well. I did some real estate development and rejoined the company in 1976.
BE: How many workers did you start the company with and how many do you currently employ?
RL: About four and now we employ some 1,500. We had to pick up baby chicks at the airport and transport them to the farms, in those days and I wonder if my father had any concept of where we would be today.
Our office was at 15 Hope Road and a small processing facility at Bond Street. One partner, Byron Coombs had Coombs Cold Storage there and in those days we used kerosene drums over wood fires and we dipped the chickens the old fashioned way to loosen the feathers for plucking.
That's how we started. Today we have a state-of-the-art processing plant at Spring Village in St. Catherine, that is advanced as any other in the world, capable of producing 100,000 chickens daily.
We have seen tremendous growth in the organisation. The first major thing that happened after I became a Christian and started seeing the blessings was that we made an offer to our shareholders under the Employee Share Ownership Programme. We felt it important to do that; the Lord changed my life and it transcended to the business.
BE: What is the relationship between the company and staff?
RL: One of the best things was moving from Kingston to McCook's Pen and it has brought a tremendous difference to the work ethic as well as their sense of timing and removed the distractions of the city. The other amazing thing is that it has brought the entire administrative staff in close proximity to our major operation of processing plants and feed mills, etc. We can now visit them more often and be more involved.
BE: You have expanded to fish and beef production too, in what other areas have you grown?
RL: Another very significant thing is that about five years ago we realised that the company's debt was approximately $700 million so we decided to pray and ask for wisdom. Today, we have fully paid it off and have $700 million in the bank. And our goal is to run this company without any borrowed money.
BE: That must take a lot of sacrifice.
RL: The Lord says be a lender and not a borrower and we feel that we should strive for that.
BE: Do you still import baby chicks?
RL: No, we now have our own breeder flock operation in Georgia, where we produce fertile-hatchimg eggs for shipment to other locations to Jamaica and the Caribbean. That accounts for 50 per cent of our production, the other 50 per cent comes from our operation in St. Ann. We split it because being in a hurricane area, we don't want to be totally wiped out as it happened in Hurricane Gilbert.
BE: What are your biggest foreign exchange earners?
RL: Export of tilapia fish, and other things to some fast food chains in some parts of the Caribbean. We feel it will be accepted in the United States too and once that happens, it will be great. We are convinced that we have to get into "further" processing and will be coming out with chicken nuggets. Another growing area is rotissiere chicken; we supply 90 per cent of the pre-seasoned rotissiere chickens to supermarkets that offer it. That is another product that would do well overseas. We realise that the pre-seasoned/cooked lines for all our products, are worth investing in.
BE: What for you is the biggest challenge in doing business?
RL: We always tend to think the grass is greener on the other side but by doing business in the United States I realise that Jamaica is a tremendous place to do business and the challenges are no different from anywhere else. We have been very fortunate and there are great opportunities here.
BE: You are in a business that requires electricity around the clock; in light of frequent power outages, how do you guard against that?
RL: We have our own fuel generating plant and we sell the excess power to the grid.
BE: Another major challenge faced by the business community is crime, not just as it relates to JB but to the outlook for the country. And do you have any answers?
RL: I realise that we all have to be concerned. We always think we are the worst and all over the world, there are crime problems. Many of us travel to the United States, Britain and Canada and we compare ourselves to three of the most developed countries in the world. Do thay realise what the crime rate was in the US, after the Civil War when they became independent?
I have travelled to South America and elsewhere, and when you go to South America, you realise traffic in Jamaica is very orderly. Do we realise that when the population first started, 50 per cent was wiped out immediately? Cain killed Abel. Crime has very little to do with poverty; it has much more to do with social order which comes from what's happening in schools, homes, the policing and communities.
I believe we need more community policing effort. I am very concerned about conditions in the police stations. How can we have police working under the conditions they operate in? We have to realise the importance of community policing and also fix education.
We need to keep in mind what is happening in the world but we have to get back to some basics and be careful about how we compare ourselves. Also, what is reported in the news is important because media sets the thought pattern of people, and it's important to highlight the positives over the negatives. Negative sells but we have to be careful.
BE: Since you took over here what has been the most positive thing for you in running the company?
RL: The thing that gives me greatest satisfaction is the influence I might have had in a positive way in people's lives. One is the six Bible teachers who we brought in recently to offer Bible studies to all and held a series of six weeks, half-an-hour, once weekly, of study, totally voluntary. We committed to them that non-attendance would not affect their employment; everyone got a Bible and attendance was 99 per cent and requests have been made to repeat it.
BE: This is a public company but to what extent are the members of your family involved?
RL: My two sons are involved --- Christopher is a senior vice president in charge of poultry operations and Stephen is in aqua culture as assistant manager.
The executive made a decision that no one would be promoted to a management position without first being interviewed by the executive. Any executive has a veto vote without any explanation for it; so even when my son was being promoted, he had to come before them. If they had said they don't think he's ready I would respect that. That behaviour at the top trickles down throughout the organisation.
BE: When do you start your work day?
RL: I begin early and my day goes on as long as I'm needed. Another feature of our company is that no manager or their spouse can have any interest in any outside business.
BE: Is that fair; do you pay them that much?
RL: Of course, and there is a profit sharing, we don't want someone to confine themselves to an eight-four regime, we want them to be involved. I lead by example; I give customers my cell number and I don't mind being called at any time. We are not workaholics; but we are always on call. We are involved in sports and so it's not a slavish mentality.
BE: What are your hobbies, I note your interest in the camera.
RL: I enjoy golfing and fishing and I take pictures when I travel and I am very involved in spending time with my family. I am also chairman of Morelands Camp, I am on the board of Back to the Bible and Power 106 and I am chairman of the Foundation for Science and Technology.
Barbara Ellington, Senior Gleaner Writer